Patient Recruitment Basics: 4 Questions to Define Your Target Population

April Schultz
July 24th, 2015

Without patients, there would be no clinical trials. While this statement may seem obvious, it often becomes painfully relevant when attempting to recruit patients to a study. Patient recruitment is often the most difficult part of the clinical trial process.

Ultimately, patient recruitment requires good marketing, and the number one rule for marketing success is:

Know your target audience.

Just like marketers, clinical research professionals must define their audience, or “buyer persona,” before their patient recruitment campaign can succeed. You can buy Facebook ads, create a website and place billboard ads, but without a clearly defined buyer persona, these ads will lack direction and cannot reach their full potential.

All recruitment-advertising efforts should be directed toward appealing to a buyer persona’s mindset and interests. This means you need to know who you’re trying to reach.

What is a persona?

A persona is a representation of an ideal customer based on research and real data about existing customers.

Personas help advertisers determine who their ideal customers are, and answer questions like:

  • What are customers trying to accomplish?
  • What goals drive customer behaviors?
  • How do customers think?

This persona can be equated to your ideal patient population, which is largely based on a study’s eligibility requirements. While patients aren’t buying anything from you, this is still a helpful exercise.

How do I define my persona?

As you begin to define your persona, there are a number of important questions you should ask to better understand the type of patient you intend to recruit to a trial. This will, in turn, help you determine both what type of ads and information you should develop and where you should publish that content so it reaches the right people.

Consider these four questions:

1. What is my persona’s demographic information?

As stated above, your persona is almost entirely designated by a study’s eligibility requirements. This makes defining the ideal patient population easier, as your persona should encompass all of these demographic considerations. This information often includes factors such as:

  • Age
  • Gender
  • Health requirements

While these type of demographics will often shape your persona, there are times when the demographics may differ. Consider a situation where the patient is a minor, or elderly and unable to safely make medical decisions by themselves. In these cases, your persona won’t necessarily be built on the patient’s demographics, but rather, their caretaker’s. It is important to determine who the caretaker is, whether a parent or other family member, and craft your persona around their goals and interests. The interests of this person will often be influenced by the patient’s health requirements, but the patient’s age and gender will matter less.

To avoid redundancy, you can develop a general “site persona” that defines the common demographics, pain points and information about your site’s ideal patient population. This persona can then be tailored to each individual study by including additions and deviations from the initial site persona.

2. How can I empathize with my persona?

For this question, it is important to remain unbiased regarding a study’s potential effects and take care not to imply any effects to patients. That said, viewing a study from the patient’s perspective can benefit you in many ways. Empathy helps you understand your ideal population, which helps you target ads and include the appropriate information and language to help patients decide if participating in a research study is right for them.

You can discover your ideal patient’s “pain points” and then determine how the patient might respond to specific advertising material. With your persona’s demographics in mind, ask yourself questions such as:

  • Does my ideal patient have chronic pain?
  • Does she have to administer daily insulin shots?
  • Do allergies stop him from enjoying the outdoors?

While the study may not necessarily solve these issues, knowing patient pain points will help you better understand how to provide the best advertising material for your persona. It will also help you determine how to communicate with patients after they have responded to an ad.

3. Where does my ideal patient population go for information?

In order to know where to publish ads to promote a trial, you need to know where your audience will see them. Demographic information often plays a key role in where a patient is most likely to search for information. For example, a 19-year-old patient is probably more likely to search social media sites, where a 70-year-old patient may find information in a newspaper.

Choose the information outlets you know your audience will be using, eliminating the need to advertise in places that will provide little to no results.

Potential sources of information include:

  • Social Media
  • Newspaper/Magazine
  • Medical Clinics/Hospitals
  • Clinical Research Websites (, etc.)
  • Google AdWords (Google search ads)

4. How does my ideal patient population engage with content?

To increase the likelihood that your persona will pay attention to study ads, you need to know what types of content your ideal patient population is most likely to engage with.

  • Would your persona prefer to read a blog article about the clinical research industry?
  • Is the majority of your patient population more likely to watch a video ad?
  • What type of language resonates with your audience so they click on a link?

When considering this question, put yourself in your patient’s shoes. Multiple internal and external factors can affect the type of content a patient is most drawn to, including:

  • Literacy
  • Attention span
  • Available time

Such factors influence a persona’s ability and preference when consuming information provided to them. For example, if a site’s ideal patient population includes individuals living with dyslexia, it may be better to present ads in an audio or video format. Adapting study ads into the easiest and most enjoyable format for your ideal patient population will likely provide better results.

Downloadable Template and “Patty Patient” Persona Example

Defining a persona is your first step in launching a successful recruitment campaign and developing a broader database of potential patients. To help you do this, we’ve provided a free, downloadable template.

Understanding your ideal patient populations will allow you to more easily advance with marketing techniques and tools such as advertising on social media and branding a clinical trial. To learn more best practices for developing a strategic patient recruitment advertising campaign, download your copy of our free eBook, “Patient Recruitment in Clinical Trials: Steps to Develop a Successful Enrollment Strategy.“