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J Med Internet Res. 2016 Sep 21;18(9):e250.

Can Facebook Be Used for Research? Experiences Using Facebook to Recruit Pregnant Women for a Randomized Controlled Trial.

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Department of Agricultural, Food & Nutritional Science, Faculty of Agricultural, Life & Environmental Sciences, University of Alberta, Edmonton, AB, Canada.



Recruitment is often a difficult and costly part of any human research study. Social media and other emerging means of mass communication hold promise as means to complement traditional strategies used for recruiting participants because they can reach a large number of people in a short amount of time. With the ability to target a specified audience, paid Facebook advertisements have potential to reach future research participants of a specific demographic. This paper describes the experiences of a randomized controlled trial in Edmonton, Alberta, attempting to recruit healthy pregnant women between 8 and 20 weeks' gestation for participation in a prenatal study. Various traditional recruitment approaches, in addition to paid Facebook advertisements were trialed.


To evaluate the effectiveness of paid advertisements on Facebook as a platform for recruiting pregnant women to a randomized controlled trial in comparison with traditional recruitment approaches.


Recruitment using traditional approaches occurred for 7 months, whereas Facebook advertisements ran for a total of 26 days. Interested women were prompted to contact the study staff for a screening call to determine study eligibility. Costs associated with each recruitment approach were recorded and used to calculate the cost to recruit eligible participants. Performance of Facebook advertisements was monitored using Facebook Ads Manager.


Of the 115 women included, 39.1% (n=45) of the women who contacted study staff heard about the study through Facebook, whereas 60.9% (n=70) of them heard about it through traditional recruitment approaches. During the 215 days (~7 months) that the traditional approaches were used, the average rate of interest was 0.3 (0.2) women/day, whereas the 26 days of Facebook advertisements resulted in an average rate of interest of 2.8 (1.7) women/day. Facebook advertisements cost Can $506.91 with a cost per eligible participant of Cad $20.28. In comparison, the traditional approaches cost Cad $1087, with approximately Cad $24.15 per eligible participant. Demographic characteristics of women were similar between the 2 recruitment methods except that women recruited using Facebook were significantly earlier in their pregnancy than those recruited using traditional approaches (P<.03).


Paid Facebook advertisements hold promise as a platform for reaching pregnant women. The relative ease of placing an advertisement, the comparable cost per participant recruited, and the dramatically improved recruitment rates in comparison with traditional approaches highlight the importance of combining novel and traditional recruitment approaches to recruit women for pregnancy-related studies.

TRIAL REGISTRATION: NCT02711644; (Archived by WebCite at


Internet; maternal health; pregnant women; social media

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