The Use of Facebook in Recruiting Participants for Health Research Purposes

Christopher J. Whitaker, Sharon Stevelink, Nicola Townsend Fear

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

499 Citations (Scopus)
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Background: Social media is a popular online tool that allows users to communicate and exchange information. It allows digital
content such as pictures, videos and websites to be shared, discussed, republished and endorsed by its users, their friends and
businesses. Adverts can be posted and promoted to specific target audiences by demographics such as region, age or gender.
Recruiting for health research is complex with strict requirement criteria imposed on the participants. Traditional research
recruitment relies on flyers, newspaper adverts, radio and television broadcasts, letters, emails, website listings, and word of
mouth. These methods are potentially poor at recruiting hard to reach demographics, can be slow and expensive. Recruitment via
social media, in particular Facebook, may be faster and cheaper.
Objective: The aim of this study was to systematically review the literature regarding the current use and success of Facebook
to recruit participants for health research purposes.
Methods: A literature review was completed in March 2017 in the English language using MEDLINE, EMBASE, Web of
Science, PubMed, PsycInfo, Google Scholar, and a hand search of article references. Papers from the past 12 years were included
and number of participants, recruitment period, number of impressions, cost per click or participant, and conversion rate extracted.
Results: A total of 35 studies were identified from the United States (n=22), Australia (n=9), Canada (n=2), Japan (n=1), and
Germany (n=1) and appraised using the Critical Appraisal Skills Programme (CASP) checklist. All focused on the feasibility of
recruitment via Facebook, with some (n=10) also testing interventions, such as smoking cessation and depression reduction. Most
recruited young age groups (16-24 years), with the remaining targeting specific demographics, for example, military veterans.
Information from the 35 studies was analyzed with median values being 264 recruited participants, a 3-month recruitment period,
3.3 million impressions, cost per click of US $0.51, conversion rate of 4% (range 0.06-29.50), eligibility of 61% (range 17-100),
and cost per participant of US $14.41. The studies showed success in penetrating hard to reach populations, finding the results
representative of their control or comparison demographic, except for an over representation of young white women.
Conclusions: There is growing evidence to suggest that Facebook is a useful recruitment tool and its use, therefore, should be
considered when implementing future health research. When compared with traditional recruitment methods (print, radio, television,
and email), benefits include reduced costs, shorter recruitment periods, better representation, and improved participant selection
in young and hard to reach demographics. It however, remains limited by Internet access and the over representation of young
white women. Future studies should recruit across all ages and explore recruitment via other forms of social media.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbere290
JournalJournal of Medical Internet Research
Issue number8
Early online date28 Aug 2017
Publication statusPublished - Aug 2017


  • Systematic Review


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