How CTSI Enabled a Groundbreaking Smoking Study through Facebook

The Recruitment and Intervention of Youth Smokers through Social Media

facebook image
Credit: Spencer E Holtaway/Flickr

Back in 2011, participant recruitment for research studies through social media such as Facebook barely existed. That year the Clinical and Translational Science Institute (CTSI) offered unique pilot funding to support joint work between faculty and select CTSI programs. Danielle Ramo, PhD, adjunct associate professor of psychiatry, teamed up with staff from CTSI’s Participant Recruitment program to combine her expertise around the patient population she worked with, young adults engaged in smoking or substance abuse, with the program’s knowledge of study recruitment to test out Facebook as a medium for recruitment.

Once awarded the grant, the team spent a year developing a marketing campaign and design plan to evaluate which strategy worked best to enroll teen smokers into her study. This pilot exploring the effectiveness of social media built a foundation for Ramo’s research, and later on, drove the creation of CTSI’s social media recruitment services and consultations.

“At that time there were few papers and little information on Facebook itself on how researchers could reach populations of interest through social media,” said Ramo. “It became an outstanding research collaboration.”

In 2012 the research team published a case study on how they used Facebook as a recruitment tool in The Journal of Medical Internet Research (JMIR), and later in 2014 on the specifics of their young adult smoking cessation trial in Internet Interventions. In the latter paper they highlighted how the study team along with the Participant Recruitment program staff rigorously tested and designed the ads, and which ones worked best for certain demographics.

“It was a true collaboration – from the grant writing process all the way through to the final paper publication.”

Danielle Ramo, PhD

A few years later, CTSI’s current Participant Recruitment program director, Vanessa Jacoby, MD, MAS, asked Ramo to develop a social media recruitment toolkit that the program could post and share online on the best social media recruitment practices across various patient populations. Ramo eventually became a CTSI faculty consultant to researchers who are interested in expanding how they reach a particular patient population. Her consultations provide further guidance on whether social media is an appropriate channel to reach a population, and goes over how to specifically design the campaign.

“A huge resource CTSI offers faculty is that free first hour of consultation – my sense is that people took advantage of that a lot. I could usually review actual ads in an additional amount of consultation time after that free hour,” Ramo said.

The main outcome of the clinical trial she ran with 500 young adult smokers, a five-year project, was published in 2018 in the journal Addiction.

Dr. Ramo has collaborated with CTSI in a unique way – from her early research on social media as a tool to recruit and intervene with her study population to becoming a faculty consultant and creating social media guides for researchers.

Vanessa Jacoby, MD, MAS

Director, Participant Recruitment Program

“By using the medium I worked on with CTSI, I gained knowledge and expertise from that collaboration in thinking through how to reach my population of interest and in designing the intervention in itself.” Ramo noted that the sociodemographic of users and how ads are integrated in platforms has significantly changed since she first started using social media for her research.

Ramo received three large grants in this line of research after her initial pilot grant from CTSI and her K Award for the following studies: A Facebook intervention for young sexual and gender minority smokers  (NIH/NIMHD R21MD011765), Using Facebook to address smoking and heavy drinking in young adults (NIH/NIDA R34DA041637), and thirdly, The Put It Out Project for Sexual and Gender Minority Smokers (California Tobacco-Related Disease Research Program).

“So much came from this line of work - it was extremely impactful for my career,” Ramo said.

Learn more about CTSI’s Participant Recruitment Program & Consultation Services Program

Related storyThe Cigarette and Vape Industry Won’t Support this Research, but CTSI Will

The UCSF Clinical and Translational Science Institute (CTSI) is part of the Clinical and Translational Science Award (CTSA) program funded by the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) (Grant Number UL1 TR991872).