How to recruit smokers for research studies

Research studies that need participants who smoke do very well on social media. Facebook, Instagram, and Youtube are fantastic for reaching smokers – but certain creative considerations can make or break your advertising efforts.

We at Wayturn have learned these lessons the hard way – by spending money on advertisements to recruit participants for behavioral interventions, drug studies, therapy, text messaging programs and more.

This article will go through some basic considerations for promotional materials, targeting, and cost when recruiting smokers for clinical trials.

Promotional Materials

When submitting promotional materials to your ethics committee for approval, it’s better to send too much rather than too little. This is especially important when running paid ads – because a single image can easily change the cost per enrolment from $30 to $70, or indeed the other way around. The same goes for ad texts, titles and landing page options.

After running ads to recruit over 1000+ smokers, we have found that the below images, ad texts and titles usually work well. Final performance depends on the demographic, city and the other pre-screening requirements though. But you would be wise to get all of these approved by the IRB/ethics committee so you have many variations to test.


In advertising it’s dangerous to trust your own preconceived notions of what is a good image and not – sometimes unexpected images convert people into enrolments extremely well. The below images are backed up by raw cost per prescreening passed dollar costs, and not intuition.

For smoking, images of cigarettes work well because people who smoke instantly understand that it’s about them.

Most will assume that it’s to do with health or smoking cessation however, so if your study isn’t about that you might want to use some of the images with happy or relaxed people. The man in the park with dark hair (and the black and white female) does particularly well for studies that DO NOT deal with quitting smoking.


The text, or ad copy, sent to ethics committee for approval can either be done as complete ads – with image, title, and adcopy all approved as one ‘ad’, or like a smorgasbord of options. You should definitely structure your documentfor the latter. Having options is essential to make ads that convert at the lowest possible cost.

Even after thousands of enrolments, we still experiment with every single research study we recruit for to find the most convincing combination of approved materials – as judged by cost per enrolment from the ad to prescreening questionnaire, phone screening, clinic screening, and final enrolment.

For smoking, a particular formula that works well is to highlight the cigarettes in the image, the location in the title, and a rhetorical research question in the ad copy alongside any strong benefits to participation (compensation is usually ideal).

So it could look something like this:

An example of what a Facebook ad for a smoking research study could look like.

The adcopy itself should be clear, short and use simple language. Detailed information about the study is better placed on the landing page. The ad on Facebook, or any other platform, is used to generate attention and visits to the landing page – not explain every detail of the study.

It’s especially important to highlight all benefits directly in the ad.


Who to show the ad to is often the primary struggle of advertising campaigns – but smoking is relatively easy in this regard.

Social Media – Facebook, Instagram, Youtube

  • There are brands to target – Pall mall, Marlboro, Lucky Strike.
  • Lots of relevant interests on Facebook – “smoke break”, “cigars”, “cigarettes” and “smoking”.

Broad campaigns work well too because somewhere around 14% of the American population smokes cigarettes daily. ( )

Database email campaigns

Smokers are commonly excluded when recruiting for research studies – this means that any research recruitment advertising agency (like us!) is likely to have a big email database of smokers in the area around your research site.

Cost per enrolment

The final cost per enrolment will depend a lot on your particular research study. However, in general, “smokers” as a demographic are quite easy to both find and exclude.

A ballpark estimate puts advertising costs for recruiting a smoker in the range of $16 – $50 per enrolled participant. For a more detailed cost analysis of your research study, just contact us and we will help you out – no strings attached.