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Digital trials in the COVID-19 world

Article-Digital trials in the COVID-19 world

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Top strategies for running a digital trial at a time of heightened interest in health and nutrition.

There is no doubt that 2020 will be a year that will be etched in our memories and history books for years and decades to come. This pandemic has left no industry untouched, and many have had to adapt to new ways of working overnight. Last year in our trend report at Qina, we predicted that digital trials would be a key trend to watch—but this timeline has swiftly moved up by months owing to Coronavirus alone. With heightened consumer interest in health combined with an awareness that nutrition plays a key role in achieving good health, consumers are going online to find the best product recommendations and websites to answer their burning questions. It comes as no surprise that many companies are looking for ways to gain consumer confidence to prove that their products are effective to improve health and meet consumers’ specific needs. One way to achieve this, is to conduct a digital trial.

A digital trial is a study that is conducted entirely or partly online from recruitment to screening to completing tasks (such as completing a survey or entering weight) and engaging with the research team. By its very nature, a digital study requires minimal or no study centre visits, it may involve an academic institution and in the world of personalised nutrition & wellness would most likely involve healthy participants unless there is a need for a health claim.

Why now?

In a fast-moving world where digital technologies are evolving fast and access to information is easy, consumers are continuously switching brands to find what works best. As consumers are becoming increasingly focused on their health by taking preventative measures and selecting products for their health promoting benefits, companies can no longer get away with mass marketing campaigns. This heightened awareness in self-management is supported by recent scientific research that two individuals can respond very differently to the same meal (Berry et al, 2020). The rapid pace of technology development and the speed at which information is shared amongst consumers has made it difficult for brands to control what is being said about their products. Consumers are leading the conversation online, and research has shown that consumers are more likely to try a brand if it has been recommended by a friend, family or by an online influencer.

Another known fact, is that many individuals now possess a smartphone, meaning that participation in research has the potential of being as easy as sending a message, all the while fitting into a busy life (if done well). Whilst randomised controlled trials are the gold standard for demonstrating efficacy of a product or ingredient, obtaining real-world data provided by participants right from their smartphone, can provide a deeper understanding into consumer behaviour and individual response. This is where the potential of digital trial shines, as new ways of conducting research can unlock insights and provide an opportunity for consumers to participate in research to obtain answers to questions they may have.

What are the aims of a digital trial?

Digital trials aim to gather evidence, provide insights and proof into the efficacy of a product or solution in a real-world setting—meaning in the day-to day lives of those who would benefit from the product.

What are the benefits of a digital trial?

Digital trials have benefits in terms of lower costs, faster recruitment, wider reach, increased retention and better participant experience because data is submitted remotely usually via smartphone or web-interface. In addition, a digital study can be conducted globally in different languages simultaneously.

However, digital trials in the context of a currently COVID-stricken world, is still a relatively new concept in the area of personalised nutrition, and for many players in the industry a term they may have only heard of to date.

In part two of this article, we outline the six critical steps companies need to consider when planning a digital trial with a focus on personalised nutrition and wellness.