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Six steps to planning a digital trial

Article-Six steps to planning a digital trial

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We outline the six critical steps companies need to consider when planning a digital trial with a focus on personalised nutrition and wellness.

In part one, we outlined the definition and purpose of digital trials—especially as COVID-19 as limited physical interaction and driven digital solutions in its place. 

1. Adopt a data-driven approach to really understanding consumer needs and personas

While it may be tempting to plan a digital trial based on what management thinks will drive sales and improve claim substantiation, this may not be aligned with what consumers actually want to know about products, or how they search online for solutions to address their questions. It is important to get a deep understanding of what the pain points of consumers are, what questions they have, how they currently address their health issues in a real-world setting and where they go to find out all the above. Strategies that achieve this can include: social listening which involves using machine learning and big data analytics to identify what consumers are sharing online; as well as mixed-methods research approaches. When it comes to nutrition, having access to a network of nutrition influencers and experts is invaluable. These experts are both trusted sources of credible information, and providers of personalised healthcare that can provide valuable behavioural, contextual and sociographic information easily missed in online surveys. This approach provides a detailed picture and rich description in terms of what consumers want to know, how they describe the impact of the problem on their lives and health in their own words, and what their customer personas may look like. Through a multidisciplinary unbiased approach, and using the latest in technology, this stage can be completed in under a month as data analysis occurs in real-time.

2. Access stakeholder input for study design, partner selection, setting quality criteria and digital outcomes

Nutrition is complex, this is certainly not news to anybody already in the field. However, there are ways to extract usable insights from online studies that can help to demonstrate the effect of a solution. It is critical to involve health and nutrition experts as well as relevant stakeholders in the design of any study to ensure that primary outcomes are consumer focused and clear, that tasks are feasible and that a minimal burden is placed on the participants. The study design also needs to reflect recognised research methods to demonstrate effectiveness such as a cross-over or parallel design in order to ensure that the endpoints are met, and that these contemporary ways of conducting research can contribute to the personalised nutrition evidence base. A recent published paper by Krone et. al., 2020 provides an excellent overview on this topic. It is also important to carefully select digital trial partners starting from the platform where the data will be collected, to partners who will provide the digital data points which can range from equipment (such as wireless scales), kits (such as blood test) or apps. Privacy and data quality should be top priorities for all partners and stakeholders involved. Other experts such as legal and biostatistics will also need to be included depending on the complexity of the study. This means that working with a company that has an extensive network, knows the industry well, can lower the risk, manage the project and contracts, as well as control the costs, is critical.

3. Select a reliable, secure and user-friendly platform

As mentioned above, in order to run a digital trial, access to a bespoke platform that can meet the needs of the research design is crucial. The fact that privacy in accordance with GDPR is of paramount importance. Platform solutions can range from being fully outsourced i.e. done-for you, or can be licensed (hands-off). Depending on the preference and resources available, companies need to select the solution that matches their business goals best. Access to real-time analytics and telehealth functions are important, but in order to ensure a good participant experience and data quality, it is more important that study tasks are easy to complete on a smartphone or platform.

4. Recruitment strategy

In order to recruit the right motivated participants for a digital trial, the rich and detailed consumer personas created at the start will be incredibly useful. This is the reason why it is so important to get it right at the start. Recruitment can include a combination of online and offline strategies from adverts, to content creation as well as accessing networks, groups or associations. A number of platforms offer participant recruitment as a service, whereas others outsource this function to a digital marketing agency that specialise in this area. A comprehensive online screening and eligibility process will ensure that there is a clear understanding of expectation for participation in the digital trial before consent is obtained.

5. Engagement strategy

A best practice guideline on social media advertising and online data collection published by King et. al., 2014 highlighted the importance of engaging with participants throughout the study period. This is important not only to stay on top of mind to ensure participants complete study tasks, but also to ensure that participants also receive valuable information in return. In the world of personalised nutrition and wellness where consumers are constantly looking for credible information, this is an opportunity to provide valuable information or incentives which can include: educational messages relevant to the study, scientific updates, recipes, tests or lifestyle advice. With insights gained from consumer and nutrition expert research at the start, a content strategy can be created through push-notifications on the digital trial platform in a short period of time.

6. Set organisational and study KPIs

Digital trials are still a very new concept in the area of personalised nutrition and wellness. This means that in many cases, top management may not understand the need for adopting a 'new normal' when it comes to research.  In this case, having or collecting data in order to make a comparison to traditional studies is important and will need to include: time to participant recruitment, resources required, participant retention, study completion, participant engagement and participant satisfaction. Finally, with the potential of lower cost and wider access, running digital trials provides an opportunity for companies to align their business goals with important topical issues such as diversity and inclusion. This can be achieved by including participants from traditionally hard-to-reach groups, including more participants from minority groups, as well as working with suppliers from diverse backgrounds to design, conduct and execute a study.

Who should consider conducting a digital trial?

Whilst currently pharma and consumer health companies are ahead of the game when it comes to digital trials, the trend towards self-care and using technology to track health is quickly becoming the norm. It is only a matter of time for the personalised nutrition and wellness industry to catch on. Therefore, companies that should consider conducting and starting to experiment with digital trials include:

  • Ingredient companies
  • Supplement companies
  • Nutraceutical companies
  • Sports brands
  • Functional food companies
  • Wellness & lifestyle brands

There is no better time than now to start including digital trials as part of an overall business strategy, as we believe this is inevitable given the current situation. While consumer awareness in health is high, we are only at the beginning of a wave of transformation that will happen with regards to consumer food behaviour and healthcare.

In summary

Digital trials are the future of nutrition research. It is the next natural step to product/claim validation driven by consumer interest in health and enabled by technology. If done correctly, digital trials have the potential to answer important consumer problems in a real-world setting and to be more inclusive. In addition, digital trials have shown to have a good ROI in terms of cost, participant retention, satisfaction and study completion.

As a benchmark, companies who operate in the personalised nutrition and wellness industry will need to demonstrate how they meet the definition of personalised nutrition (Adams et. al., 2019). For companies big or small, conducting digital trials to demonstrate impact on health outcomes or behaviour change will be critical.

For further information or to discuss your ideas for a digital trial, please contact Mariette Abrahams MBA, Ph.D., RD at [email protected]


  1. Krone T, Boessen R, Bijlsma S, van Stokkum R, Clabbers NDS, Pasman WJ (2020) The possibilities of the use of N-of-1 and do-it-yourself trials in nutritional research. PLoS ONE 15(5):e0232680.
  2. Canadian Psychology / Psychologie canadienne  Canadian Psychological Association 2014, Vol. 55, No. 4, 240–249
  3. Predicting Personal Metabolic Responses to Food Using Multi-omics Machine Learning in over 1000 Twins and Singletons from the UK and US: The PREDICT I Study (OR31-01-19)
  4. Sean H Adams, Joshua C Anthony, Ricardo Carvajal, Lee Chae, Chor San H Khoo, Marie E Latulippe, Nathan V Matusheski, Holly L McClung, Mary Rozga, Christopher H Schmid, Suzan Wopereis, William Yan, Perspective: Guiding Principles for the Implementation of Personalized Nutrition Approaches That Benefit Health and Function, Advances in Nutrition, Volume 11, Issue 1, January 2020, Pages 25–34,
TAGS: Trends