lumanity logo

Cracking the code: Unlocking key opinion leaders in the digital landscape

With new guidance, treatment pathways, and medical advances emerging on a regular basis, the pursuit of knowledge and innovation is a never-ending process for healthcare providers. For many years, influential figures known as Key Opinion Leaders (KOLs) stood at the forefront of this endeavour, establishing themselves as thought leaders in their field by publishing research findings and articles in peer-reviewed journals, presenting their research at annual medical society conferences, and helping to shape industry perspectives. However, as the digital age continues to redefine how we connect and share information, a new breed of influencers has emerged – Digital Opinion Leaders (DOLs).

Both KOL and DOL cohorts serve a unique role in healthcare communications, but, as we navigate this dynamic landscape, it becomes increasingly evident that a holistic approach – one that seamlessly integrates the expertise of “traditional” KOLs with the digital fluency of DOLs – holds the key to a more comprehensive and insightful understanding of the healthcare landscape.

Here, Lumanity’s VP of analytics & business solutions, Craig Burgess, VP of consulting and medical director services, Julie Cahill, and group business director of insight and analytics, Damian Eade, delve into the dynamic interplay between the traditional and digital realms and why fully understanding the value of both options is fundamental to identifying the right mix of opinion leaders needed to maximise reach and communicate your message with credibility, authenticity, and authority.

Navigating the shifting paradigm of digital influence

It used to be that marketeers could look at a list of established expert opinion leaders in their industry and know exactly who they needed to reach out to in order to get the word out about their brand or product. However, the rapid rise of social media sparked a metamorphosis in the communications landscape. With platforms such as Twitter, YouTube, and more recently TikTok, offering users a free tool to disseminate information at the click of a mouse, anyone, anywhere can rapidly become an influencer with a potential audience of millions of followers worldwide.

As such, the process of identifying the right opinion leader and the right channel for specific communications efforts has become much more complicated.

“The nature of influence can mean that it is not something that can only be exclusively held by your traditional KOL, healthcare professional, or scientist,” explains Eade. “The increasing democratisation of healthcare means that everyone can have a voice.”

Spurred on in no small part by the COVID-19 pandemic, social media has given users an enhanced sense of ownership over the content they engage with as they cultivate their feeds to reflect their interests, both professional and private, by following and interacting with other users who regularly post about these subjects. These channels are often more informal than the more structured and episodic traditional options, such as medical journals or conference presentations, which have been the go-to environments for KOLs.

“Different people gather information from different sources,” says Cahill. “Some people go to conferences and listen to who’s on the podium or they read the latest publications coming out of the New England Journal of Medicine, where other people will turn to Twitter to get their information.”

In response to the growing influence of social media and digital platforms, companies are beginning to adapt their strategies to broaden the reach of communications efforts. It is important to note that the rise of the DOL does not replace the role of the traditional KOL. Instead, Burgess explains, they “operate on parallel tracks”, with some KOLs also crossing over into the DOL space, while others may be KOL only or DOL only.

“It’s helpful to focus on the names that overlap. Those are experts who are active online and on social media, but they also score on traditional measures of expertise,” explains Burgess. “This may be a small group, but it helps to demonstrate there are people who are very knowledgeable who are using social media.”

“What’s really interesting is that [companies] could be working with these individuals in a traditional domain, let’s say, and they have no idea that they’re the world’s biggest DOL on the topic,” adds Eade.

Activating a new generation of opinion leaders

Of course, in a world where anyone can have a platform, it’s important to know how to identify who’s worth listening to. Whereas traditional KOLs are typically clinicians or researchers with expertise in a given field, DOLs can include people who don’t fit into traditional categories, such as patients or bloggers. So how can companies evaluate the right individuals to partner with for each project?

One easy starting point is to evaluate the number of followers and impressions a post receives, metrics that are a staple feature across multiple social media platforms. However, as Cahill notes, while a high number may appear encouraging on the surface, ensuring that the content reaches the right people is equally, if not more, important than numbers alone.

“You’re not just looking at the numbers. You’re not looking at how much content they’re putting out or how many people are following them,” she says. “You’re looking at who their followers are, who their network is, and what that content looks like.

“If you’re looking to target a certain group, you want to make sure that digital person, that thought leader, has that network that reaches that group that you’re looking for. Maybe they have fewer followers, but they may be the key people that you want to reach.”

“It’s also important to apply a qualitative review because someone who may be the loudest on social media may not be credible or truly influencing the right types of people,” adds Burgess. “We saw with COVID, where you had people who tweet about all kinds of things, and they get lots of engagement, but it’s not credible.

“On the flip side of the coin, you may have a traditional thought leader who is active on social media, but his activity might not be focused on the scientific area of interest. Someone might be posting about his cats or his football team. It does require a little bit of qualitative review. You’d be mistaken to rely solely on a quantitative approach.”

As Eade explains, while there are numerous metrics that can be applied to selecting a DOL or KOL, ultimately, the most crucial piece of the puzzle is intent. Understanding what you are trying to achieve will determine the right metrics to identify the best opinion leader and the best platform for the job.

“This isn’t about an off-the-shelf one-and-done metric, because the degree of influence that might be relevant is going to be wholly dependent on what you are trying to achieve.”

Rebuilding the pyramid of success

Realising the potential impact of activating both DOLs and traditional KOLs to broaden the reach and impact of your message requires a well-thought-out strategy.

As Cahill explains, establishing this is a team effort, with strategy, digital insights, and traditional KOL experience coming together to ensure that the message and delivery align with the intended audience and outcome. By adopting a holistic approach to identifying DOLs and KOLs, companies can expand their reach, not just among healthcare providers, but in the public domain.

Alongside professional DOLs, patients, family members, and disease advocates use social media platforms on a daily basis, meaning that companies have a unique opportunity to reach other relevant audiences, offering information and signposting them to additional content. Communicating with this group requires a different tone, format, and opinion leader than may be used to engage with established healthcare professionals. As such, Cahill notes, it is important to keep the end goal in mind when developing your strategy.

“We spend a lot of time in that beginning stage to make sure that we’re approaching the problem correctly,” she explains. “When you start looking at the list, we do a gut check and ask, ‘Did we use the right search terms?’, ‘Are we missing people?’, ‘Are there other things we should be looking at?’. It’s not just a one-time thing. It’s an important piece to think about through the whole project.”

Moreover, Eade adds that developing an initial list of potential DOLs and KOLs for each communication initiative can help ensure that each individual is incorporated appropriately. Here, he explains, is where an integrated approach is beneficial.

“If you’ve got more people and more tools at your disposal, it means that you can do more,” he says. “Expanding into a digital domain where you are going to get that diversity of viewership, range, and wide reach, is something you wouldn’t be able to achieve necessarily through traditional KOL channels.

“Then, equally, if you are trying to establish yourself with the greatest credibility in terms of very established processes, you may need to go through a more traditional route to identify those people who could be most relevant. It’s not to say that digital or social online influencers are more or less important. It’s just saying that, for certain jobs, that is going to really help you do things more effectively.”

Final thoughts

From the conference room floor to online community forums, the collaborative efforts of KOLs and DOLs create a powerful narrative that not only influences medical decision-making, but also fosters a more inclusive and dynamic dialogue within the healthcare ecosystem.

Of course, as with any seismic mindset shift, not everyone is completely on board with the transition from traditional KOLs to an integrated hybrid approach to communications. Trust in something new takes time, particularly when it comes to healthcare, but DOLs are continuing to demonstrate the impact they can have in the space and, while there may be regulatory and compliance hurdles to address moving forwards, for Cahill, by resisting the change, companies miss out on an opportunity to be at the centre of important conversations that could shape the next era of healthcare.

“If you ignore the digital space, then people are going to be putting messages out related to your data or your drug that you don’t have any potential to influence. So, they’re shaping your story without you having any input,” she explains.

Influence, Eade clarifies, does not mean control of the narrative, but a chance to pull up a seat at the table and tell your side of the story.

“It’s about giving ourselves the maximal opportunity to have an impact and to be able to work with a wider scope of audiences and message,” he says. “Why would we not want to have a broad suite of opportunities available in front of us?”

About the authors

Craig Burgess

Craig Burgess, vice president, analytics, and business solutions, Lumanity

Craig Burgess has over 20 years of agency experience in medical communications and publications. He is currently responsible for implementation of analytic services and business solutions to support medical communication strategy and scientific publication planning. Burgess oversees development and execution of initiatives to integrate analytics as a key component of agency services and client solutions. He partners with colleagues and clients to support better decision making through analytics.

Burgess has developed an industry-leading approach to KOL mapping, including identification, ranking, segmentation, profiling, and engagement planning. Other areas of focus include social media listening, competitive intelligence, publication impact assessments, text analytics, interactive dashboards, and data visualisation. Each analytics service line is designed to transform data to meaningful insights for pharmaceutical clients.

He joined Lumanity in October 2020 and received a BA in psychology from Tufts University.

Julie Cahill

Julie Cahill MD, vice president, consulting and medical director services

As vice president of consulting and medical director services, Dr Cahill has been an integral part of the Medical Affairs Consulting team since 2016. With a deep medical knowledge and analytical mindset, she regularly leads the creation of cross-functional medical strategies and has helped with numerous drug launches. Her clinical experience also provides the background needed to identify medical needs and direct the development of medical data generation programs. In addition, it lends her the insight necessary to work with thought leaders and execute engaging advisory boards that result in impactful recommendations. Overall, her leadership, strategic thinking, and medical education help her clients demonstrate their value both within their organisation and to external stakeholders.

Dr Cahill is a graduate of the University of Virginia with a BA in biology and distinction in mathematics. She received her MD, cum laude, at Georgetown University and went on to general surgery residency at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. She also completed specialised training in breast surgery at Northwestern University, including both benign breast disease and breast cancer, and she is a board-certified general surgeon.

Damian Eade

Damian Eade, managing director, social analytics, insight

Damian Eade currently leads Lumanity’s dedicated social media insights and analytics business, with methodological expertise in social media landscaping, influencer mapping, congress tracking, trend monitoring, and competitive assessment, across healthcare audiences including HCPs, payers, patients, carers, and advocacy groups.

With over 20 years of experience in healthcare market research, specialising in digital research methods for the past 10+ years, Eade previously served as global head of digital at Cello Health Insight (acquired by Lumanity in 2020). Past roles also include managing director and head of healthcare positions at a technology-driven insight and content generation agency, where he focused on utilising mobile technology to bring to life the experiences of patients, carers, healthcare professionals, and consumers.

 More recently he has lead the development of Lumanity’s syndicated research services focused on omnichannel tracking and social media reporting.

About Lumanity

Don’t miss your complimentary subscription to Deep Dive and our newsletter

Sign up



Your name

Your e-mail

Name receiver

E-mail address receiver

Your message