In a traditional setting, where face-to-face interactions are prioritised, identifying KOLs is relatively straightforward. These influential individuals could be physicians, hospital executives, researchers, or patient advocacy group members, who have established themselves as active members of the community using vehicles such as research publications or participation at industry events to demonstrate the value of their insights.
As companies move to explore more virtual spaces, new channels for KOL engagement have emerged, as has a new breed of influential figures: digital opinion leaders (DOLs). While this hybrid engagement environment may require companies to develop new engagement processes to suit different platforms, creating and fostering a positive relationship with these critical healthcare decision-makers remains an essential part of engaging with both KOLs and DOLs.
“Relationship building is at the heart of any good traditional or digital KOL plan, and while the tactics may be varied, the goal is the same – to understand KOLs on a personal and professional level,” explains GVP global head for Medscape Medical Affairs Christina Hoffman.
Because medical affairs often acts as a bridge between industry and the wider medical community, those working in this space are uniquely positioned to develop and maintain these relationships. However, with a variety of access points for one KOL, ensuring that any digital systems are respectfully used to enhance communications is a delicate process.
“Most KOLs see themselves as change agents in medicine,” says Hoffman. “Partnering with industry medical affairs teams allows them to amplify their position and create a powerful call to action for their clinical colleagues to follow their model.”
But while there are more ways to engage with clinicians, for Hoffman it is important to remember that they too are people, who experience the same highs and lows as people outside of the clinical space. Understanding this can be valuable when developing KOL engagement strategies, as companies can tailor their plans to cut through the information overload found in virtual spaces.
“It’s easier to tune out or multitask in the virtual space, which means the person is not fully paying attention to the discussion and results in less yield for the time spent,” she explains. “It’s a balancing act. Topics should be short with strong visuals, as opposed to lines and lines of text. Interaction check-ins also allow those watching to feel their feedback is needed and helpful.”
To create meaningful engagement, it’s important to recognise that clinicians need to gain something from each of their professional interactions, be it opportunities to learn new things or tools that make their lives easier. For Hoffman, identifying areas of unmet need is one avenue that can help to differentiate communications with KOLs.
“Not all KOLs have the same needs and as such it’s not the same answer for all,” she explains. “Industry needs to assess the unmet needs of KOLs more broadly, and maintain and share that information within their organisation so that it can be amassed and resources can be pointed toward the largest needs.
“Companies should pull alongside the KOL and glean what they can do to help improve clinical practice. If they can demonstrate the willingness to learn and help, KOLs will be very happy to partner.”
There are, of course, caveats to this. Transcripts sourced from virtual spaces are ripe with data ready to be analysed, but to truly leverage KOL insight using data, companies first have to know how to process the data provided. For Hoffman, this is where social listening can support data scraping.
“Social listening can provide an understanding of not only who says what, but who is in contact with whom,” she explains. “In the digital space, we are no longer limited by traditional top-down influence cascades, rather it is more of a circular process. For example, if I’m sitting at the community level of an influence cascade, nothing stops me from getting access in the social space to an international KOL. That social dialogue is also immensely informative to the DOL’s thinking and rationale.”
For Hoffman, engaging with digitally-informed KOLs requires a bifurcated strategy. The first prong in this process should be to identify who the target audience is, and the key figures influencing their behaviour and decision-making processes. The second involves assessing the social environment to determine who is actively discussing issues that align with company aims and values. For example, a well-respected oncology specialist discussing the subject of breast cancer in an online forum, would be a strong KOL candidate for a company focused on breast cancer research and treatment.
Once a KOL has been identified, either in the physical world or online, the next stage of the roadmap should be to demonstrate knowledge and competence in the digital space. For Hoffman, a dedicated medical affairs social presence can be a beneficial asset here, helping to engage key players who are influencing the conversation and shape strategies that address the needs of different KOLs, from field medical to MA leadership.
“DOLs and traditional KOLs have more in common than they don’t,” she notes. “The biggest difference is simply the channel they use to influence. Find ways to institutionalise the knowledge gained by social scraping in CRMs for field medical to access, and of course make sure the field medical can also inform the understanding via real time discussions, either live or virtually.”
Understanding how clinicians view and interact with new engagement methods is just one area where data can play a role. With this knowledge, medical affairs teams can ensure that they are developing and maintaining a relationship with KOLs that serves both parties equally. With this foundation of trust and understanding, KOLs, both digital and traditional, are more likely to actively engage with the company, providing valuable insights that can be leveraged to drive innovation, and the adoption of new treatments.
“The relationship between industry and the KOLs who influence their business interests is a partnership,” says Hoffman. “KOLs have huge amounts of information about what’s really happening and, more than anything, have a pipeline into the perceptions of their colleagues that makes them an invaluable resource.”
Christina L. Hoffman, MS
Christina (Chris) Hoffman joined Medscape/WebMD 14 years ago to serve as a Cardiovascular strategist in education. She was promoted to Executive Director/Team Lead with business development leadership responsibility for Diabetes, Obesity and Dyslipidemia education support. She most recently served as the strategic visionary for Medscape medical education around the globe. She is now the global leader of the Medical Affairs (MA) Business unit that launched in January of 2021.
Chris has over 30 years of professional health education experience with the lay public as well as with healthcare professionals. She has accomplished this mission in a wide array of settings including; local government, non-profit health, the pharmaceutical industry and most recently with the leader of on-line medical education-Medscape. Chris has a Bachelor of Science in Biology/Public Health from Ball State University and a Master of Science in Clinical Psychology from California State University, San Jose.
Medscape Medical Affairs partners with Medical Affairs teams throughout a product’s lifecycle. We facilitate optimal collaboration between internal teams, physicians, and the broader medical community, connecting you directly with Medscape’s five million active physician members worldwide.