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An Interview with a C-Level Digital Opinion Leader Expert 

After interviewing GlaxoSmithKline Global Medical Affairs Leader, Michelle Warner, about Key Opinion Leaders, we caught up with another client to talk about Digital KOLs. The C-level executive at a top biopharmaceutical company, who politely asked to remain anonymous, has previously held Senior Director and Global Head roles that involved Medical Science Liaison team management and KOL engagement.  

Here is how the conversation went, edited for ease of reading. 

Acceleration Point: Can you tell me a little about your work with Digital Opinion Leaders?  

DOL Engagement ExpertI’ve had a number of different roles that have worked with digital opinion leaders. Today, I sit in our development and chief medical office organization heading up scientific engagement, but I’ve previously been an MSL leader. I also led innovative medical engagement, which focused very much on identifying as well as engaging with digital key opinion leaders.   

Digital opinion leaders are a relatively new area for the industry. We’ve understood for quite some time that these people exist, but we haven’t had the tools and the technologies to effectively identify them in a way that’s meaningful to our companies. Leveraging external vendors like Acceleration Point and others has allowed us to begin to develop dashboards so we can better understand who the people are that have both expertise as well as influence. 

When we think about how information is typically shared in the medical community, it’s done through publications, presentations, and abstracts. These things typically take anywhere from three or four months up to two, three years. Now with the advent of social media and these new digital key opinion leaders, when they have pieces of information to share, they’re not waiting for a publication to get approved. They have the ability to get it out very quickly to a large audience of people who care about this information. Through the digital KOLs, we’re able to look at who’s sharing what, who are the healthcare professionals as well as laypersons following them, and determine how much impact they have. 

Acceleration Point: What are the logistical, organizational, or operational adjustments you’ve had to make to account for not just the KOL engagements, but tracking, monitoring, and engaging with DOLs? 

DOL Engagement ExpertIt’s quite important that we’ve had to internally and externally change the perception around DOLs. Traditionally, when we thought about a key opinion leader, it was someone doing the research, doing the publications, doing something with the science. With the advent of digital opinion leaders, many of these people, although they have the expertise, maybe sharing other people’s research. And they may put their spin, their interpretation, or their information associated with it out. 

That’s one type of digital opinion leader, but there are other types as well. We have our traditional KOL who has also become social savvy and digital savvy. And they are those individuals that have all those publications, all those presentations but are making them known through non-traditional channels such as Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and physician-only social networks like Doximity or SERMO. 

We’ve seen that many of the top healthcare professionals, researchers, and KOLs in their fields have begun to embrace social media and digital platforms to get their information out to a wider audience. The interesting thing about their audience is it’s similar to a congress audience where someone has to say, “I’m going to go to this congress to see what this person has to say.” 

Acceleration Point: What moved you to partner with Acceleration Point (AP) for monitoring and engaging with digital opinion leaders? 

DOL Engagement ExpertThere are a few reasons we chose AP. First and foremost is the fact that they’re partnering with other companies to collect all this information on opinion leaders. The analysis of the information is key, and partnering with an organization that understands what our strategy is, why this information is important to us, and has allowed them to build a tool, that is essential. 

The other reason is speed. So many times, companies have come and pitched us a social media evaluation, but it’s a single point in time going back. Acceleration Point allows us to get daily updates on what’s actually happening out there. 

We can see, day in and day out, the conversation that’s happening, who is having the conversations, and what’s being said. We needed a view of how digital opinion leaders are changing over time because it’s not a single point in time. Having daily updates is key. The other piece that’s important is that they’ve partnered with Pharmaspectra so that we’re able to see who has the expertise of those individuals publishing and presenting the traditional manners but are also getting their information out there on social media. So, our goal is to identify, not people with the largest reach, but people who have the expertise and influence to share information out with the healthcare professionals and the lay public.  

It’s not just important to understand who’s sharing, it’s also important to know who they are sharing it with.  Our businesses are quite different across our business units, and different therapeutic areas may have different strategies. If someone is identifying a digital opinion leader in a rare disease getting fifty to seventy experts is a massive win because it can be quite challenging to get those people together when there are only a few hundred experts in that area. 

Acceleration Point: What sort of engagements do you have with DOLs? How does that specific engagement differ from what you do with KOLs? 

DOL Engagement ExpertI look at a digital opinion leader as a KOL that’s just disseminating information across a different channel, and that’s a different way to look at things. Some people look at it as though they’re doing something different, but they’re not. We work with people because of their expertise and their influence and that they’re thought leaders across a different channel, not face to face at a congress. It’s not in a publication, it’s on a social channel. 

That also makes it a bit more challenging for us to be able to truly validate people as experts. I talk about expertise and influence and reach. Expertise is more important than anything else. We need to make sure we’re grabbing people that have the expertise, know the science, and are specialists in the area that we’re working in, rather than picking just someone that’s going to be a great aggregator of new science. We want a person that is a trusted source of information in that specific area. 

The old way of the KOL relationship is having them on an advisory board or doing something else that takes a while, like medical congress invitations or participating in a study. The DOLs are doing things like a tweet thread or LinkedIn posts. Those are somewhat different, obviously. 

There are contracted engagements and non-contracted engagements, and this is a new area for Pharma. We’re beginning to go into this area. Now that we have identified who’s doing this, we want to better understand what we can do with it. So we’ve brought together experts across our business units, functions, ethics, and business integrity group to come together and say, OK, let’s begin to write what we can and can’t do. Let’s look at what’s been happening already. Let’s take a look at how we can engage and leverage this new group of individuals to educate the public, to make them aware of new science and information in a way that’s truly state awareness rather than promotion and in a way that’s transparent that this is a partnership between our company and these individuals. 

Acceleration Point: Why use software to monitor DOLs on social media rather than figure out your own DIY solution?   

DOL Engagement ExpertThere is value in having a premium dashboard that’s paid for rather than trying to find a way to piecemeal it, to throw something together, using free or lower-cost tools. Piecemealing definitely works. But it is a massive undertaking that you need to have a headcount dedicated to. And it’s going to be headcount that is looking at the information on a day-to-day basis. You can try to get a group of people together, divide and conquer to get this sort of information, but then you need somewhere to collect all the information, and you need somewhere to collate it. You need to be able to filter it, and you lose some of the search functionality as well. Having a single dashboard really saves your people a significant amount of time and allows them to focus on what’s important.  

Having a dashboard also ensures that through the search functionality, you’re only getting the scientific information that you care about. You’re not getting a trip to Disney; you’re not getting a post about the recruiter that just contacted them. You’re not getting information about things that are happening in their personal and professional life that don’t align with your therapeutic area or your strategy. So you’re getting what matters, and it’s much more ethical to focus on those scientific pieces of information than any other pieces. That alone makes it better. 

Being able to see the important stuff that matters to you based on your search criteria and not having to have people manually go in day in and day out for an hour or two a day to collect this and pay them to go through social media. Instead, you’ve got a one-stop-shop, click, a few buttons on your laptop, you get the report and the update that you need. 

Acceleration Point: Why is it worth it to consider DOLs, even if you’ve only ever known KOL engagements? 

DOL Engagement ExpertHow we consume information as a culture, as a community, has changed dramatically, not just over the last year during the pandemic, but even over the last five or ten years. People are consuming information across different channels. When you think about it, traditionally, the channels that they consumed medical and scientific information were publications and congress meetings. But that’s changing; we’re consuming information in smaller, more consumable bits, time and time again, consistently getting tiny pieces of information. And we’re doing this not just in our professional lives but more often in our personal lives. There’s a merging happening, and people that are hesitant don’t realize how the consumption of information has changed over the last five, ten, and fifteen years.  

Ultimately, with information consumption changing, the people that have embraced that change and are communicating in new ways are going to be the ones that win time and time again. So for those that are hesitant, you have to take a look at the opportunity to see what you’re missing. For all you know, you might be right that you’re capturing the bulk of information and the right information from what you’re doing, but you don’t know what you’re missing until you actually go and do some of these analyses. 

Effective opinion leader engagement plans involve both traditional KOLs and the new digital influencer. If you have questions about monitoring both, contact Acceleration Point today. 


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