Contact Us

2019 Key Opinion Leader (KOL) Planning: What Weren’t You Thinking?

In this episode, Trina Stonner, President at Avant Healthcare discusses the evolving role of KOLs and their engagements with HCPs.

Read the companion white paper entitled “Being Engaging when Engaging KOLs."

Podcast Transcript

Dan Limbach: Welcome to the PharmaVOICE Webcast Network. In this episode, I meet with Trina Stonner, President at Avant Healthcare. We discuss the evolving role of KOLs and their engagements with HCPs. At the end of this podcast, we'll tell you about a companion white paper, which you can download. I'm Dan Limbach, your host and producer of the PharmaVOICE Webcast Network.

Welcome to the podcast program, Trina.

Trina Stonner: Oh, thank you, Dan. It's a pleasure to be here.

Dan Limbach: Healthcare professionals are inundated with an overwhelming amount of data across multiple media and channels. In this paradigm, how much, if any, has the KOL's role and value diminished in importance to HCPs?

Trina Stonner: Dan, I don't think the role has diminished at all. In fact, it continues to be of paramount importance for many healthcare professionals. Even recently in data from ZS Associates, it demonstrated HCPs are really more likely to engage with pharma companies via a KOL or a peer engagement than any other type of engagement. However, other different channels for the HCP have really decreased and I think many pharma companies are seeing that such as when the sales rep, but that role of the online resources for the KOL has really increased and even for HCPs and wanting that information from KOLs via online resources. In fact, I think many of us are familiar with that term digital opinion leader, but also I've seen a new nomenclature out there called the connected opinion leader, so that COL. So that role of that DOL or that COL is what we're seeing increased also.

Dan Limbach: That's interesting. I've heard some of those terms, but I don't know much about them. So can you tell me more about the terms such as digital opinion influencer or col or digital opinion leader? Are they really just KOLs with Twitter accounts or is it something more or different?

Trina Stonner: It is something more and it's something different. So yes, to both. What they both have in common is that they have influence. Not all KOLs are DOIs and not DOIs are KOLs. We do know that probably about 20% of KOLs that you would identify on a brand or in a therapeutic area probably had some type of social media influence or approach. Recently at our company we actually did a fairly large KOL identification project and when we identified in this large therapeutic space, and it happened to be with oncology, I think we did identification to allow 96 KOLs. And it turned out when we looked at that social media influence that they have really only about 14% of them had that and when they do, typically that platform for most DOIs is really Twitter.

Some recent data I've also seen from the ZS Associates, which happens to really turn out a lot of great information, HCPs would agree that Twitter does influence their treatment decisions. But I think what's tough is that a lot of pharma companies haven't figured out how to work with that DOI and they have to think differently. There is quite a few compliance considerations that need to be met. Typically, we think of those KOLs from that academia background and they are wanting to share information regarding trials of recent decisions on guidelines. [inaudible 00:03:53] the DOI who may or may not be a top level of KOL, typically is going to share information more about that therapeutic area. Also, from some of our experience that we have done and looking at that DOI and that that social media footprint, is that they will typically use Twitter or other platforms to talk about conversations that might be more difficult for patients to speak with, such as sexual health, such as mental health, so a little bit different. You think of some of the KOLs to typically want to tweet out information on clinical trial data, some of these DOIs working with the HCPs, a little bit different approach. But as I said, I think pharma is still struggling on how to work and make that successful. Something I would recommend that others checkout is a health care hashtag project with Twitter. It's looking at multiple disease states and this whole approach to ontology and how various therapeutic areas or disease states can be tagged and then also followed.

Dan Limbach: I will definitely have to check that out. Like most consumers, HCPs want answers in real time and at their convenience. With that in mind, is it even realistic to expect KOL involvement in our highly regulated environment? And if so, how can we make that expectation a reality?

Trina Stonner: You know, Dan, I think it is realistic that we can meet customer needs. As we think about as consumers, we want information when we need it and we're not very patient at waiting. And I think in typical scenarios in the past, and even currently, it is pose a question and we'll get back to you, but that's not satisfying the needs of healthcare professionals as well as for KOLs. I think about KOLs being out there on the front line and there's times that they need information right away and they need that information from the pharma company or the biotech company in which they are partnering with. I think there's a couple of solutions in which you can think about that. I would encourage the listeners to look at potential partners out there or agencies in which that they can provide specific platforms in which they can partner with.

Trina Stonner: I know that we have a couple at our company, one of them is what we call our on call and it allows two different scenarios. It allows that HCP to be able to connect to a KOL, the medical to medical engagement, but it also allows for that KOL to have an interaction and get real time answers from the pharmaceutical company. Think of it as open table, the HCP or KOL can see when is their availability and on their time, and actually even send a question in advance so there is definitely some preparation. Definitely important and we realize when we have partners with companies, the compliance nature of working with a platform like this. And there has to be many guardrails on that and ensuring that conversation going to be medical to medical and what are the guard rails.

Trina Stonner: But also, we've also worked with opportunities in which there is a promotional aspect that can also be answered and HCPs wanting answers to some of those promotional questions that they might have and being able to partner with a KOL. How critical it is to work with the company's legal regulatory and medical teams to make it work and set up all their requirements. As I mentioned, I think there's an opportunity to give answers, but also there's an opportunity for pharmaceutical companies, biotech companies to be able to get answers when they also need it. We know that for marketing or medical within a company, sometimes there's needs. There are things that come up such as maybe a new data or something's out there in the marketplace in which you also need to get realtime information and maybe you don't have an advisory board planned with your advisors, so three, four, six months from now. But there are other opportunities out there and I think there are platforms in which one should be thinking about being able to get those kind of real time insights. I know we also have another, what we called our KOL mobile insights, but it's a way to get information in real time, first of all, but also to get insights outside of the ad board, outside of that hotel meeting room in which it's in the moment or what are some of those ahas. And I think of an example of what we worked on as an oncologist is walking to a tumor board and what are they thinking about at that moment? That could really be a rich insight that a medical or a marketing team can use. And we have a platform for that and I'm sure that there's other platforms out there, but we're just really encouraged that, think outside of the traditional advisory board, being able to get those realtime events and something like those types of platforms also allow to continue that engagement with that KOL outside of twice a year via traditional advisory board.

Dan Limbach: Very good. Let's move on to metrics. Measurement and analytics are highly coveted commodities, but they're often difficult to obtain. Is it practical and worth the investment to create a measurement plan for KOL engagement? And if so, why? And what should be considered when creating a measurement plan?

Trina Stonner: The demand for KOL engagement will only increase. We know how valued they are. But it is important to measure and evaluate with the caveat always in a compliant fashion. I don't think KOL engagement is any different than looking at some of our other initiatives that we would use in medical and marketing projects or solutions is, how are you determining success and how is it working? I think of it really in three dimensions. So that when you are looking at your KOL engagement plan, think about it in these three.

The first one being that perspective of the KOL and that's one that's easier. I would say that's one that's also most consistent in which companies use. And that is that feedback following an advisory board or following an engagement. What was their overall experience in working with the company or that medical team, brand team? What was the value that KOL felt regarding their contribution? What were the logistics? Was it more of a seamless process? That's one of those easier ones and companies do a really, for the most part, really nice job of doing that. Sometimes it can be hard to gather that if the KOL does not complete that information.

But also I think one that many times we don't see often, I think it's important it is that measurement plan, that evaluation from the perspective of the company regarding that KOL. And I think there's been a hesitancy sometimes to say, "Oh wow, we can't actually measure how that KOL is partnering with us." But I disagree. I think you can do that in a very compliant manner and I've seen it done. It's that KOL meeting the needs of giving that advice and that information and what you partnered with.

As a matter of fact, I think that's even a better way to demonstrate that this is compliant, that you're continuing to measure. And some of the examples of questions that we have done, and we've actually seen this following an advisory board or even doing this quarterly or yearly, is that specific KOL able to partner on a reliable basis and really establishing that partnership over a year. Are they able to meet the business objectives of the advisory board? And so what was set up that's important that we get information on? Are they able to work together in a group? Many of us who've done lots and lots of advisory boards over the years, then maybe there's a KOL who was difficult for the group to work with if it's a very specific project or initiative, or even disruptive. And we talked about that collaboration and so important for companies now also are those KOLs able to follow the rules of the company and what needs to be done. So it's an important step that when you are looking at your KOLs, is it that right partnership from both points of view.

And then lastly, I think there's the overall measurement of that KOL engagement plan. So that's that third dimension and this needs to be a really close partnership with legal on ensuring that you are appropriate in what you're looking at. That it's not tied to any type of promotion but strictly what are your number of KOLs that you're partnering with? What are your predicted and what are your planned touchpoints? Are you meeting with them and filling any kind of compliance, but also are you achieving that information that you need to clean from those KOLs, ensuring if you are doing preference surveys and ensuring that those are being done for those KOLs on that partnership, how often are you doing your social media monitoring? So it's important that there's many things that you can look at from an overall KOL engagement plan. I think many times this is done usually by one or two specific individuals on that medical or marketing team. But all three dimensions are important and the more success you will have with your KOL engagement plan I think will be that continuous monitoring and evaluation.

Dan Limbach: That's great advice and I hope the industry keeps moving in that direction. We know that HCPs like to hear from the top KOLs in the industry, but is it also important to build local and regional KOL plans? Why or why not?

Trina Stonner: Absolutely, it's important to build. I think too many times we see KOL engagement plans. I've also worked in this KOL space for a long time, working with pharma company but now as an agency and that we have a tendency to just focus on those global or national KOLs, which albeit are very important, but you can be missing key information and key insights by just having that focus on those national or global thought leaders. We know many times the the KOLs at that national level are typically from academia and the restrictions continue to get tougher regarding their ability to partner with pharma or biotech because of either their affiliation with an academic institution, a professional society, maybe there are on a guidelines or a committee that would preclude them from being a part of a KOL plan or partnership.

But also, I think that there's a level of understanding that the regional and local KOLs can have. I would say they're closer to those patients on probably the number of ones that they are treating, really understanding. Are there any circumstances from that regional or local levels that really come into play for treatment patterns or payer restrictions. So it's important to understand and have that regional and local to ensure that you have a more comprehensive look at advising and understanding the treatment paradigm as well as future state. When looking at that more local and regional plan, it can be more difficult to identify. So ensuring that I think there's various methods in which you can utilize to obtain a better understanding. Many companies out there do a really nice job of trying to identify those local and regional ones. In addition, what we're using some of the resources that you have in your company. It would not be appropriate of course to use sales. Medical individuals usually have a really good understanding of those regional and local thought leaders.

Dan Limbach: Let's talk about how to make all of this happen. How can commercial and medical team members effectively partner to create and implement a KOL engagement plan across a therapeutic area?

Trina Stonner: Yeah, I think this is continuing to be a challenge, but also an opportunity when we think about this platform, KOL plan. The two big therapeutic areas that you see continuing to grow, especially oncology, immunology, immunology, oncology. But although those therapeutic areas continue to increase, the amount of KOLs, the number of them and are available to partner are really limited. So how do we continue to glean insights, work with KOLs across the platform? We know many companies are doing a terrific job with their immunology platforms, maybe a diabetes platform, oncology, there's many of them and various brands and maybe therapeutic areas within that.

But there's only so many KOLs to go around and it's really critical for companies to understand that they need to step back and not just operate in silos regarding partnering with these KOLs. They only have so much time on their hands and availability. There's importance of the internal coordination that is really needed for that platform. To utilize the KOLs time, knowing what that right hand and that left hand are doing. I think there's a real also opportunity with the platform KOL plan regarding insights and what is the overall understanding of that therapeutic area? It's not easy and I think that the key four teams for this platform management are a couple things.

First of all, this is a great place in which a consolidated source via technology tool is helpful. There's a lot of good ones out there, but so important to have an actual system. You're not going to get there in achieving this universal platform with just a spreadsheet and being able to share that. And we also know there's so many different restrictions and working with any outside the US regarding privacy, so another reason to have that tool. It's also important to really engage multiple teams to building a platform team. Such as the global team and medical, commercial, payer, if there's new product planning, or more of your early scientists, and your discovery folks. But doing that at the beginning of the year as well as minimally a quarterly coordination. Also understanding that various areas of the platform that there are acute therapies versus chronic therapies. So altogether critical to have that platform approach to work in KOLs, but it does require significant internal coordination.

Dan Limbach: I couldn't agree more. Before we sign off Trina, do you have any parting words of wisdom for our listeners

Trina Stonner: Yes, Dan. I think we've talked about the complexity of working with KOLs. It's not going to get easier. We know based on social media we need to plan and work differently. We need to understand the DOI and the COL compliance just in general and working with the KOLs and the need for transparency. And I think that many of those KOLs are finding it harder to partner with pharma companies and biotech companies and how can we make it as less painful as possible. And then there's I think less KOLs to go around with some of these growing specialties of immunology and oncology. That's why it's so important to continue to build other understanding and working with other KOLs like we talked about for that local and regional. But I think there's still a lot of opportunities and reasons for excitement. We've talked about some of the technology tools that are out there. I know we have and I'm sure many other agencies do, but most of all because there's so much opportunities for patients and better therapies.

Dan Limbach: That's great. I think the more opportunities the better. Trina, I want to thank you for sharing your thought leadership and expertise with us today. This was a great conversation.

Trina Stonner: Well, thanks so much Dan. It was a real pleasure.

Dan Limbach: And that will do it for this episode. For more information about Avant Healthcare, visit their website at There is also a companion white paper for this podcast entitled being engaging when engaging KOLs, available on or in our white papers area. And don't forget to check out our other podcasts, white papers, webinars, case studies, videos, and more Until next time, I'm Dan Limbach.

This 2019 production is the property of Pharma Links LLC. It may be shared freely in its entirety, but may not be edited or altered from this published form.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.