When nearly all in-person meetings were cancelled in the Spring of 2020, digital opinion leaders (DOLs) went instantly from side players to center stage. DOLs are masters of scientific communication in the digital space. They are often doctors, but are sometimes nurses or nurse practitioners or physician assistants, and they have large regional or national followings on sites such as Twitter, SERMO, and Doximity. This following translates into real influence over healthcare trends and what’s being talked about in local and national healthcare communities. While DOLs have grown in prominence and influence since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, pharma is just beginning to consider how to optimize their DOL relationships. In this post, we’ll discuss the two main approaches to DOL engagement as well as the overall value of DOLs.
Before engaging with a DOL, pharma marketers will work with analytics firms to identify the right DOL for their brand using a variety of metrics from therapeutic area, to level of expertise, to follower count on various social media sites, and more. This complex process will be dealt with in a later article, but for now, we’re going to focus on the two main engagement types, organic and structured, and their relative merits.
Engaging with DOLs organically can be challenging, but for pharma marketers looking to get their feet wet without too much regulatory oversight and resource expenditure, organic engagement is the best place to start. Typically, after identifying several DOLs to establish a relationship with, the pharma marketer would begin a DOL campaign with the hope that the DOL will further the firm’s brand or disease state initiative. There are many advantages to this approach. For one, any activity that arises from an organic engagement effort will be marked by authenticity and its reach will be unrestricted by most compliance guidelines as you don’t have to contract or pay the DOL for the engagement. However, this method can be unreliable, with infrequent posts and a lack of control over what and how the DOL shares the content.
A structured approach to DOL engagement is perfect for pharma marketers who want to control the message and content shared and develop a solid plan to share information digitally. In a structured engagement plan, after identifying target DOLs, a firm will work with those DOLs to create sponsored content for them to share on various platforms. It is crucial that the firm knows exactly what they’re trying to accomplish with DOL engagement—who are you trying to reach? What actions do you expect users to take when they encounter your content through the DOL? What sort of credibility does this DOL lend your brand by speaking on your behalf? Answering these questions will help pharma marketers get the most out of their structured DOL relationships.
The Value of DOLs
The time to engage DOLs is now. Historically, pharma has relied upon KOLs to get their message out at congresses, symposium, and other in-person meetings. While we believe that live meetings may eventually come back to their pre-pandemic levels and KOLs will not be replaced, the gains in influence DOLs have made in the healthcare space will not recede, they will continue to grow. While a KOL may also be a DOL, some DOLs may not hold prestigious institutional positions, professorships or have a breadth of peer reviewed articles to their name. Regardless, DOLs are valuable messengers who’ve synthesized the cutting-edge research, understand the trends, and create engaging conversations that doctors, and other HCPs, are tuning into. They will be a staple of truly effective pharma marketing for the foreseeable future.
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