AvantSpeakOpinion Leaders

Digital Opinion Leaders—Looking Beyond the Status Quo

Everybody’s doing it—in 2005, only 5% of the US adult population used social media. By 2013, that number jumped to 61%, and today, around 72% of US adults use at least one social media site1. Among physicians, that number is even higher: 90% of physicians use some form of social media for personal activities and 65% of them use social media sites for professional reasons2—the most popular being YouTube and Twitter.

In addition, there’s emerging evidence that digital opinion leaders (DOLs) in pharma are affecting real-world health outcomes. More than 72% of US adults have used the Internet to look up health information,3 and a recent survey by the American Osteopathic Association found that “nearly one-third of Americans (32%) have taken an action related to their health…as a result of information they read on social media4.”

For those of us in healthcare marketing, we know that the game has changed. But how do we make ourselves relevant players in this new game? We can look beyond the status quo to DOLs for the answer.

Who Are DOLs?

DOLs are healthcare providers (HCPs) who use social media as a platform to bolster their reputation and offer opinions on new therapies, share presentations from association meetings and congresses, and give advice on patient and disease management. They prefer Twitter and go to closed HCP platforms like SERMO for peer discussion. 


90% of physicians use some form of social media for personal activities and 65% of them use social media sites for professional reasons.

DOLs emerge from robust online communities presenting opportunities that didn’t exist before social media. For example, many DOLs use social media to shine a light on therapeutic areas that are difficult for patients to talk about with their HCPs (eg, sexual and/or mental health). DOLs present a challenge—and opportunity—for the status quo.

The Status Quo

Traditionally, key opinion leaders (KOLs) reign supreme. These are the top researchers, the top academics, the indispensable experts in a given field who advise a brand and speak on its behalf. KOLs, the traditional wisdom goes, bring unparalleled expertise and insights that refine and hone a brand’s strategy, lend legitimacy to a product, and influence prescriber behaviors. However, only around 20% of KOLs have a social media presence and few of them are DOLs.

Does this mean KOLs are obsolete? Far from it. HCPs still largely continue to defer to the leading minds in their field when it comes to clinical decision-making. Rather, working with DOLs can serve as a supplement to a healthcare marketing company’s KOL engagement strategy.

A Tremendous Opportunity

Influencer marketing across all industries is exploding. According to a recent Tomoson poll of marketing professionals, 59% of marketing professionals are planning to increase their influencer marketing budgets and for each $1 spent on influencer marketing, businesses are making $6.505. Additionally, 71% of consumers use social media to guide their purchasing decisions,6 and since 40% of laptop users and 15% of mobile users use ad blockers7, advertisers are becoming increasingly reliant on influencers to get through to potential customers. Simply put—DOLs have become a pillar of online advertising.

In healthcare, the reach and prominence of DOLs are smaller, and this is probably due to the strict regulations governing the pharmaceutical and medical device industries. Nevertheless, there’s room for growth and many opportunities for healthcare marketers to partner with DOLs, who span a wide variety of disciplines and education levels—from midlevel providers (eg, nurse practitioners and physician assistants) to top physicians. This variety means DOLs, while still yielding substantial influence, can communicate to audiences in different ways than traditional KOLs—a tremendous opportunity for healthcare marketers.

According to a report by PM3608, of all physicians on social media, only 1% are content producers who create and publish original content while 9% engage with others on social media. The remaining 90% consume social media without producing content or engaging. However, a report by ZS Associates demonstrated that 35% of doctors agree that information on Twitter influences their treatment decisions. DOLs give healthcare marketers a chance to get their message out to a highly receptive audience and go beyond deploying traditional experts to speak and consult. They present an opportunity to develop relationships with online communities that can authentically engage with and amplify our messages.

Lean about Avant Healthcare's KOL engagement solutions here.


1. https://www.pewinternet.org/fact-sheet/social-media/
2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4103576/
3. https://www.pewinternet.org/2013/01/15/health-online-2013/
4. https://osteopathic.org/2018/05/14/survey-finds-patients-want-to-be-friends-with-their-physicians-on-social-media/
5. https://www.tomoson.com/blog/influencer-marketing-study/
6. https://blog.hubspot.com/blog/tabid/6307/bid/30239/71-more-likely-to-purchase-based-on-social-media-referrals-infographic.aspx
7. https://www.globalwebindex.com/reports/mobile-ad-blocking-2017
8. https://www.pm360online.com/examining-physician-use-of-social-media-in-2017/

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