In this episode of Connecting the Dots, our Marketing Copywriter, Sean Armie, sits down with Sarah Meuler and Andrew Layman, both Senior Analytics Strategists at Avant Healthcare, to discuss digital opinion leaders, who they are, and how pharma should engage them.
Andrew Layman: Doing great here.
Sarah Meuler: Doing good.
Sean Armie: Awesome. Well, first off, tell us a little bit about yourselves. Where’d you come from before you worked at Avant, and what inspires you, what gets you out of bed in the morning?
Sarah Meuler: Andrew, would you like to go first?
Andrew Layman: I was going to ask you the same, but I can go. I’m actually relatively new to the healthcare space. My background is in analytics, specifically focusing on analytics in food service and retail spheres. So, pharmaceutical industry is definitely an interesting change of pace for me, but I’ve been working in the space for three years. And I’m really passionate about making data digestible and usable for individual decision-makers across whole companies to make sure that everyone is making choices with the best information possible. Sarah, how about you?
Sarah Meuler: So where did I come from, or when did I come from? I came right out of college to DWA. And I started in a completely different role and eventually found my calling within analytics. I love to solve puzzles, not just like physical puzzles, jigsaw puzzles, but I like to look and see how things move together and how they can fit. And I really like understanding how people think and what their drivers are.
And really, what keeps me doing this is thinking about how much information is out there in the world and that we’re constantly inundated. And that healthcare information particularly is so important for people to get and for healthcare providers to be really informed. And I love that we can do that within our industry and within our jobs.
Sean Armie: Awesome. Awesome. Well, thank you so much for being with us today. So today we’re here to talk about digital opinion influencers and digital opinion leaders. First off, let’s define our terms. What is a digital opinion influencer in the healthcare marketing space, and how does that differ from a digital opinion leader? Or is there a difference?
Sarah Meuler: I will love to chime in on this one because there is a difference. And I hear a lot of people talking about digital opinion influencers, and in the healthcare space I think it’s really important to distinguish. Anybody can be a digital influencer who really knows how to apply themselves in the digital space, but they don’t have to be, necessarily, a source of authority. And it doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re a leader within the healthcare community in the traditional sense we think of thought leaders or key opinion leaders.
And so I think it’s really important to stop and think what the difference is between the two. I like to use a funny analogy with clients and talk about Kim Kardashian. She’s been outspoken about her psoriasis and sometimes she trends, and she’s a digital opinion influencer on psoriasis. That wouldn’t mean that we would consider her a digital opinion leader when it comes to sharing information and knowledge or being a source of credibility or authority on psoriasis for patients or for physicians.
And so I think with that case example, it really helps to see the difference. Digital opinion leaders, we like to think that they command respect and trust, and they’re really a credible consultants due to their knowledge, just not how they present or position their point of view.
Sean Armie: So are digital opinion leaders, are they always key opinion leaders or thought leaders? Or what is the difference?
Sarah Meuler: They don’t have to be. They can be sometimes, especially those thought leaders who have been established in their career and who have found the digital platforms, the social media platforms as a way to amplify the message they want to share. We often find that they’re very passionate about making sure that others are informed, and that they also sometimes will have a patient reach. And they know that they have patient followers, even if they’re not directly intending to engage with patients.
But I think we also see an emerging group of DOLs, digital opinion leaders, who are not traditional KOLs. Maybe they have not held the higher positions at associations. They may not be the director or the chief or head of their department yet, but they have enough knowledge to be credible and a source of authority. And we might consider them new and emerging thought leaders within the pharmaceutical space.
Sean Armie: So how do you identify a digital opinion leader within the healthcare space, is it just follower count? How do we know what we’re working with?
Sarah Meuler: Great question. It’s not just about follower count. We like to say that it’s not just about an AI algorithm, and if we’re out there looking for somebody who has the biggest reach and spread, some digital terms or the number of platforms and the number of followers. But it’s really about the quality of the content that they’re saying. And that quality of content and the relevance of the content is really what makes a digital opinion leader and separates them a little bit from a digital opinion influencer or just somebody who’s adding to the noise.
So it’s important that we look at the content, at the way that they’ve positioned the message. Are they sharing images? What is their use of keywords that are relevant? And we really try when we’re looking for digital opinion leaders, specifically for disease states, that they’re speaking in a relevant space. You can have a gastroenterologist who’s talking about a lot of different things. And they might be a general GI or GE DOL, but they might not necessarily be one in a very specific disease within the GI realm of diseases.
Andrew Layman: Yeah. In my mind, it’s the difference between someone talking about, oh yeah, that’s a good option for this patient, versus this is how this mechanism of action is specifically going to work for this situation that I came across in my clinical practice. So it’s taking it to that next level of the science and the deep knowledge and disseminating that on a social platform to enough ears, I think is that hallmark of a digital opinion leader versus just an influencer.
Sean Armie: So how can pharma best engage and partner with digital opinion leaders? What’s the strategy? I know, Sarah and Andrew, I know you guys have done a lot with organic engagement versus structured engagement. And why don’t you explain for our audience what the difference is between those two and how that all works?
Sarah Meuler: Sure. An organic engagement is really something that comes out of a cultured relationship. So DOL has an interest in sharing the information. They have the knowledge about it, obviously, but they might be sharing information because they have a level of respect and trust with the pharmaceutical brand. They know that they’ll rely on that information and they’re not going to be sharing information exactly the way that a pharmaceutical company presents them.
They’re not going to necessarily share a legally approved message, but they might share information in their own words that they feel is important and they find to be something that should be shared with others. The structured engagement is definitely something that does go through a medical legal review. It is very framed out in terms of the components. It might be a published study or a link to something or a video that was created.
And I think that’s the number one difference. And I think it’s the hardest for some of our clients, especially in the commercial space, to wrap their heads around. That the relationship that they nurture and build with a DOL could truly lead to those organic engagement posts. And I think it’s really important for people to understand that it can happen.
Andrew Layman: Yeah. I would echo that, and also say the authenticity is very apparent when a digital opinion leader is sharing something that they want to share, versus like a sponsored or advertised posts. Not just within healthcare, but in any social connected space.
Sarah Meuler: Absolutely.
Andrew Layman: Yeah. So it is very apparent when someone’s just really passionate and really engaging on comments and beginning conversations. We recently saw someone have a 50 plus tweet back and forth conversation about the mechanism of action of a new treatment that they were doing a clinical trial for, because they were so passionate about it. Whereas, it’s not just a talking head on a video that you post on a platform. It’s that level of differentiation that really shows the organic engagement from these digital opinion leaders.
Sean Armie: So I’d love to hear more about that engagement that you just mentioned, the Twitter back and forth. So when pharma engages these digital opinion leaders organically, is this something they do … perhaps, let’s say drug company X sets up a Twitter account called drug company X, and then they tweet out to a thought leader they’ve identified. How does that work, at the granular level, if you don’t mind sharing?
Sarah Meuler: I think it’s important to point out that some of those organic engagements aren’t initiated by the pharma company. It’s not their Twitter conversation. It might be that they share something and a DOL decides to share it and then adds their own spin to it and has an ensuing 50 tweet retweet response, or reply response. But it’s more that what the pharma company has provided is something that the DOL would like to share. And I think the pro is absolutely the authenticity, the reach gets further.
On the flip side, there’s a little bit of lack of control then. And there’s no guarantee on the frequency of activity with the organic relationships, but because they are self-initiated content, it tends to be the information that the DOL is more passionate about. And I think that’s what really drives the bigger conversations with them and with the people that have responded to them.
Andrew Layman: Yeah. I would say that the initiation of the information share is not necessarily coming from brand X Twitter account, but it’s from conversations that the brand is having and sharing information. Nothing that’s not been approved for to share anything, but just wanted to make sure that specific individuals have the most authentic version of the truth that they can then be informed of and share, if they wish, or call on in conversation down the line.
So it’s more about making sure that they’ve got the right tools at their disposal, and the most accurate, appropriate information, and not just hearsay.
Sean Armie: Sorry, go ahead.
Sarah Meuler: I was going to say, you could think of it as if you would in the virtual world, of the conversations that might ensue between a KOL and a physician at a medical conference, or at a peer to peer programming. Once the official program was done, go up and say, hey, I’ve got a question. I really liked what you said. And that’s where it’s a genuine conversation that might … this is just happening over a digital platform.
Sean Armie: So a lot of what we talked about today has been very organic, to say the least. Something that kind of occurs naturally. But you’re both senior analytics strategists, so what role does data play in all of this? In engagement and helping pharma partner with these digital opinion leaders?
Andrew Layman: I was going to say the role that analytics plays is identifying who these digital opinion leaders are at the beginning to ensure that the relationship gets built in the first place, and at an appropriate time. So rather than just doing a general search out in whatever network of choice, a methodical approach, collecting various data sources, vetting their non-social media engagement, making sure that they are of a caliber and have no concerning backgrounds. All those things are very important to make sure that the right individuals are being recommended, as well as identifying the appropriate cadence at which to engage with them.
And making sure that ongoing engagement is monitored and managed, just to ensure the best outcome possible in that relationship. So there’s a lot of analytics that you wouldn’t necessarily think would fall into the realm of analytics, potentially, at first glance, but it’s definitely a key component of this.
Sarah Meuler: Yeah. I think it’s important when we’re analyzing their data initially, to look at who they’re engaging, where they’re engaging, the reach and the spread. And I realize I’ve said that a couple of times. Reach being the number of people that they immediately contact, say their followers. Spread being the share, the viral aspect of it, if you will. That the followers then help to spread, either through retweets or shares of the post or the information.
I think it’s also helpful within analytics because we can look at the metrics off of some of the platforms too, and see which platform is engaging one specialty group more than the other. Some of the closed platforms, we can look and help understand which might be better for use that way as well.
Sean Armie: Well, thank you so much, Andrew and Sarah. Is there anything else you think our audience needs to know about engaging digital opinion leaders?
Sarah Meuler: I think it’s important to say the time is now. The time is so important as people within the pandemic … we’re obviously talking in January in 2021. People’s mindsets are changing. They are looking so much more for information online. We’ve seen increases in volumes within closed digital platforms, such as Doximity, and the usage there for healthcare providers.
And also, I heard a client this fall say, well, I don’t think we want to do digital opinion leader identification before launch, but maybe that’s something we want to engage DOL six months to nine months after launch. And I really feel that you need to find your DOLs early, and build those relationships with them to ensure that you have organic engagements. And you can’t wait until you want to start having them share information on your behalf, whether that’s structured or organic, you have to cultivate that relationship. And to make sure you find the right person, it takes a little bit of time and care as well, as Andrew alluded to.
Andrew Layman: Yeah. I like to index on calling it a relationship, and if you’ll pardon the phrase, not a one tweet stand. It’s something that you need to have as an ongoing relationship, you are truly building a relationship with these opinion leaders. And you wouldn’t have a one-off engagement with an in-person opinion leader. You wouldn’t have an advisory board and then just forget that person existed.
So it would be the same with digital opinion leaders. You need to nurture that before you expect to have the relationship bear fruit on either side of the equation.
Sarah Meuler: Yeah. And I think it’s important to … my last thought. Is to understand that these digital opinion leaders are reaching beyond the normal bounds of relationships. Traditionally, 20 years ago, it would have been a lot harder for a community physician to engage with a national KOL. It erases all geographic borders, it erases regional boundaries. It allows a DOL to communicate with anybody who wants to communicate them, who they choose to engage back with.
It opens borders for patients who may not have a specialist within hundreds of miles of within them, but they can follow in real time what a specialist is saying about their disease. And I think as we see patients more and more empowered with their own health care, or if they’re a caregiver for someone in their lives, we see this more and more. And so we have to remember that there are more groups than just physicians or healthcare providers. There’s patient stakeholders, the media is picking up on this, journalists, et cetera.
Sean Armie: Thank you both so much, I thought this was a wonderful conversation. And that’s it today for Connecting the Dots. Thank you.
In a prior blog, we identified the role digital opinion influencers (DOIs) can play in advancing strategy in...
Everybody’s doing it—in 2005, only 5% of the US adult population used social media. By 2013, that number jumped to...