Since healthcare marketing began, opinion leaders have been the go-to authorities healthcare marketers seek to spread awareness and even expert advice on new therapies and disease state research. Today, there are two types of opinion leaders: key opinion leaders (KOLs) and digital opinion leaders (DOLs). While KOLs can be DOLs, and vice versa, they currently each serve a unique role. We believe that is starting to evolve as a larger portion of our peer-to-peer marketing and medical activities are moving to digital platforms. Understanding this is fundamental to identifying the optimal opinion leaders you need to communicate your brand and therapeutic disease state data and experience with credibility, authenticity, and authority.
Key Opinion Leaders (KOLs)
KOLs are our traditional, most easily recognized experts. Most often health care professionals KOLs typically hold prestigious positions at nationally and internationally recognized universities and centers of excellence, have produced a significant volume of peer-reviewed research, and occupy leadership positions in societies and associations within their specialty. They have a vast sphere of influence, speaking at conferences and association meetings, serving on advisory boards for major life science companies, and receiving referrals from other physicians to treat patients across geographical and hospital system boundaries1. In the traditional model of peer-to-peer marketing—a strategic mix of ad boards and speaker programs, supported by a robust sales force—KOLs have been indispensable to the success of many brands. But as this model changes and much of our peer-to-peer marketing activities move to digital platforms, a new type of opinion leader has emerged.
Digital Opinion Leaders (DOLs)
As we’ve outlined in several blog articles, and a podcast, DOLs come in all shapes, sizes, and specialties. They can be physicians, physician’s assistants, nurses, nurse practitioners, pharmacists, dieticians, and physical therapists, among other HCP types. While they can be as well-known as traditional KOLs, they don’t necessarily have to be. What makes a DOL a DOL is a deep drive to connect with other HCPs to share information, knowledge, and perspectives on the newest data, and treatment practices, all while knowing how to do this best on social platforms. This general expertise combined with digital presence means they have tangible influence in the discussions taking place among various medical communities online.
But Are They Really All That Different?
At a recent panel discussion on social media engagement, one of our DOLs told us that “Twitter has become the public home of the academic discourse within the medical community.” I thought this was interesting for several reasons, the foremost being that the DOL who gave us that quote is also a KOL, a highly accomplished physician at one of the top medical centers in the United States. A highly visible, digitally savvy KOL giving such a declaration of the influence and importance of Twitter for the medical community is indicative of a few things. For one, social media is not merely a passing fad among doctors but is in fact growing in use among the medical community. This is especially true of the public platforms. While Doximity, SERMO, Figure1, and other closed platforms are certainly useful, the public platforms are still preeminent. For another, it may very well be the case that healthcare marketers are overlooking KOLs who have a respectable online presence.
In my agency’s experience, many pharma companies are still hesitant to fully invest in DOL engagement and identification strategy. But even of that small but growing portion of pharma companies who do recognize the tremendous value of peer-to-peer marketing via DOLs on social platforms, many of them overlook the KOLs with which they’re already working. They don’t realize that some of their KOLs are already very active on social media and could also be categorized as DOLs. After all, in less than 5 years, 75% of the workforce will be digital natives: Millennials who have not only grown up with social media but brought it into their professional lives2. I predict that in the coming years the difference between KOLs and DOLs will continue to diminish. Not only because our traditional modes of engagement will continue to change—less in-person speaker programs and more asynchronous informational videos, for example—but because traditional KOLs will continue to grow more tech-savvy as years pass. Capitalizing on these new opinion leaders and new channels presents perhaps the greatest opportunity facing pharma today. Now, it is not if you should include DOLs in your marketing and medical strategies, but how do you do it?