The Rise of the Digital Opinion Leader in Post-COVID Medical Affairs

For the better part of a decade, key opinion leaders (KOLs) have been the primary source of influence in medical affairs. These opinion leaders are frequently published, highly sought after in their field and able to persuade others.

Along with KOLs, the internet has given rise to a new breed of healthcare influencers: digital opinion leaders (DOLs). These experts might be similar to key opinion leaders — and there is certainly overlap between the two — but digital opinion leaders have their own audiences, goals and criteria.

DOLs started getting noticed during the pandemic, but these thought leaders are here to stay. Here’s how they can impact your medical affairs strategy.

Pivoting to Digital in Medical Affairs

The COVID-19 pandemic created an exponential rise in virtual communication. Medical affairs teams and healthcare providers both immediately moved to digital conferencing, Zoom discussions and social media engagement when the pandemic shut down opportunities to communicate in person. While many organizations wanted to invest in digital before the pandemic, the mass global disruption brought these digital plans to the forefront.

“In today’s market, we are seeing brands with a renewed focus on delivering opinion leader messaging through omnichannel campaigns,” writes EVP, Chief Growth Officer, at BioPharm Communications Clay Romweber. Even as pandemic restrictions lift, many companies are continuing to prioritize digital communication.

The pandemic brought influence into the digital realm, proving that social media engagement and virtual content creation are no longer optional for KOLs. As a result, many opinion leaders are working to transition to this method of mass communication.

“Some KOLs haven't fully embraced digital yet - but given current events, the writing is on the wall,” says Christopher Nugent, senior director of digital marketing and strategy at Kiniksa Pharmaceuticals. “They see they need to adapt, and become more of a DOL or fade away.”

This transition isn’t always easy. Key opinion leaders aren’t the same as traditional B2C or B2B influencers. They need to use their platforms to highlight their expertise before they can discuss different treatments or potential solutions to healthcare problems. DOLs should not be motivated by self-promotion and need to be championing new science and educating peers.

As a result, it can be hard for a key opinion leader to effectively transition online — and even harder for medical affairs teams to identify digital opinion leaders they want to work with.

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Identifying Quality Digital Opinion Leaders (DOLs)

As your medical affairs team connects with DOLs, you will need to develop criteria for identifying quality connections. This means evaluating both digital opinion leaders and KOLs who are looking to expand their digital presence.

“Is there some crossover between the traditional KOL and the DOL?” asks Gregory Imber, chief engagement officer at Healthcare Consultancy Group. “Of course. But that shouldn’t distract from the fact that a DOL is a substantively different species than a traditional KOL. DOLs have a different reach, use different channels, and speak in very different voices.”

The first step is to set goals for how you will evaluate digital opinion leaders online. Victor Sastre, head of MSL bone and inflammation at biotechnology company Amgen, says you can measure the impact of DOLs in three ways:

  • Influence: the number of their followers.
  • Resonance: the frequency with which their content is shared.
  • Relevance: the relevancy of their content with your current objectives.

Someone with a large following might not be relevant. Similarly, someone with a high level of relevance might not post content that gets shared. A quality DOL should have an audience at least 25 percent comprised of healthcare providers and their other followers should generally be members of the healthcare and/or health sciences industry.

By creating these internal evaluation criteria, you can find digital opinion leaders that you are eager to engage with.

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How KOLs and DOLs Differ

As you start to research DOLs and KOLs who are moving to digital, you will start to understand how these two parties differ. One type of opinion leader isn’t necessarily better than the other and you may find that you work with different groups to meet various medical affairs goals.

First, digital opinion leaders build their audiences digitally, rather than their personal relationships formed at conferences and industry meet-ups.

“The use of KOLs for conferences and articles is restricted only to a limited audience, but the reach of a DOL is much wider,” write Pavitra Ramkumar and Vishal Rana at Digikiq, a digital marketing company. “As of now, there is probably only a 10% overlap in the KOL list and the DOLs online, because they typically operate in different universes and have different audiences. The key is to find that crucial KOL who has both an online and offline presence.”

Next, digital opinion leaders are used to the digital space. They feel comfortable navigating different online formats and adjusting their content accordingly.

“DOLs digest and share information differently to KOLs, so when you’re engaging with them make sure you’re speaking their digital language,” writes the team at marketing and insights consultancy Rare: Group. “By this we mean, changing up how you present your material to them, e.g. think about pre-recorded video content, carousels or short snippets that they can share over a duration of time.”

Finally, digital opinion leaders are more likely to challenge existing ideas and discuss new theories their audiences are asking about. They are part of their communities, rather than authority figures.

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DOLs are Breaking Down Barriers

As you develop a strategy to work with digital opinion leaders within your medical affairs team, you may need to prepare your leaders for this somewhat newer batch of healthcare influencers.

“DOLs emerge from robust online communities presenting opportunities that didn’t exist before social media,” says Trina Stonner, president of medical communications agency Avant Healthcare. “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.”

As a result, DOLs might be more blunt than your team is used to. They will speak directly to followers in a conversational vernacular. They might even post content that you disagree with from time to time.

Additionally, digital opinion leaders aren’t willing to wait to build up their seniority. They want to start sharing their knowledge immediately and connecting with others who want to have meaningful discussions online.

For medical affairs teams, this shift to digital opinion leader engagement might challenge you to rethink how you evaluate the value of different thought leaders online. A relatively inexperienced medical professional might provide valuable insights and have an engaged online following. This could make them more sought after than a KOL still navigating online engagement and social channels.

Plenty of key opinion leaders have digital presences. They have made the transition easily and continue to share their ideas and experience. That said, some digital opinion leaders might not fit your traditional KOL mold. They might sound different than you are used to and have unique ways of communicating.

You don’t have to give up your key opinion leader medical affairs strategy to engage with digital opinion leaders but it helps to understand the differences between KOLs and DOLs so you can engage with both and grow your online footprint.

Images by: dragonimages/©123RF.com, agenturfotografin/©123RF.com, Chase Chappell, Jodie Cook

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