Tracking Relationships: Understanding KPIs That Measure KOL Engagement

Key opinion leaders (KOLs) drive sentiments and behavior throughout the medical community. Medical science liaisons (MSLs) can help KOLs share information and provide high-quality data to better inform them.

Tracking KOL relationship-building can be difficult. Many of these connections are based on MSLs’ feelings about the value of a conversation, article, or conference. These feelings may be well-founded through years of experience in medical affairs but can seem challenging to quantify via key performance indicators (KPIs).

However with the right digital tools and approach, medical affairs teams can track KOL relationships and engagement with effective KPIs.

Are Your KOL Relationships Thriving?

Relationships that don’t provide mutual support tend to wither. This pattern persists regardless of the type of relationship, and it includes connections between medical affairs teams and key opinion leaders.

These relationships provide the information and context medical science liaisons need to do their jobs well. “The most successful MSLs are excellent storytellers who can present scientific evidence in a way that tells a story about a new product centered on the patient while also nurturing the physician relationship at the same time,” says Jennifer Vernazza, director of global medical operations at Apellis Pharmaceuticals. The right KPIs for tracking key opinion leader engagement can help MSLs tell these stories.

Robust relationships with key opinion leaders also impact MA teams’ relationships with physicians. A Bain & Company survey of non-surgery-focused physicians found that over the last three years physicians’ reliance on sales reps, pharmacists, and colleagues for information dropped. Instead, these physicians are turning to academic journals, manufacturers’ publications, continuing medical education, and key opinion leaders for information, write Loic Plantevin, Christoph Schlegel, and Maria Gordian at Bain & Co.

The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the switch to digital participation and information sharing for KOLs. It also accelerated the switch to digital relationship building for MSLs.

In a Journal of the Medical Science Liaison Society article, Albert Chavero and fellow researchers surveyed MSLs about their digital activities during the pandemic. The researchers found that MSLs reported several challenges in building KOL relationships through digital channels:

  • Just over 40 percent of the surveyed MSLs said their top challenge was getting KOLs to respond via email.
  • About 26 percent struggled with getting KOLs to engage in virtual spaces.
  • Twenty-one percent said their biggest difficulty was finding ways to add value in virtual spaces, like online meetings.

These challenges provide opportunities to track progress via key performance indicators. They also offer opportunities to gather information about KOL relationships and improve the exchange of information.


KPIs for Tracking KOL Engagement

Key performance indicators standardize and quantify information, helping MSLs track and compare data. To choose the right KPIs, medical affairs teams must consider their own needs and the behaviors of key opinion leaders in professional and academic contexts.

Developing KPIs

The first step in developing KPIs for any topic is to “define what success looks like,” writes Luca Dezzani, vice president of U.S. oncology medical affairs at Johnson & Johnson. What is the overarching vision of the organization, and what objectives will help MA teams stay in tune with that vision?

When it comes to KOL relationships, defining success may look like:

  • Developing and maintaining connections with top KOLs.
  • Sharing information readily with key opinion leaders.
  • Integrating the work of key opinion leaders into conversations with other participants, such as physicians and patients.

By setting these goals, MA teams can more easily identify metrics that will help them track progress. For example, KPIs may further define “top” KOLs or set goals for the number or quality of connections made with an opinion leader in a given time frame.

Updating KPIs for Today

Many medical affairs teams use publications as a way to track KOL engagement. The metrics traditionally used for this purpose, however, don’t always provide a clear picture, write Joseph B. Laudano, Gail Dutton, and David Kelaher in The MSL.

For example, journal impact factors (JIFs) are calculated differently by different sources, such as Eigenfactor and SciMago Journal Rank. Consequently, comparing JIFs across sources can be difficult. Evaluating the meaning of a particular journal impact factor metric becomes challenging without access to the factors on which the metric is based.

Ultimately, relying on journal- or publication-based metrics to track KOL engagement falls short. In a digital world, many KOLs engage through social media and other channels outside traditional academic or research publishing. Tools that track this engagement can help MA teams gain a clearer understanding of an opinion leader’s involvement in relevant topics, write Laudano, Dutton, and Kelaher.

Taking a 360-Degree View of KPIs

Tracking information about key opinion leaders and MA teams’ engagement with them is a valuable and necessary first step. Yet MA teams don’t realize value simply from having conversations or building networks. Rather, medical affairs teams achieve value when their relationships with key opinion leaders lead to measurable outcomes.

KPIs that relate to measurable outcomes in KOL relationship building include:

  • How trustworthy KOLs find your organization’s data.
  • The reach and impact of communicated insights.
  • How KOLs put your data and insights to work in scientific contexts.

Using digital tools to analyze these metrics can help. When artificial intelligence is used in a human-centered way, it can explore qualitative information and generate insights, write Alexander Bedenkov and fellow researchers in a 2021 article in Pharmaceutical Medicine.


Tools for Tracking KOL Engagement

Reliance on KOLs and on MSL efforts is increasing. Yet identifying KPIs to track the effectiveness of this work remains a challenge. The quality or impactfulness of a particular key opinion leader remains, for many MSLs, a hunch or feeling, write Erik Brown and fellow authors at West Monroe.

“If you believe that a conference is valuable or a particular KOL is adding considerable value, how do you prove that?” write Brown, et al. Tracking KOL engagement requires MSLs to identify effective metrics and KPIs, gather high-quality data, and employ effective analysis tools.

Equipping MA teams with the right tools to track KOL engagement can have positive effects that reverberate throughout the company, write Glenn Carroll and fellow authors at Deloitte. For example, MA teams with robust digital tools can:

  • Coordinate activities within the organization that rely on knowledge of key opinion leaders and their connections.
  • Tell better stories with medical and scientific information to engage customers.
  • Streamline the work of understanding various customer audiences, such as patients and physicians.

Brown and the West Monroe authors recommend using artificial intelligence to bolster KPI development and data analysis, particularly on questions that seem difficult to quantify. AI can be used to track the impact of a KOL or conference, for instance, by identifying patterns that extend beyond a key opinion leader’s particular publication or participation in an event.

Choosing the right KPIs isn’t always easy, especially when the goal is to measure relationships and clout. Using comprehensive digital tools and artificial intelligence can help medical affairs teams find ways to quantify their sense of effectiveness or impact when it comes to individual KOLs. Data-driven decision making can also help MSLs build stronger KOL relationships and share better scientific insights.

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