DOLs (digital opinion leaders) are a relatively new but very powerful component in the marketing mix for pharma. Their elevated status into the realms of influence has gone almost unnoticed, yet their reach is vast and their voiced opinions, thoughts, advice or suggestions have the power to change lives.
Who are digital opinion leaders?
Most DOLs didn’t start out with the intention of becoming so. They find their platforms in online communities, and by becoming active in both thought and deed they gradually build a dedicated following.
The strength of their influence stems from three related aspects of their activities:
- the relevance of their content to their audience and their overarching objective.
- how many people follow them (also referred to their ‘reach’ within a community).
- how often their content is shared.
DOLs can come from any walk of life, not just from a professional background. While they may be health care providers or physicians, they can also be patients or caregivers, or researchers.
On the professional side, DOLs may include clinicians who share information from medical conferences, discuss patient or disease management, or share opinions on current and emerging therapies. On the academic side, researchers share knowledge on the latest studies or trials, and discuss their understanding of disease.
DOLs are also health bloggers with large numbers of followers, or they may be e-patients taking an engaged and active approach to their own personal health care as well as advising and encouraging others on a similar path.
Where are DOLs found?
DOLs, despite their number and reach, can be an elusive group to track down. They don’t depend on any one medium or platform, but rather adopt whichever form of online activity best suits their personal style.
Twitter is a popular medium for those with professional backgrounds, and are often found discussing events at major medical conferences. Similarly, they’re also present within closed HCP platforms where the discussion is mainly peer to peer.
Those from a patient background are even further spread out, often finding influence on unlikely medical channels such as Instagram.
The value of DOLs
Underestimated and largely passed over, digital opinion leaders can offer multiple solutions to life sciences programmes. These include but are not limited to:
- clinical trial recruitment.
- helping shape education and support programmes.
- giving marketing feedback.
- mentoring services in patient support programmes or groups.
- promoting disease awareness.
- promoting health awareness.
- as motivational coaches.
- creators of patient support materials.
By involving DOLs when creating programmes, and keeping them informed and updated on developments and opportunities, pharma and life sciences can vastly extend their reach across social media.
A missed opportunity?
KOL identification and engagement has long been seen as the best way forward in business strategy. Pharma relies on key opinion leaders’ input for research, speaking and journal publishing. They take part in patient support groups and associations, forming partnerships for the benefit of both business and patient.
And while such associations are expected and encouraged, the industry often fails to recognise the equally powerful influence of digital opinion leaders. It’s like leaving a vital piece of the business jigsaw puzzle in the box. Online communities have tremendous power, but within them the traditional KOL is rarely seen. In fact, it’s estimated that around 80% of KOLs have no (or little) social media presence. These two types of opinion leader occupy very different areas of influence.
What’s needed is a sustained effort to identify and engage with DOLs, so each needs a different approach when building relationships. Too often, DOLs are only brought into the development or marketing mix on a sporadic basis, such as following blogger summits. What’s needed instead is a method of profiling DOLs that’s repeatable and designed to forge ongoing relationships. This often means rethinking roles and guidelines.
Given the popularity of online communities (and online patient communities in particular), and the evidence of their effectiveness in patient outcomes, cultivating relationships with digital opinion leaders should take centre stage in business strategies. They may not take the place of the traditional key opinion leader, but they certainly play a complementary role and amplify a company’s reach immeasurably.