Pharma Marketing Europe Virtual

Oct 13, 2020 - Oct 14, 2020, Digital Conference, Networking & Exhibition

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The age of the digital opinion leader

Key opinion leaders who evolve into the digital sphere to become digital opinion leaders will gain more reach and influence



The world of Key Opinion Leaders revolves around the medical congress, so it’s no surprise that this traditional authority on scientific progress faces redefinition in the COVID-19 world
 
A trend predating COVID-19, and now accelerated, is the rise of the Digital Opinion Leader (DOL), a new breed of influencer that has mastered the art of scientific communication in a digital world. 
 
DOLs are becoming active in all sorts of ways online. According to Sebastian Sorsaburu, VP of Global Medical Affairs at Amgen, three channels are emerging of particular importance: podcasting, videocasts (typically YouTube), and Twitter.  
 
Sorsaburu defines DOLs as “having established their presence in a platform with a signature style and cadence of posting regular updates. You can tell they are not just posting data [without curation], they’ve learned how to get the point across well, working with the medium. They make themselves an important part of a growing digital ecosystem." 
 
Twitter is considered the most influential channel, and it should be clearly stated that this shouldn’t be treated as an emerging trend, it’s already having real impact. , Twitter mentions drive citations of scientific knowledge within life sciences. 
 
A stand-out example of a DOL who has mastered the medium is - who is very active within Blood Cancer research - with a following of 23.9k, the broader community within this therapeutic area pay close attention to Dr. Rajkumar’s postings - whether he is sharing thoughts pre or post-congress, or an initial response to a recent paper publication.
 
Adapting to digital
DOLs such as Dr. Rajkumar are very much in the mold of a traditional KOL, but who have become savvy to digital mediums. We should expect to see more of them make this transition in the ‘new normal’, says Christopher Nugent, Associate Director, Digital Marketing & Strategy at Alkermes. “Some KOLs haven't fully embraced digital yet - but given current events, the writing is on the wall. They see they need to adapt, and become more of a DOL or fade away.”
 
“Some KOLs haven't really fully embraced digital yet - but now they see the times we are in. The writing is on the wall, and they see they need to adapt, and become more of a DOL.”
 
We are also seeing a new type of DOL emerge. Sorsaburu notes that in the past, only certain people could in fact be KOLs and have a voice in the scientific community. This person would need the podium presentations, the research pedigree and importantly the network, in order to be influential.  
 
A DOL today may not have become a true KOL by classic standards in the pre-digital era, but have become so by dint of their mastery of digital communication, says Sorsaburu. “Perhaps this DOL doesn't do a lot of research on their own [but] is still able to consume all the research being done out there and package it in a great way to be consumable by the general audiences. They are able to editorialize in a compelling way being true to the facts, credible.”
 
When it comes to engaging DOLs, the first challenge of course is discovery. With KOLs, in some senses, it’s easier to know where to look. For Sorsaburu however, discovering DOLs isn’t actually difficult. Once you start to engage, and signal your interests within a certain area, the algorithm does the hard work of discovery. Social networks have become so smart, that you just have to take some initial steps for the feeds to build organically and for the right DOL influencers to start showing up.
 
Within pharma - without engaging too heavily in self-flagellation - the reality check is that these basics are beyond more people than we would want to admit.
 
For Nugent, in order to be able to engage with DOLs and influence the conversation, it is important to invest internally and build digital capabilities in house. “We’ve invested in technology and we’ve also added headcount, to have that subject matter expertise in house. In addition to significant cost savings, versus outsourcing, importantly [moving capabilities in house] has enabled us to have a conversation. We’re able to engage and we can pivot [the conversation] on a dime - rather than waiting on an agency.” 
 
“Why, if we can do so in a compliant and ethical manner, can’t we also potentially engage to conduct research, or collect data? I could imagine engaging, and leveraging their platform to perhap to a survey, and then utilize that data in a congress presentation.”
 
Creating such capabilities and engendering an internal digital culture, so that teams focused on KOL engagement become comfortable with engaging DOLs might be considered baby steps for industry. There’s every reasons to expect this trend will develop further still.
 
Transforming collaboration and research
Sorsaburu is excited for the future, where he sees all kinds of forms of collaboration that go beyond a digital version of the classic KOL strategies, such as webinars, symposiums and presentations. “Why, if we can do so in a compliant and ethical manner, can’t we also potentially engage to conduct research, or collect data? “With the growing importance of RWE, I could imagine engaging and leveraging their platforms for data collection and analysis.” 
 
For Sorsaburu, the fundamental capabilities that come with digital - the speed, the ability to crowdsource and easily run analytics - all have radical potential to upend how we collaborate with KOLs to do research. 
 
But there are also potentially negative aspects to this new way of working to address too. As we continue to learn and experiment as an industry, a critical question that we can’t lose sight of is: how do we work to ensure that healthy network effects take place as opposed to harmful versions?
 
One of the standout recent stories of misinformation has been surrounding the controversial promotion of Hydroxychloroquine by individuals outside the scientific mainstream, which was picked up by non-scientist twitter aficionados and then snowballed. 
 
For Sorsaburu, there is also another related, and less obvious, problem - that of someone becoming an expert within a particular topic, and starting to comment and editorialize in other areas. In this example - it would be much harder, even for those within the medical community, to tell the difference. 
 
The core question is - while KOLs are themselves regulated by many forms of checks and balances, how to create similar protections for the emerging world of DOLs.
 
Retaining trust
In some sense how legislation and governance evolve in the online world is a challenge that all industries and indeed society at large face. 
 
It’s also potentially a strong argument as to why pharma needs a clearer voice online. We have seen throughout COVID-19, the critical role that pharma has played, through partners, in getting essential information out to patients about how their disease state may interact with the virus. Pharma has a big potential role to play as a trusted voice within health information. 
 
As digital continues to expand its reach and share of the conversation of medical information - we may increasingly see other platforms emerge alongside DOLs. 
 
“In the future, the presence of third-party providers of medical information will increase. It could enable cross-industry collaboration and by sharing all information in one place, we can in some ways be more effective than individually shouting through our own channels. The HCP is inundated with so much in-bound communication, that it is overwhelming. This perhaps offers another way.”
 
Chris Keenan, Senior Director and Head of Medical Customer Engagement at Bristol Myers Squibb points to the potential of PhactMI - a cross-industry portal that publishes medical information - as a promising model for trusted digital communication. 
 
“In the future, the presence of third-party providers of medical information will increase,” says Keenan. “It could enable cross-industry collaboration and by sharing all information in one place, we can in some ways be more effective than individually shouting through our own channels. The HCP is inundated with so much in-bound communication, that it is overwhelming. This perhaps offers another way.”
 
Regardless of how other platforms evolve, however, there will always be a demand for true expertise and in this sense the role of opinion leaders will not, or should not, change in a digital context, says Sorsaburu. "Science must follow methods of analysis, confront facts, be careful with editorialization, biases and preliminary conclusions. 
 
“What changes in the digital world is the ability to influence in different ways. The Digital OL, strictly speaking, must be someone with the credentials and the experience to comment. The ability to be an OL and Digital Influencer at the same time is what makes a true DOL."
 
 

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Pharma Marketing Europe Virtual

Oct 13, 2020 - Oct 14, 2020, Digital Conference, Networking & Exhibition

This is the benchmarking event in Europe for trailblazers in commercial strategy. Compare your own efforts against the best in the industry and discover how you can reach new levels of customer engagement.