Influencer ecosystems are continually evolving in response to changing consumer preferences and the pharmaceutical sector is no exception. On one hand, patients and their doctors are looking beyond traditional Key Opinion Leaders (KOLs) for guidance on therapies and treatments and want to hear from alternative sources, such as Patient Opinion Leaders (POLs), whose feedback resonates on both personal and real-world evidence level. On the other hand, as a growing number of people seek information online, they discover a parallel universe of Digital Opinion Leaders (DOLs), who tend to have a large followership and are more approachable. We wrote about this expanding universe of Opinion Leaders (OLs) in a previous blog.

Despite these shifts, many pharma companies cling to the idea that KOLs represent the best, safest, most authentic marketing partners. Yet as audiences are increasingly more diverse, better informed, and often skeptical of authority figures who speak only to their “filter bubble” of similarly credentialed physicians, KOLs are really just one of several types of sources healthcare professionals look to for advice and information.

Not only that, but the term “KOL” itself has begun to lose its luster. As far back as 2015, 62% of medical professionals and 56% of pharmaceutical executives believed that it should be replaced, according to a survey of nearly 400 respondents from both Europe and the U.S. On the physician side, many respondents felt that it is often used too loosely or attached to people who do not warrant that title or the trustworthiness implied by it. On the pharma side, many others signaled that their companies were phasing out use of the term because of its unflattering connotations and it being seen as “marketing speak.” It is reasonable to assume that in the five years since that survey was conducted, the “KOL” terminology has hardly gained back much support.

In the context of this less-than-enthusiastic adoption of the “KOL” concept, it is obvious why alternatives such as DOLs and POLs have been gaining currency. But what makes the most novel among them – Connected Opinion Leaders (COLs) – stand apart from the rest and what is their value to pharma companies?

Although COLs´ profiles seem similar to others, their unique feature is that they bring together the best of the KOL, DOL, and POL worlds. They are not only digitally savvy, relatable, and with an active presence across multiple content channels, but are also sought-after experts, published authors, and conference speakers. And it is precisely their panoramic view of the industry from both a professional and a communications perspective make them a strategic partner to pharma marketers who want to deliver sleek messaging to an engaged professional network.

To build a relationship with COLs, the industry must expand the prism through which it searches for them. Instead of relying only on traditional metrics, such as impact factor of journals they publish in or conferences they present at, it should seek to glean insights on factors such as who else is in their networks or what publicly communicated research projects they participate in. Pharma marketers should then triage those traditional metrics with social stats such as the frequency of their online activity, number of followers, geographic reach, likes, and reposts/retweets, to name a few. Once identified, to then engage them in a sustainable, authentic partnership, pharma marketers should consider offering them membership on advisory boards, consultancies, or content creation on blogs or proprietary websites, where their expertise, communication and social skills can truly shine. At PeakData, our software platform HealthScape™ can help your company develop an effective strategy for identifying COLs with the highest potential and relevancy for your business. For example, our algorithms and comparison tools let you sift through data on healthcare professionals labeled according to multiple features, select the ones that meet your essential criteria in terms of therapeutic area or publications, and then triage the results against relevant social metrics to understand each person´s reach and digital footprint. Give us a chance to show you a new, smarter way of choosing who you entrust with your marketing message – we are sure our solution will surprise, inspire, and delight you.