Not known for its digital savvy, pharma's struggling to recruit online KOLs

Doctor typing on laptop
Pharma companies need to work on building digital KOL networks that include digital docs and patient-side influencers.

Influencing the influencers is getting tougher these days, now that pharma opinion leaders aren't just the top doctors in their respective fields. Opinion leaders are as likely to be digital docs as patient-side social media mavens—and drugmakers are scrambling to keep up.

Gregg Fisher, founder and managing partner at digital engagement health consultancy The Stem, has been watching pharma wrestle with the challenges of building networks of new-style influencers. Specific struggles vary company to company—and digital sophistication, or lack of it, makes a big difference—but everyone is dealing with a changed market for key opinion leaders (KOLs), Fisher says.

That’s because building a KOL network no longer means tapping a few top physician specialists to speak at conferences and write articles for medical journals. Pharma companies now have to spend time and resources to locate and evaluate healthcare providers and patients who are influential in the digital world. Once they find them, pharma has to figure out how to engage, and then how to build lasting relationships.

“Engagement is the $64,000 question. Once we know who they are, how do we connect with them?” Fisher says. “Part of the problem is that taking the traditional approach—hosting a blogger summit or inviting them in for lunch one day—is flawed. The best way to engage is to understand what their interests are, what their goals are, and create an approach that will build a relationship over time.”

On the healthcare provider side, KOL physicians are just as likely to be tweeting on social media as speaking at an industry conference. And the power of digital megaphones is at work on the patient side, too, he said. Passionate advocates and patients have built large networks of followers and the exponential influence that go along with them.

It’s not necessarily a brand-new challenge for pharma, just more pressing in the ongoing push to patient-centric healthcare. “If you don’t know who they are, you miss out on a big opportunity to influence them,” he said.