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Key opinion leaders (KOLs) play a central role in creating brand value for a pharmaceutical company. They are not only the face of the brand for the outside world but also an irreplaceable resource within the company, bringing new insights and overall enhancement throughout the drug development process.
So, who are the KOLs?
When a company begins marketing a drug, it looks at new strategies for ensuring that their public message is powerful, that they receive positive coverage in the news, and that they can truly make an impact in the right target group. KOLs are major players in these strategies.
Examples of those who might be considered KOLs include featured speakers at conferences, principal investigators for clinical trials, healthcare practitioners, thought leaders, and digital opinion leaders. With specific knowledge and experience, they are the ones who can influence patients, physicians, and practitioners across the globe to help in developing and marketing a drug. They use various channels, such as medical congresses, forums, clinical outcomes, abstracts, social gatherings, presentations, and even social media channels to disseminate the right information at the right time.
Why is there a need for pharma to engage KOLs?
Engagement with KOLs is essential for various reasons that depend on the stage of drug development. Below are a few examples.
- Before clinical trials are initiated, there can be many reasons to engage KOLs, including:
- To understand the unmet needs with current products and assess KOLs’ perceptions of products already in clinical trials
- To find out which endpoints KOLs would consider meaningful in diseases where there aren’t standard sets of endpoints (e.g., oncology) and to receive inputs on potentially new endpoints companies are investigating (e.g. patient-reported outcomes)
- To identify physicians/sites interested and able to conduct clinical trials
- Once clinical trials are underway (phase 1 and/or phase 2), pharma companies will continue engaging KOLs:
- To identify new sites for subsequent trials
- To receive feedback on interim and final clinical trial results to determine whether modification of trials for pivotal phase is required
- During the course of the pivotal trial (phase 2 or 3), they may engage broader sets of KOLs:
- To raise awareness among the medical community of the upcoming launch of the company’s product
- To help develop messages that may resonate with patients so that the pharma company can more effectively market to patients in the US
- To understand what the digital opinion leaders are saying to help inform the positioning of the product so as to attempt to shape the physician-patient conversation
- Following the launch of a product, a company will engage KOLs:
- To help monitor product performance
- To discover what other uses KOLs are considering for the product
- To get KOLs’ perceptions of competitors in the pipeline
Top vs emerging KOLs
Pharma companies can choose to leverage different types of KOLs according to their needs. For example, connections with top KOLs can yield benefits at a global level. However, for drugs that are focused on a certain geography, an emerging KOL may be more beneficial.
Top KOLs are globally recognized thought leaders, top speakers and scientific leaders who usually hold high positions with health institutes or pharma research centers. They contribute to publications, treatment guidelines, protocols, and so forth, and influence evaluation for organizations such as the FDA, HTAs, and EMA. Most play a pivotal role in trials as the principal investigator. On the other hand, emerging KOLs are nationally recognized leaders who have good connections with top KOLs. They actively participate in global and national health centers and conferences. They leverage their mid-career positions to be speakers at renowned congresses or principal investigators in clinical trials.
How can KOL connections help a pharma company?
These leaders can help disseminate a company’s scientific narrative and get the brand recognized nationally and globally. They help ensure that the company, the intervention, and the indication are part of the conversation, to create interest, enthusiasm, and curiosity about new solutions prior to a drug launch. Connecting with subject-matter experts and KOLs who have expertise in the same therapeutic area allows companies to broaden their horizons and reach out to the right set of target groups, including patients, hospitals, investigators, and researchers.
To successfully build and expand connections, it is important to consider the answers to questions such as: Which therapeutic area experts support the mechanism of action and clinical concept? Which communication channel is used by the KOL to disseminate public messages? Which medical and digital leaders influence therapeutic offerings? Which emerging KOL has the most potential? and Who can help create a competitive communication mix and share of voice? Generating insights via the answers to these questions leads to investing in the right set of people.
Different stages of the drug development process may require engagement with a different kind of KOL. To overcome the challenge of finding different types of KOLs for various purposes, a complete overview of the best and emerging KOLs in real time is required to analyze the pool of candidates across the landscape.
Leveraging AI for KOL discovery
Artificial intelligence uses social network analysis to enable access to untapped key opinion leaders and their connections. By customizing metrics such as therapeutic area, geography, and indication subtype, one can identify KOLs involved in clinical trials, digital information dissemination, or relevant medical conferences. AI enables interactive visualization that allows discovery of connections between top and emerging KOLs, thus helping pharmaceutical companies expand their network. It provides automation of work that is often time-consuming, such as listing therapeutic area experts to engage with, finding top speakers for hot topics at conferences, establishing connections with key opinion leaders for new channels and forums, finding out which KOLs are renowned for a specific therapeutic area and treatment concept, and connecting with thought leaders and researchers of interest.
AI brings a new standard to KOL discovery: it not only automates the process it also enables high customizability and scoring to support multiple needs. Real-time analysis ensures engagement of relevant leaders, public speakers, and pharma industry experts, and enables opportunities to influence stakeholders.