Today, medical plans routinely incorporate a digital strategy, and the terms “omnichannel” or “content creation” are on the lips of most Medical Directors you meet. Medical Affairs is increasingly driving digital strategy, and interest in Digital Opinion Leaders is growing. Chances are, as a Medical Affairs professional, you are keen to engage these influencers of the medical world to gather insights and fulfill your medical objectives.
Who are Digital Opinion Leaders?
Digital Opinion Leaders, or DOLs, are highly influential individuals or groups in online communities who are trusted for their advice, opinions, and information. They communicate extensively through social media and are perceived as credible thought leaders. DOLs gain digital respect irrespective of their offline reputation. A DOL’s impact comes from its ability to increase message visibility (reach), generate audience engagement (resonance), and address critical issues for its audience (relevance).
Where do DOLs come from?
DOLs have various profiles, either as individuals or organizations active on social media
- Digital KOLs (DKOLs) – Traditional KOLs.
- Healthcare Professionals (HCPs) – Clinicians, nurses, and scientists exchange opinions on therapies, patient care, and conference presentations.
- Patients and Caregivers – Individuals active on social media.
- Social Opinion Leaders (SOLs) – Digital influencers for health communication can include journalists, authors, and healthcare bloggers who cater to the public and patients.
- Patient Advocacy Groups (PAGs) – Online patient associations and advocacy groups.
- Publishers – Online academic journals and publishers disseminating medical data.
Why do DOLs matter?
Digitalization has changed how healthcare stakeholders interact. HCPs, patients, and others are now active in the digital space, creating a new engagement environment focused on conversation, education, and community development. The rules and players for digital opinion leadership are different from traditional models, relying on social media trends and audience engagement in addition to scientific knowledge. DOLs are experts in new content formats and drive the adoption of innovative technologies. To engage with DOLs, we must update our content strategy to connect with new communication forms and reach a wider audience. DOLs have an increasing influence on Social Media Platforms (SMPs), where they cater to the needs of their audience, aiming to expand their reach and gain respect in the social media community. They achieve this by adding value to their followers, offering interaction, education, and up-to-date information.
DOLs are a larger group than KOLs and have some overlap with the category of “Digital KOLs” (DKOLs) but exert their influence differently from traditional KOLs.
|Source of influence
|Their professional background (knowledge and expertise)
|Their professional background supports their social media presence, credibility is reflected in their content, and audience engagement confirms this
|Medical authoritative figures (individuals), limited online presence, smaller audience (similarly qualified HCPs)
|Not necessarily medical authoritative individuals, solid online presence, and wider audience
|Predominantly research papers and clinical studies that can take weeks to produce
|More varied (posts, articles, tweets, videos, podcasts etc.) and can be produced quite quickly
Why do DOLs engage in social media?
DOLs aim to expand their reach and boost their reputation on social media platforms by meeting the diverse demands of their audiences. They achieve this by engaging with their followers, obtaining knowledge, and staying current offering relevant content.
They drive interaction by:
- Connecting with HCPs, patients, and everyone.
- Asking the community for advice.
- Driving debate and discussion (e.g., challenging common practices among HCPs).
- Sharing personal experiences and hearing patient success stories.
- HCPs: Improve clinical practice by learning from peers and accessing educative content like patient cases, pedagogical videos, online conferences, and webinars.
Patients and lay public: Increase awareness and education on a disease.
Everyone: Mutually learn from other stakeholders (HCPs can learn from patients’ experiences and vice-versa).
Are on the cutting edge of the science:
- Provide the latest news and insights using recent data on clinical trials and studies, drug approvals, guidelines, and medical articles.
- Discover results presented during congresses and conferences.
- Find and share new information on hot topics, such as testimonials and tips on specific questions.
Where do DOLs play?
DOLs usually use Social Media Platforms (SMPs) that can either be open, closed, or hybrid open-closed, as follows:
- Open SMPs are networks/apps where users share content accessible to everyone. Examples are Twitter, Reddit, YouTube, Snapchat, Instagram, and TikTok.
- Closed SMPs are networks or apps where the content users share is only accessible to a limited audience, hidden from public view. Examples are WhatsApp, Messenger, Viber, Signal, WeChat, Line, and Skype.
- Hybrid open-closed SMPs are networks with both “open” and “closed” settings; content can be shared publicly or within a closed group/page/community like Facebook or LinkedIn.
How do you plan engagement with DOLs?
Developing engagement strategies with Digital Opinion Leaders (DOLs) is a crucial component of rethinking your organization’s engagement with external stakeholders in the digital realm. A solid DOL engagement plan should include three main factors:
- Determine the medical context: What digital channels can your organization access? Do they align with the social media used by the DOL? How do your HCPs and patients prefer to engage?
- Define your DOL engagement objectives: What do you want to achieve, what reach are you hoping for, by when, and how?
- Identify, profile, and prioritize the DOLs: Select DOLs whose interests align with your strategic ambitions, are aligned with your organization’s ethics and address these objectives (DOL Mapping). Qualitatively assess the selected DOL to enrich your understanding and prepare the ground for a win-win engagement strategy (DOL Profiling).
- Address compliance and governance rules at the start, including good practices for DOL engagement.
- Determine the engagement tactic your organization can practically use when engaging the DOL. Activities like Tweets, LinkedIn, Facebook or Instagram posts, blog articles, infographics, webinars, podcasts, and more are tactics you can implement.
Close the loop:
- Measure and evaluate activities done with the DOL relative to your medical objectives.
- Broadcast the insights you have gained to your aligned internal stakeholders.
- Improve your engagement plan by adjusting the DOL engagement tactics.
Effective DOL engagement begins with a shared value proposition linking your organization’s objectives to theirs, with both parties aiming to improve patient outcomes. Focus your DOL engagement on building long-term, fruitful relationships rather than short-term transactional interactions. To achieve this, consider a DOL as a partner rather than a service provider. It is essential to build a trustworthy relationship. Always ensure two-way communication with DOLs by stating your objectives and vision clearly and transparently, while listening to their needs and grasping the driving force behind their influence. This allows you to identify relevant areas of collaboration and mutual benefits to ensure successful engagement. Before any first contact with a DOL, understand their past and present relationship with your organization and competitors and thoroughly assess their reputation. Finally, although we focus on the digital sphere and social media ecosystem, build a good relationship with DOL on and offline.
Amit is a strategic, engaging, and energetic Medical Affairs professional with a strong entrepreneurship mindset. He has significant Medical Affairs digital experience inside and outside the pharmaceutical industry across a broad range of projects, including big data analysis, project management, business planning, digital coaching, and onboarding. He has been in multiple roles in the pharmaceutical industry for over three years. Before that, he has 10+ years of experience in the medical and clinical research industries across different therapeutic areas, managing bench side to bedside projects. He is the developer and founder of the 3P – Pharmaceutical Pipeline Products app (iOS and Android) that provides curated and up-to-date information on pipeline products. Lastly, he is the digital lead and an executive committee member of MAPA (Medical Affairs Professionals of Australasia) since 2021. The views expressed in this article are Amit’s own and are not representative of the organizations he has worked for.
Based in Australia, with 25+ years of experience in the pharmaceutical industry, including nine years in Medical Affairs, Jodi is currently at Pfizer as Senior Manager Field Medical Excellence, developing medical capability, field medical strategy, and managing a team of Medical Scientific Liaisons. Jodi is the medical excellence lead and an executive committee member of MAPA (Medical Affairs Professionals of Australasia). Prior to Pfizer, she worked alongside learning experts at New York-based Salience Learning, developing programs and capability assessments for global Medical Affairs teams based on cognitive behavioral science. At Allergan, as Director of Global Medical Excellence for Asia Pacific, Middle East, and Africa, she created capability frameworks and onboarded and trained Medical Affairs teams. At Allergan, Jodi was a Medical Science Liaison, Medical Advisor, and Regional Scientific Expert for Eye Care. Before working in Medical Affairs, Jodi gained extensive commercial pharmaceutical experience in roles ranging from Bayer Biological Products Business Manager ANZ, National and Regional Sales Manager at Bristol Myers Squibb and Allergan, and as a Hospital Specialist Representative at Shire, Bristol Myers Squibb, Bayer, and Knoll. Clinically, Jodi worked as a Registered Nurse. As a lifelong learner, Jodi completed an MBA in 2022, Graduate Certificate in Leadership and Strategy, and a Graduate Diploma in Management in 2021. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and are not meant to represent the views or positions of the author’s employer or any organization the author is associated with.