digital opinion leaders

Identifying Digital Opinion Leaders (DOLs) in Pharma Marketing

Key opinion leaders (KOLs) have a long history with pharmaceutical companies who rely on them for their leadership and contributions to innovative thought.

However, more and more healthcare providers (HCPs), stakeholders, and other professionals are turning to digital channels as their first line in accessing information. This trend has inspired a rise in involving digital opinion leaders, or DOLs, in pharma marketing plans. For healthcare companies, this creates a new opportunity to gain insight into digital branding and communications.

Who Are Digital Opinion Leaders?
DOLs in pharma marketing are important in the social media sphere. They are the individuals the online healthcare community turns to for opinions and the latest information on medical advances and trends. Whereas a KOL’s value can be measured by the number and quality of articles written, or on their speaking engagements at conferences, DOLs have a more “outsized” reach, possible through social media. They attract followers and fans, often in the millions. DOLs who are valuable to pharma companies post relevant and resonant content frequently, and have numerous followers.

While KOLs may be DOLs, the latter are defined by their social media presence and their role in creating or amplifying a specific marketing message. They may be medical professionals, nonprofessional healthcare workers, researchers, or academic professionals. In the medical world, DOLs use social media as a platform for building their reputations. In contrast, the reputation of KOLs depends on their publication or speaking experience. DOLs are known for dispensing opinions on current therapies, discussing disease models and research findings, or sharing information gathered at medical conferences.

What Platforms Do DOLs Prefer?
Most professional DOLs in pharma marketing prefer Twitter as their social media channel, particularly when the content is centered around a major medical conference. That said, many DOLs are active on closed HCP platforms because these facilitate deeper, peer-to-peer interaction. While patient DOLs and health bloggers also boast a large group of followers, they may use a greater variety of channels, including Facebook and Instagram. But for the purpose of this post, we will focus on how to engage with DOLs in pharma marketing specifically.

How Are DOLs Identified?
The first approach to identifying relevant DOLs is to take steps to understand the online community. Segment the topics that are of specific interest and that relate to your marketing message. Then identify those posters who possess the greatest resonance—or quality and consistency of content—and have the most significant and applicable follower reach. Create profiles that include your DOLs’ preferred channels, discipline, followers, and basic position on relevant topics. Mapping exercises are beneficial in highlighting relationships between DOLs and their followers, which in turn can reveal different opportunities to build connections outside your normal stakeholder and HCP networks.

How Do You Engage DOLs?
DOLs in pharma marketing usually prefer to contribute content to social media platforms and link their content to key events. They often act as hosts for virtual events or facilitate network building through social media platforms. Accordingly, an excellent way to engage professional DOLs is to invite them to create content and collaborate on your message. Another way to engage DOLs is to have them participate in advisory boards or ask them to help develop certain marketing initiatives, in which they can share public findings with their followers. This effectively allows pharma companies to experience the type of organic reach not necessarily achieved through closed HCP platforms or traditional marketing strategies.

In order to get DOLs involved in editorial outreach, meaning to get them to share press releases and other approved or formal marketing content, you need to form a symbiotic partnership. Unlike KOLs, DOLs expect to form a mutually beneficial, and therefore authentic, relationship with pharma marketers. Initiating such a relationship allows you to establish a chain of information and ensures that your DOLs are up-to-date with the most current news and data available. Concomitantly, this supports their reputation among followers to post and comment on relevant content. That said, it is the ultimate responsibility of pharma companies to keep their DOLs informed.

What Are Appropriate DOL Strategies?
In establishing a strong DOL partnership, an engagement strategy should be designed to deliver mutual value. DOLs in pharma marketing differ from KOL engagement, in which the brand goals are central to the relationship. However, there are still opportunities to advance certain marketing goals while addressing their online communities. Strategies include creating educational content and webinars, for example, that are DOL focused and offer unique insights into the science or treatment approach. Encourage DOLs to share their perspective on the content or their experience in marketing-related activities on their personal feeds.

One example of leveraging a DOL relationship is to invite your DOL to host a live Twitter chat during a well-publicized event at a medical conference. Some companies engage their DOLs for feedback on ongoing marketing campaigns, product trials, education campaigns, or to contribute a guest editorial. To get the most out of your DOL partnership, listen to and monitor your DOLs’ posts, read and respond to comments, and watch for emerging trends that are established through their feeds.

Similar to the balance struck between digital and traditional channels, KOLs and DOLs rarely overlap, yet both provide a valuable service to pharma marketers. DOLs are not a replacement for traditional KOL marketing but can amplify the marketing message, propelling it through far-reaching social media platforms. Furthermore, the real-time, direct engagement DOLs achieve with their follower base allows them to recognize peer influence and use it to help you build an authentic, insightful strategy around pharma marketing.

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