We all think we know what KOLs and effective KOL partnership means. We use these words almost every day, proposing KOL engagement in our integrated marketing and communication plans and trying to find out, through our analytic tools, who the most influential KOLs are. We bandy the term ‘KOL’ about like we do other business terms such as KPI, ROI, B2B, R&D. Everyone talks about them, but do most people know what they mean?
If you ask what ‘KOL’ stands for, I hazard a guess that maybe half the people in the room can give you the correct answer (it is ‘Key Opinion Leader’). And if you delve deeper for the definition of what a KOL is, I suspect you’ll be met with a wall of silence, or maybe someone in the corner will stutter “a doctor…someone important…they write blogs…”. At this point, you probably would not even bother to ask the group to hazard a guess what a KOL partnership means.
To be honest, I too wouldn’t have known what a KOL partnership really means if I hadn’t written a thesis on ethical key opinion leader partnership for a pharmaceutical company. The company’s approach to KOL partnership was a huge discussion topic at the time as pharmaceutical companies realized that current approaches needed to evolve with the changing marketing dynamics within the healthcare space.
“The term KOL seems to be so abstract and ubiquitous that we forget that key opinion leaders are people with opinions, networks, and expertise which should be honoured with respect”
So, who/what are KOLs?
KOLs are scientific partners, experts and advisors that have a strong independent voice and have earned a reputation in their scientific field. They are an important resource to pharmaceutical companies and provide counsel and an understanding on what treatments and support programs most benefit patients. They are an integral part of any product’s life-cycle, from Research & Development, such as helping design relevant, outcomes-based clinical trials that accelerate new treatments to market, to Market Access programs that help health authorities understand the value a treatment provides to the patient community.
“An important part of developing relevant, outcomes-based treatments is collaborating with KOLs who can provide strategic and practical counsel”
So, what’s the best way to maintain good relationships with KOLs?
Paradoxically, we often find that current approaches miss out the most important part of an effective KOL strategy – the KOLs themselves. Many companies only focus on their own business goals and KPIs rather than taking the time to understand the KOLs´ real perspectives. Sometimes companies focus on KOL management versus KOL partnership and the distinction between the two is an important one.
“Fostering scientific dialogue to enhance patient care on a long-term basis is key. This means we need to identify which factors may be motivators for physicians and what they expect from a mutually beneficial and ethical partnership”
So, what motivates KOLs to partner with pharmaceutical companies?
- Provision of education/training: KOLs are striving for growth and development. They want to be educated on the highest level, have access to the most current information and to be ahead of the curve in comparison to other physicians.
- Opportunities to be involved in clinical trials: KOLs are naturally inquisitive in their own specialist field and genuinely want to take on responsibilities in clinical trials. They also want to be recognized for their contribution to science and medicine via publications.
- Being respected as a valued partner: KOLs want to feel that they are valued so pharmaceutical companies need to make sure that they use the right staff for interactions with KOLs to guarantee scientific focused discussions. Well planned meetings, acknowledgement of KOLs’ time, opinions and feedback (both positive and negative) need to part of the dialogue. Most importantly, pharmaceutical companies need to partner with KOLs recruited by peer-to-peer recommendation to create a strong KOL network, and respect the hierarchy of academia.
- Availability of sponsorships: For KOLs, research is their life and having the opportunity to work in labs with the newest and most modern equipment with sponsorship for their studies is a key motivator. We should also not forget to respect and value the time they are absent from their ‘real job’ of improving the health of patients with fair market value compensation.
- Access to unpublished data: KOLs have also a strong desire for advancement, because they want to be ahead in terms of newest clinical data and potential innovative treatment opportunities. This in turn leads to recognition from their peers.
Every KOL has different interests and wants to be engaged in a different way. Some are very clinical-based in their interest and others are focused on research. As such, these motivators need to be assessed and re-evaluated on a regular basis for each KOL by simply asking for their feedback and their expectations in order to build up long-term partnership and to ensure an ethical, long-term partnership for both sides – the KOL and the company.
“Especially in times of greater competition for KOL support and more complex KOL networks, nothing is more important than knowing your KOLs and their motivation as they have the power to decide with which company they work together”