To maximize KOL impact, Medical Affairs needs a digital strategy too

62% of plastic surgeons (1) have active professional social media accounts, according to a 2019 survey the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, Inc. Nonacademic surgeons topped the list, with 72% having accounts.

On Twitter, tweets with “#PedsICU” were shared 49,865 times on six continents between February 1, 2020, and May 1, 2020. Most of those shared open-access resources, including links for literature, reviews, and educational videos, according to research published in Pediatric Critical Care Medicine (2).

These are just a fraction of the scientific, pharmaceutical-oriented social media conversations, and pharmaceutical companies are noticing. As social media becomes an increasingly legitimate way to quickly share the latest research and insights, pharmaceutical companies are rethinking key opinion leaders (KOLs) and the ways in which they share scientific breakthroughs, news, and insights. The traditional methods of presenting studies at conferences and in scientific and medical journals, while vital, are being joined by more immediate methods that enable thought leaders to share information and opinions without waiting for a medical conference or far-future publication date.

The value of digital strategies became particularly evident when COVID-19 became a global pandemic. Twitter became a more valid and vital way (3) for scientific experts and healthcare professionals to share information and insights that were needed immediately.

But digital methods were, of course, getting results before COVID-19. For example, a study in the Annals of Thoracic Surgery (4) found that researchers who tweeted were more likely to have their work cited by others.

YouTube videos are finding their scientific niche, too, providing a way to share time-lapse and other visual data from studies, and to convey sound-bites of information quickly. Having a three-minute comment about a mechanism of action or safety profile enhances your scientific publication plan, quickly communicating your medical imperatives in line with your overall strategy. Videos remain relatively rare, though. A study from the University of Tehran found only 34,500 scientific citations in the literature from YouTube between 2005 and 2017.

Notably, medicine is the fifth-most often cited topic on YouTube, behind engineering. The category of biochemistry, genetics and molecular biology was ranked 15th, and pharmacology, toxicology and pharmaceutics was ranked 24th.

Oxford Economics (5) recognizes the importance of digital thought leaders, noting that companies that “get digital leadership right perform better in the marketplace….”

Today, digital thought leaders (or digital opinion leaders – DOLs) who share important studies and insights via Twitter, YouTube, forums, and other digital platforms are augmenting the ranks of ‘traditional’ KOLs whose academic papers and presentations dominate leading congresses and journals. Because these DOLs have thousands of followers, if even a few repeat that message on their own platforms the reach of your article or comment will expand dramatically within your targeted audience.

For example, Nature Index (6) reported that the most discussed science story for January 2020 was Hyperactivation of sympathetic nerves drives depletion of melanocyte stem cells. It was covered by 254 news outlets, discussed in 24 blogs, and received 2,041 tweets from more than 1,700 people. It was seen by as many as 7 million followers (7).

By November (8), with COVID-19 dominating literally everything, Nature Index reported that the most discussed article, No evidence for increased transmissibility from recurrent mutations in SARS-CoV-2, reached an audience estimated to be as large as 10 million (9). Although it was covered by fewer news outlets (187) than the January article, it was featured in more than 5,000 tweets.

Pharmaceutical companies are interested in this exposure and engagement. To get it, they need to work not only with ‘traditional’ KOLs, but also KOLs who are prominent in social media and digital news. This could mean identifying a researcher who rarely engages with social media but whose work goes viral, or, conversely, a scientist or physician who rarely engages in publishing or presenting evidence but whose comments and analyses attract the attention of thousands.

Ideally, Medical Affairs (MA) professionals will identify KOLs who blend the strengths of both traditional and digital thought leaders. Working with experts who share research, experiences, and insights regularly on their own sites or on select online forums helps your evidence to reach a larger following than a publication- or presentation-only approach allows.

While up to 85% of KOLs are present online, depending on the therapeutic area, identifying the right leaders to engage with a digital strategy can be challenging. Certain digitally-active KOLs and DOLs may have a large digital following, but it is the right following, and are those followers truly engaged, or merely on a connection?

MA leaders are just beginning to have the resources to reach these thought leaders.

Building on its world-leading scientific data lake from ‘traditional’ sources (such as publications, meeting abstracts and clinical trials) Pharmaspectra has expanded its data capabilities to include scientifically-relevant social media and news from millions of digital sources. It now builds on the power of its LINK platform, which profiles and ranks KOLs based on ‘traditional’ sources, with identification, tracking, and analytics for these KOLs, along with DOLs.

The new platform looks at “owned” and “earned” digital data for scientifically relevant topics. Owned content is that which is authored by the KOL on social media, primarily Twitter for public content. Whereas earned content is social media or news that references the KOL, but authored by someone else. Therefore, MA can identify not only  a KOL’s owned ranking, but also which KOLs have the most followers in relevant medical specialties, how often they tweet or present digital data, and – importantly – how often those data are shared in forums or social media, or quoted in the news (their earned ranking).

Digitally-active KOLs and DOLs are identified and ranked much like ‘traditional’ KOLs. Accessing an estimated 90% more digital data compared to other providers, Pharmaspectra searches with scientific terms to query millions of digital news sources and social media, to determine their digital ranking and digital impact, thus eliminating irrelevant noise.

MA leaders, therefore, can identify the KOLs who are most (or least) effective with specific audiences, recognizing that not all scientists and physicians can connect equally well with everyone.

The Field Medical Team can benefit, too, by identifying digitally-active KOLs and DOLs they are able to not only monitor their online activity and discuss their perspectives on the evidence, but to also to consider new ways to engage them.

By taking a strategic approach to working with ‘traditional KOLs, digitally-active KOLs and DOLs, you can amplify your digital impact as well as scientific impact, thereby delivering the evidence that is most important to you, to the audience that matters the most.