Key opinion leaders are well-known, respected physicians with specific medical experience who advise pharmaceutical organizations on drug development, clinical trials, clinical research, regulatory compliance, and marketing. Each of these experts will have an area of expertise – for instance, a KOL in clinical research will have a slightly different role than a medical affairs KOL. To derive maximum benefit from their KOLs, pharmaceutical teams must intentionally build and foster productive relationships with them in a process that begins with KOL mapping.
Marketers and medical staff across the drug life cycle must approach key opinion leader management as a component that is essential to the success of their work. Without well-defined, planned, structured KOL management activities, pharmaceutical organizations run the risk of mismanaging relationships with these physicians – at significant cost, potential negative effect on a successful drug launch, or even compliance problems.
What is KOL management, and how does it work?
Put simply, KOL management is the process of building and maintaining beneficial and sustainable relationships with KOLs. KOL management involves:
Engagement: Engagement is the predominant part of KOL management and is designed around set objectives the organization has for each specific KOL or group of KOLs. KOL engagement activities may include participation in internal and advisory board meetings and conferences, clinical study design, and KOL marketing material review. KOL interactions and activities may be detailed in a formal engagement plan to ensure consistency and replicability. Tracking, auditing, and reporting KOL engagement is also essential to improving the overarching management program.
Assessment: Measuring the impact and success of a KOL management plan is critical to improvement and resource optimization. The performance and execution of agreed-upon activities should be monitored using predefined key performance indicators, or KPIs, and key execution indicators, or KEIs. But assessment shouldn't be limited to just the KOLs themselves – pharmaceutical companies should also evaluate how the KOLs they work with receive and react to engagements.
Other aspects of KOL management include KOL mapping, which considers KOLs within the larger context of the organization's entire KOL portfolio; and KOL segmentation, which is the division of KOLs into groups based on their influence, expertise, collaboration preferences, and other characteristics.
KOL management can be handled in-house by an organization's medical affairs team or by an external company specializing in KOL management. However, some pharmaceutical organizations prefer a hybrid model, where both its medical affairs team and a KOL management firm collaborate on managing these experts.
Impact of successful KOL management
Ultimately, pharmaceutical organizations engage with KOLs to develop and advocate for drug products and to lend them credibility.
When KOLs are successfully managed, nearly all stages of the drug product lifecycle benefit – from initial drug discovery to regulatory and market entry stages. Persuasive medical and marketing material, sped up patient recruitment for trials, wide-reaching trial results, strong consumer awareness of drug products, and influencing HCP prescribing behaviors are some of the measurable impacts of successfully managed KOLs.
The benefits of successful KOL management go two ways. Pharmaceutical organizations get a worthwhile return on their investment in KOL engagement in the form of expert insight, and KOLs receive opportunities for peer-to-peer interaction, the ability to grow their expert standing, the chance to share information and learn collaboratively, and honoraria.
KOL management as an ROI calculation tool
Pharma companies are often under pressure to tender the results of their extensive, and often costly, KOL management activities. This can be difficult, especially in geographical locations where the pharmaceutical industry is highly regulated. However, with defined processes, tangible goals, structured information capture and reporting, and advanced relationship management technologies, the true impact of pharma KOL engagement can be determined and assessed.
How to make KOL management more flexible
There are many methods of engaging KOLs to obtain insights – in-person meetings, web meetings, asynchronous engagement – but the best venue for KOL engagement is the one that gives experts the ability to be the most responsive. While many KOLs enjoy face-to-face interaction, not every KOL has the ability or desire to travel frequently, and while contributing their expertise is important, so is the time they spend at work and at home. In-person KOL engagements can involve long planning timelines and significant budgets but are still subject to last-minute changes that can negatively affect the result of the engagement and the projects that depend on the outcome.
Pharmaceutical company teams can manage the unpredictability of KOL engagements, and more carefully assess the results, using a hybrid engagement approach that includes asynchronous discussions. By conducting typical interactions – such as a virtual advisory board – via a virtual engagement platform, pharmaceutical teams can see which KOLs are logging in, how much time they spend responding and contributing while on the platform, and gather both qualitative and quantitative data for use in critical decision-making.
Learn more about the benefits of providing a better experience for KOLs in our blog post, “The strategy behind a better KOL experience.”