January 19, 2021

Tips for Strengthening KOL Engagement in Pharma

How to improve KOL engagement by deepening partnerships and taking discussions online.

Key opinion leaders (KOLs) have the ability to help shape your product and help it reach its target market. The importance of leveraging KOLs in the healthcare industry hasn’t really changed, but accessing and engaging with these experts has become increasingly more difficult over the years. Industry regulations and additional red tape have previously created obstacles, but the pandemic added an extra layer of strain.

Meeting with key opinion leaders in person has always been the best way to engage and form new relationships, but for the past year, face-to-face meetings have essentially been off the table. However, this paradigm shift to virtual work provides the opportunity to access a different group of experts within the medical community. With virtual meetings now the norm, pharmaceutical teams can expand their network of KOLs to include healthcare professionals and opinion leaders around the world.

With a new focus on effective virtual engagement, KOL mapping can be even easier, and allow pharmaceutical teams to get even more granular in matching experts with important topics. Whether your team performs KOL management tasks in-house, works with outside experts, or simply wants to understand more about better engagement with key opinion leaders, there are always ways to strengthen relationships with your network of experts through advanced, yet personalized, KOL management.

What is KOL engagement?

KOL engagement involves forming relationships with expert clinicians and healthcare professionals in your target market or amongst your key stakeholders to gain their input and other valuable insights that may help strengthen your company’s position or competitive edge. Engaging with a key opinion leader is like forming a relationship with a trusted advisor or mentor in a mutually beneficial relationship.

Forming intentional and strategic engagement and communication plans will be a key first step in this process. Start by identifying a wide range of potential contacts and develop an objective-driven approach to build your medical affairs KOL engagement team. In order to be effective and respectful of their time, understanding your goals prior to conducting KOL outreach is of the utmost importance. Make this a collaborative process by not only prioritizing organizational needs, but also by getting a sense of what they need or want from this relationship and create opportunities to achieve them.

Why is KOL engagement important?

Leveraging an expert thought leader in your target market can help strengthen your company’s position in the eyes of your stakeholders. These figures are often experts in their fields and therefore credible sources that their peers look to for guidance or advice when making decisions. Leveraging a KOL relationship can help build credibility for your brand or product and help with broad adoption in the marketplace.

Gaining a Competitive Edge

These respected experts can offer their expertise and input on product life cycles to help shape critical aspects of your business at every level from product development to research and development and through commercialization. Forming strong relationships with these experts allows you to gain insights into clinician priorities and offer the best ways to influence and reach your audiences. KOLs can help with critical business aspects and guide an effective marketing strategy by providing feedback on how your messaging and product will resonate with key audiences. You can further leverage their expertise to:

  • Design effective clinical trials to reach desired endpoints
  • Shape a strong commercialization strategy
  • Create greater treatment access for patient populations
  • Help break into new markets

What are the different factors that impact pharma KOL engagement?

With the expansion of communication channels and more pharma products than ever before, the market is highly saturated. It is important to know what KOLs are looking for, assess what you have to offer that other organizations do not, and bring that to the table.

Creating a value-based partnership

KOLs in the pharmaceutical industry are driven by growth and medical advancements. The chance to contribute to these advances is an exciting possibility. Forming partnerships with pharma companies provides an opportunity for KOLs to be at the forefront of a new product or breakthrough and provides a chance to establish themselves as leaders in the space. Physicians are interested in finding ways to achieve the next level of their career, so providing training, education, or resume-building prospects are great incentives to bring to the partnership. The possibility of adding exciting research to their portfolio, accessing the latest information, and gaining peer recognition are key motivators for a stakeholder in the pharmaceutical space.

Though KOLs may be moved to promote science and data or raise the profile of their profession, they have deep knowledge of their subject therapeutic area and understand the impact of sharing that knowledge from years of clinical research and working with patients to help life science teams flourish. These professionals have a degree of authenticity that lends authority and trustworthiness to the information they share.

Leading pharma organizations have a lot to offer, whether that is access to innovative and cutting-edge technology in the labs, or the opportunity to bring a KOL in on the development of a new therapy. Any of these benefits are appealing for an expert thought leader and may encourage them to enter into a partnership with your organization. Creating a lasting and meaningful partnership that is mutually beneficial to both parties is key in gaining strong pharma KOL engagement and feedback.

How can KOL engagement be improved?

In order to strengthen KOL relationships, it’s important to acknowledge their commitment and embrace their feedback. Transparency is a key aspect of this partnership. Build trust by providing all of the information they need upfront, including side effects or potential downsides of your product. Meeting with them early and consistently can help your organization understand any of their reservations about your brand or product. Answer their questions, help them get what they are looking for so they can confidently back your mission, and help build a marketing and engagement strategy. KOL relationship management does not only pertain to those who think positively of your product and organization – it’s also important to be aware of those who have neutral or negative opinions and attempt to form relationships and channels of communication with these leaders as well.

In the pharma community, adding value for the patient should be a strong focus. Providing a chance to review unpublished research or informing their community on how a new treatment fulfills an unmet need for patients can be appealing to any KOL in clinical research, protocol development, medical affairs, or other roles. Including interesting opportunities within and outside of the pharmaceutical industry in your engagement plans – such as management and educational opportunities – as well as ways to collaborate and expand KOLs’ networks, are great ways to add value to your partnership.

Taking Your KOL Engagement Virtual

Using a virtual platform encourages each participant’s active involvement. At Within3, we've learned that helping pharmaceutical teams leverage virtual capabilities allows for a wider group of voices to be heard, leading to more insightful conversations, feedback, and ultimately more valuable actionable information. Taking your KOL relationships virtual means that you can hear from leaders all around the globe, gaining a more comprehensive outlook on the subject matter.

Meeting in person is a great way to build a relationship, but this isn’t always an option, even when travel is safer and less restricted. When lockdown measures began, pharmaceutical teams didn’t pause KOL engagement activities indefinitely – rather, they pivoted and expanded KOL engagement plans to include virtual opportunities.