How to identify and engage digital opinion leaders

The medical science liaison (MSL) is a core function in life science organizations, helping to bridge the gap between biopharma and medical device developers and the external experts and stakeholders who drive the development and use of their products. They identify and engage key opinion leaders (KOLs) and clinical investigators to support internal and external research efforts, coordinate education around their organizations’ treatment or device, and offer perspective around relevant scientific trends and advancements.

In the modern, internet-enabled medical landscape, MSLs need to look beyond traditional metrics to find the right KOL with the ideal combination of influence and expertise. Standard benchmarks like conference presentations, published research, and educational activity are still useful indicators of an expert’s reach within a particular therapy area, but they’re not everything.

Today, the most impactful KOLs are also digital opinion leaders (DOLs). These are healthcare professionals and scientific experts with an online presence that caters to the plugged-in providers and patients with whom they work. The right DOL will have influence across digital mediums, cultivated through the creation and amplification of useful, informative content and novel perspectives.

In this guide, we’ll offer some data-driven methods to identify and engage the DOLs who are best equipped to support your company. After reading this guide, you should understand how to use a variety of data sources—including claims and reference data, primary research, and news and intelligence—to target experts and influencers within your therapeutic focus and equip yourself with the information necessary to lead a productive conversation.

1. Know what you’re looking for

MSLs have it tougher than ever, as ongoing economic challenges have led to tightened budgets and fewer resources. Plus, MSLs’ direct access to healthcare professionals (HCPs) has diminished as competition in the market heats up, with industry newcomers and established organizations alike fighting for experts’ limited time and attention.

In such a tight market, you need to know how DOLs fit into your organizational strategy before you start your search so that you can direct resources toward finding and engaging with the perfect match.

So what are you looking to gain by working with a DOL? Some common goals include:

  • Greater access to stronger, more influential voices
  • Support for clinical trials, whether through direct participation or access to a patient base or trial site
  • Acquisition of actionable insights or industry intelligence
  • New business opportunities, partnerships, etc.

Once you’ve clearly established your goals, you’ll have a good idea of the kind of expert (or experts) you’re looking for. From here, you can start building out personas—fictional profiles of your stakeholder groups—to inform your targeting and engagement strategies.

Think about factors like age, professional experience, online presence, clinical trial activity, publication history, and affiliations as you craft your DOL personas. You should also consider the goals of these HCPs: Are they seeking greater dialogue with their peers? Are they looking for the latest data and intelligence? Do they want to help their organizations cut costs or adopt cutting-edge technology? Are they focused solely on patient advocacy and outcomes?

These factors will help you determine not only who to target but how to engage them most effectively. With these in mind, you’re ready to begin your search.

2. Find opinion leaders where the conversation is happening

For most of modern medical history, academic symposiums, medical conferences, and scientific journals were the sites of healthcare’s cutting-edge ideas. But if you’re looking for an opinion leader fully engaged in the conversations shaping healthcare’s future today, you’ll need to expand your search to include social media.

As far back as 2014, a study from QuantiaMD found that at least 65% of physicians were using social media for professional reasons. A cross-sectional study published in JAMA Network Open in 2021 found that that figure had risen to 70% of U.S. physicians. The same study, however, found that only about 10% of physicians posted once or more each month. Interestingly, while younger doctors were more likely to have a social media presence, older doctors posted more regularly and had more followers.

Given the disparity between social media presence and meaningful usage, you should be able to quickly separate those physicians who drive conversations and influence behavior from those who are merely online. While you can look for DOLs in networks designed specifically for healthcare professionals (Sermo, Doc2Doc, and Doximity are the most popular of these) you’ll likely get a better gauge of an expert’s impact on sites designed for general audiences like Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.

You’ll likely want to start your search by establishing a pool of potential candidates for engagement within your therapeutic focus using the factors outlined in your personas—professional experience and affiliations, patient base, and industry activities are among the top concerns for many organizations. This can be accomplished through manual research via professional and academic search engines (or even basic Googling), but it’s considerably faster to partner with a data vendor that can offer expert-focused intelligence on tap.

3. Take a closer look at experts’ online presence

Once you’ve established a pool of experts, it’s time to drill down into the scope of their digital influence. Using social media—or aggregated, contextualized data from an appropriate vendor—consider each candidate using the following criteria:

  • Is the healthcare professional’s online presence genuine? Do a considerable number of their followers seem to be bots or paid-off supporters?
  • Who is their audience? Does their follower base consist of a specific demographic, members of certain professions or institutions, or patients who your business wants to reach?
  • What kind of content is the candidate creating and/or sharing? Is it verified scientific information or more opinion-focused? Is their audience engaging with it—and how?
  • Do they actually drive change or merely encourage feedback? Are their physician followers incorporating new clinical data into their practice, adopting new treatments, exploring novel diagnoses, or advocating for policy change based on the candidate’s outreach?

This last point can be hard to determine with social media alone. You’ll likely also need to leverage the right data to understand who’s working with or referring to whom, which procedures they’re performing, and which medications they’re prescribing—as well as how those behaviors have changed over time. Healthcare reference and affiliation data can give you the edge here.

Reference data includes the firmographic, location, and financial data for hospitals and other healthcare facilities. It also refers to the demographic, contact, and location information for providers. Affiliation data, on the other hand, explains how healthcare organizations and providers are connected via referrals, prescribing decisions, professional affiliations, and more. Try working with a vendor that offers this data in the form of contextualized intelligence with intuitive reporting and visualization features so you can easily understand a physician’s place in the healthcare ecosystem and communicate their value to internal and external stakeholders.

4. Plan, engage, and measure

You’ve established your goals, built out HCP personas, identified some prospective DOLs, and gained an understanding of their online presence. Now it’s time to home in your target HCPs and create a unique engagement plan for each.

In narrowing your initial selection, you likely already have the key intelligence you need. You know who these HCPs are, who their communities consist of, and how they engage with these communities online. If you’ve leveraged the right real-world data—or some old-school intelligence gathering—you’ll have a good idea of each HCP’s clinical performance, patient volumes, and research output.

After diving deep into their social media activities, you should also understand these HCPs’ driving issues and values, and perhaps even some of their priorities outside of healthcare (Dr. Smith may be an avid golfer, a pillar of their local community, or an active fundraiser for a favorite cause, for instance). Combined together, you can leverage all these details to plan your engagement and finally break the ice.

A customized engagement plan for each HCP will help you to stand out among the sheer volume of information that defines the modern digital space. Depending on the HCP in question, your initial outreach could take a variety of forms:

  • A long-form, in-depth article on a subject of interest to the HCP, shared via social media
  • A webinar invite, sent in collaboration with an advocacy group or professional association favored by the HCP
  • A short, engaging listicle on industry trends delivered via DM or email
  • A tag within an industry-specific discussion thread that appeals to the HCP’s interests

As soon as you’ve engaged, you need to begin measuring the impact of your engagement. You may work with a DOL for a single part of the product development cycle or for years on end. Regardless, you should record and quantify the outcome of every engagement effort from the very start, and routinely monitor target HCPs’ online and clinical behavior following engagement. This will help you determine the efficacy of your tactics with new DOLs and shape your approach to existing DOL relationships.

Track metrics around the content you’ve sent to DOLs to see with whom they’ve shared it and how far their reach really goes. You can monitor their affiliated HCPs directly for additional insights into the depth of your content’s penetration. Keep an eye on DOLs’ social media activity to see if they’re engaging with topics that you’ve brought up previously. And use real-world data (especially claims, reference, and affiliation data) to determine whether you’ve made an impact on their clinical behavior.

What it all means

At its core, DOL engagement is a conversation. That means listening—and taking a DOL’s feedback to heart—as much or more than “speaking” yourself. Every interaction is an opportunity to learn, adjust your strategy, and engage more effectively.

You can combine the data and insights from your initial research and ongoing engagement efforts with healthcare intelligence built on claims, reference, and affiliations data to better understand DOLs’ interests, needs, and potential value to your organization. By leveraging this combined intelligence, you can more effectively target, engage, and discover new opportunities with healthcare experts in the digital space.

For more information on DOL strategy, check out these resources:

  • Read our blog on finding digital opinion leaders
  • Check out our guide on using social media to shape effective communication strategies