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April 19, 2021

KOL management in pharma

How effective KOL management impacts pharmaceutical teams, and how to use it as an ROI tool.
KOL management in pharma
Article updated May 2024.

KOL management is the process of building and maintaining beneficial and sustainable relationships with key opinion leaders (KOLs) and key external experts (KEEs).

Typically, KOLs and KEEs are well-known, respected physicians with specific medical experience who advise pharmaceutical organizations on drug development, clinical trials, clinical research, regulatory compliance, and marketing. A key expert might also be a nurse, pharmacist, pathologist, patient advocate, researcher, or other health professional.

Each expert will have an area of specialty and a unique role – for instance, a KOL in clinical research will have a slightly different role than a medical affairs KOL. What are the best practices for KOL management in pharma?

KOL management can be handled in-house by an organization’s medical affairs team or by an external medical communications agency specializing in KOL management. Some pharmaceutical organizations prefer a hybrid model, where its medical affairs team and a KOL management firm collaborate on managing these experts.

Whether your team performs KOL management tasks in-house, works with outside experts, or 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.

A note about digital opinion leaders (DOLs)

One crucial differentiator between DOLs and KOLs is the question of motivation. DOLs are not generally motivated by self-promotion, but instead want to further the science, raise awareness around a condition or patient group, or build engaged virtual networks. Some DOLs – like patient advocates – may already be talking about your product, and will be highly motivated to engage with life science teams and raise awareness of their chosen field. Others might be more reluctant and will need to see a mutual benefit before they can be engaged.

Our updated 2024 guide provides a deeper look into DOLs’ reach, interests, distinctions, influence ability, and engagement.

Marketers and medical staff across the drug life cycle must approach key opinion leader management as a component essential to their work’s success. Without well-defined, planned, structured KOL management activities, pharmaceutical organizations run the risk of mismanaging relationships with these physicians – at significant cost, potential adverse effects on a successful drug launch, or even compliance problems.

How does KOL management work?

To derive maximum benefit from their KOLs, pharmaceutical teams must intentionally build and foster productive relationships with them, a process that begins with KOL identification and KOL mapping.

KOL management involves:

KOL assessment & KOL mapping

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 – pharmaceutical companies should also evaluate how the KOLs they work with receive and react to engagements.

KOL mapping considers KOLs within the larger context of the organization’s entire KOL portfolio. KOL segmentation divides KOLs into groups based on their influence, expertise, collaboration preferences, and other characteristics.

With a new focus on effective virtual engagement, KOL mapping is more important and accessible than ever, allowing pharmaceutical teams to get even more granular in matching experts with essential topics. Failing to carefully consider KOL identification in the earliest stages of your KOL engagement strategy can mean you’re missing out on 30% of the KOLs you need most to achieve your objectives.

Your team invests significantly in developing and nurturing relationships with key opinion leaders. Identifying the right KOL for the task at hand across different therapeutic areas, specialties, and geographies maximizes this investment and ensures a faster return of more actionable insights for better decision-making in the pharma industry. Get more in our guide to KOL mapping.

KOL engagement

Engagement is the predominant part of KOL management and is designed around the organization’s set objectives for each KOL or group of KOLs. KOL engagement activities may include attending internal and advisory board meetings and conferences, designing clinical studies, and reviewing KOL marketing material.

A formal engagement plan may detail KOL interactions and activities to ensure consistency and replicability. Tracking, auditing, and reporting KOL engagement is essential to improving the overarching management program.

Within3 customers regularly report 100% KOL participation rates in their advisory boards and associated programs. Learn more about pharma KOL engagement.

KOL engagement moderation, analysis, and reporting

In late 2023, we asked a cohort of medical affairs experts about the most time-consuming medical affairs activities.

Unsurprisingly, 72% named activities related to executing the engagement: moderation, analysis and reporting results, and creating and sharing a summary of the whole session. Conversely, 85% of respondents say that a single, organization-wide system helps them analyze and share insights more effectively.

Within3’s technology reduces workloads by up to 90%, freeing medical affairs teams to focus on strategic decision-making. Our Moderator Assistant and insights reporting capabilities were explicitly developed to create efficiencies and reduce expenses for medical affairs teams.

Ready for better KOL engagement? Let’s start something new today.

Best practices for good KOL management

KOL management and education are typically the responsibility of the medical science liaison vs medical affairs team more broadly. MSLs can use a number of best practices to establish and strengthen positive relationships with valued experts.

Embrace a long-term, hybrid approach

KOLs value their time very highly. Engaging them efficiently, wherever they are, whenever they are ready, is paramount to milestone achievement and proving ROI.

Meeting with key opinion leaders in person has always been the best way to engage and form new relationships. However, the paradigm shift to hybrid and virtual work allows access to a different group of experts within the medical community.

With a hybrid approach, pharmaceutical teams can expand their network of experts to include healthcare professionals and opinion leaders worldwide while making the most of precious in-person opportunities and maximizing value by enabling KOLs to contribute in a time and place that works for them.

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.

Implement a user-friendly virtual tool for moderators and KOLs

Taking these relationships virtual means you can hear from leaders worldwide, gaining a more comprehensive outlook on the subject matter. Meeting in person will always be a great way to build relationships and learn, but a hybrid approach provides the most flexibility for solid and productive relationships.

Establish clear communication

Clear and concise communication with KOLs helps increase participation in your meetings and advisory boards. It also eliminates confusion and makes KOLs feel as though their time is valued. Good KOL communication includes providing them with regular updates on scientific developments, new products, and any changes to regulatory guidelines that may impact their work. If you’re engaging KOLs in a virtual environment, ensure they understand how to use the environment. Take advantage of automated messages and reminders to increase convenience and participation.

Be proactive

Being proactive in your approach to KOL management means reaching out to them, rather than waiting for them to engage with you. KOLs and KEEs are busy – can you provide them with information that benefits them? Can you address a challenge they might be having? It’s a good idea to regularly contact your KOLs to offer support and to gather insights on their needs and challenges.

Be responsive

The flip side of being proactive is being responsive. KOLs value prompt responses to their inquiries – particularly if you have asked them to take time from their schedule and give you something that benefits you and your team, such as their feedback on an upcoming data release or proposed study protocol. Be available and responsive when they need you.

Add flexibility

There are many methods of engaging KOLs to obtain insights:

  • In-person advisory board meetings
  • Live virtual meetings (webcasts)
  • Asynchronous engagement

However, 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 essential, so is the time they spend at work and home. Related: how to make an impression in virtual meetings.

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 engagement’s outcome and the projects that depend on it.

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 qualitative and quantitative data for 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.”

Build trust

Building trust is crucial in KOL management. Be transparent, provide accurate and up-to-date information, and follow through on your commitments. When you treat KOLs and KEEs as valued stakeholders, they will typically respond in kind.

Foster collaboration

To foster a culture of collaboration with KOLs, think outside the box. It’s not a one-way relationship – invite KOLs to participate in meetings where they might learn something (or where you might learn something. Enlist them in scientific meetings, research collaborations, and other activities that align with their interests and expertise.

Be respectful

For most MSLs and medical affairs teams, this likely goes without saying. However, you should be prepared to occasionally hear a dissenting or negative opinion. This might cause you to re-evaluate parts of your strategy or create another step in your work. Consider it a future investment in your ultimate goal of a more successful trial, flawless launch, or better patient outcomes. Be open to feedback and be willing to consider alternative perspectives.

Answer KOLs’ questions as quickly and accurately as possible. 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 – but 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.

Be human

Take the time to understand the KOL’s perspective, interests, and goals. This can help you to build a more productive and meaningful relationship.

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. 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. 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.

Gaining a competitive edge

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.

Strong relationships with these experts allow you to gain insights into clinician priorities and offer the best ways to influence and reach your audiences. Key experts can help with critical business aspects shared cross-functionally to guide an effective marketing strategy. 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

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 impact of pharma KOL engagement can be determined and assessed.

Within3 now offers our AI-powered Moderator Assistant to maximize investments in KOL engagement and provide 3-7x more real-time feedback versus typical methods like web conferences or in-person meetings. This dramatically reduces the time and effort required to monitor and analyze insights, accelerating milestone achievement and proving ROI.

On top of finding and engaging the right KOLs to accelerate milestones, launch, and patient access, our insights management platform improves the efficacy of engagement through a completely redesigned group engagement experience focused on further maximizing KOL, physician, and patient participation. The new system is based on behavioral data from 70,000+ HCP and patient advisor users and Within3’s 15 years of partnership with the world’s top 20 pharmaceutical companies.

Pharmaceutical Business Review. Key opinion leader management.
Canadian Medical Association Journal. How to make opinion leaders and influence people.
Aptitude Health. Tips for strengthening KOL engagement.

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