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February 9, 2022

What is a digital opinion leader?

Kicking off a three-part series about digital opinion leaders is a primer on who DOLs are and how they grew in popularity.
what is a DOL

The right insight can make a real difference for life science teams. It can be the key to unlocking a new out-licensing opportunity, optimizing product marketing efforts, or creating better connections with a particular patient group.

83% of HCPs are likely to prescribe a new drug if it’s endorsed by an opinion leader. – MMM Online

Key opinion leaders (KOLs) have long been a major source of these valuable insights. But in an increasingly virtual life science landscape, a new breed of thought leader has emerged: the digital opinion leader (DOL).

In this blog series, we’re going to explore what DOLs are, how life science teams can identify them, and the best ways to put their skills to use. First, let’s explore what DOLs are: how they differ from KOLs, what motivates them, and how COVID-19 has accelerated their prominence.

KOLs vs DOLs

There’s a lot of overlap between KOLs and DOLs, and yet the two groups are distinct. Traditionally, KOLs can be found on the conference circuit or publishing research in medical journals. They tend to be experienced HCPs who command significant respect from their peers. DOLs are also well-respected and wield significant influence among their highly engaged virtual networks. DOLs often come from scientific backgrounds, and all are experts in their respective fields. But there are a number of differences, too.

A strong digital presence
DOLs are highly active across digital platforms such as Twitter, LinkedIn, Tik Tok, and YouTube. They’re content creators, bloggers, podcasters or webcasters. They might create and share their own content, promote that of others, or actively engage in discussion with peers online. They’re less likely to be seen in the pages of medical journals or on conference speaker panels.

Experts, but not always HCPs
Not all DOLs are healthcare professionals. Many are patient advocates who – despite not necessarily having a medical background – have a personal investment in a condition or clinical area. Some of these patient champions are as plugged into the latest research as clinicians and physicians – in certain cases, even more so.

A truly global network
Unlike KOLs, DOLs can claim to have truly global networks. Their preferred digital platforms allow them to connect to peers all over the world – regardless of language or timezone. These huge, powerful networks are part of what makes partnering with DOLs so potentially rewarding.

Diverse voices
By drawing from the same established pool of conference speakers and published researchers, life science teams are limited to a small number of generally similar voices. Thanks to the democratizing effect of digital media, DOLs tend to have a much more diverse range of backgrounds and life experiences – and with fresh voices come fresh insights.

What makes them tick?
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 – 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.

DOLs and the pandemic
The COVID-19 pandemic effectively hit the pause button on in-person interaction. Suddenly there were no more in-person conferences, and even board meetings and clinical trials were put on hold for the sake of patient and HCP safety.

Meanwhile, the world was turning to screens for work, entertainment, and community. Digital transformation hit a period of rapid acceleration in healthcare and beyond, with historical reticence and compliance issues giving way under the weight of necessity. Digital opinion leaders were already highly active in this space, but suddenly they had a captive audience ready to talk, listen, and engage.

The pandemic-driven move to digital spaces has increased the influence of DOLs, and it would be a mistake to assume that this is a temporary shift. Life science teams were already in the process of digital transformation, and the pandemic merely accelerated that shift. While the future may present a more hybrid model comprised of both virtual and in-person engagements, there is no going back to the way things were.

97% of executives say the pandemic accelerated digital transformation. – Forbes

The life science landscape has shifted in DOLs’ favor. In an increasingly virtual world, their influence, expertise, and digital savvy are in high demand – and the potential benefits for life science teams are clear to see. More and more HCPs are now digital natives themselves, meaning DOLs have become just as influential as traditional KOLs – if not more so.

DOLs are a new breed of life science thought leadership, and they’re here to stay. To find out more about the emergence of DOLs and learn how life science teams can work alongside them, read our comprehensive ebook Digital Opinion Leaders: Where, Who, and How.

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