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May 29, 2024

New 2024 guide to digital opinion leaders: how to work with them to get better insights

DOLs are already influencing your audience. Here’s everything you need to know about how to engage them and leverage their reach.
digital opinion leaders

Your team likely maintains and nurtures relationships with KOLs, but what are you doing to identify and engage DOLs?

DOLs, or digital opinion leaders, are similar to KOLs, but they have a different reach and use different channels. They typically have a large, very engaged audience within a specific therapeutic area, and they might not be HCPs – instead, DOLs might be researchers or patient advocates.

Like KOLs, these experts are well-versed in science, but they also maintain a digital presence on LinkedIn, Twitter, or other digital channels where they engage and educate their audience. In fact, they may already be talking about your brand, so it’s important to understand where they are and how you can use their reach to your advantage.

Get insights on trending conversations about your brand.

What is a digital opinion leader?

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.

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

Let’s explore what DOLs are, how life science teams can identify them, and the best ways to put their skills to use. First, we’ll discuss 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’s important to 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 – 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.

The rise of DOLs

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 the patient and HCP safety.

Meanwhile, the world turned 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 exploring digital transformation, and the pandemic accelerated that shift. While the future looks like a hybrid model comprising virtual and in-person engagements, there is no return to how things were.

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 digital natives themselves, meaning DOLs have become just as influential as traditional KOLs – if not more so.

How to identify digital opinion leaders

Identifying KOLs in life science is comparatively straightforward. They’re the speakers whose names appear repeatedly on the conference circuit. They’re the researchers whose work gets pored over by peers. They’re the thought leaders contributing to the most popular journals and publications.

There is some crossover between KOLs and DOLs, but you won’t find DOLs in the usual places like the conference and publishing circuits. Instead, you’ll find them on Twitter and other online spaces, welcoming peers, colleagues, patients, and others to follow their day-to-day professional lives. Some DOLs are simply KOLs who are savvy about using digital channels or took to them when the pandemic temporarily halted many important scientific gatherings.

When finding DOLs online, life science teams are lucky that social algorithms will do the heavy lifting. Still, experts increasingly suggest that building digital capabilities within your team will make it easier to conduct KOL mapping and engage these digital opinion leaders. When you’re comfortable and connected within the relevant digital channels, knowing who to engage and how to build your DOL roster of DOLs will be much easier.

Social media

DOLs are highly active on digital channels like LinkedIn and X (formerly known as Twitter). They create content, promote their peers, and actively participate in discussions. Social media is a great place to start for life science teams looking to engage digital opinion leaders.

Platforms like X and LinkedIn use algorithms to connect users with their interests. Following accounts related to a particular topic or disease community and engaging with related posts will encourage the algorithms to suggest new accounts to follow. It’s an effective way to plug into a virtual community and gain exposure to the DOLs.

However, even the most advanced social media algorithms are flawed. While they might be good at revealing how often an account is engaged with, how many followers it has, or how often it posts, they won’t reveal how reliable its posts are, or how trusted it is by followers. There’s no guarantee that an account recommended by an algorithm is a true digital opinion leader.

Using social monitoring in pharma is a much more effective way to identify the true thought leaders in a virtual community. By building a map of the relationships within a particular community, life science teams can look at how people interact – who talks, who listens, and who has a disproportionate level of influence. That way, they can let the community tell them who the true thought leaders are.

How to spot a true DOL

Without powerful network analytics, it can be easy to misidentify individuals as DOLs. Online influence does not necessarily correlate with thought leadership, and this is especially true in the life science space. Here are some of the red flags life science teams need to look out for when attempting to identify DOLs.

  • Inflated influence. During the COVID-19 pandemic, we saw how quickly and widely misinformation can spread. Even bad actors can gain extensive, enthusiastic followings, so an engaged audience does not necessarily mean an influencer is also a DOL.
  • Unverified claims. The fact that social platforms are largely unregulated has been one of the obstacles to broader adoption among HCPs. Without the checks and balances we associate with the life sciences, people are free to make inaccurate, unverified claims – and potentially gain much traction before such claims are challenged. True DOLs check their sources and prioritize the veracity of their information.
  • A lack of specificity. Without regulation, influencers who are experts in one field may begin commenting in areas without expertise or training. DOLs tend to stick to their areas of expertise, where they can establish themselves as true thought leaders.


There is a historical reticence among life science teams to engage on social media. There’s a perception that teams are opening themselves up to negative interactions – on top of the more serious issue of non-compliance. The consensus is that engaging on social media is simply not worth the risk of falling afoul of internal compliance teams.

Social media can be a useful tool to help find and identify DOLs, but when it comes to engaging them, conversations should occur in a secure, confidential, compliant environment. With a fully compliant insights management platform, life science teams can effectively move to bring DOL engagement in-house, where conversations can be had away from the public eye – and to the satisfaction of internal compliance teams.

Watch a video about how to identify digital opinion leaders.

Are DOLs pharma influencers?

While DOLs are influencers like those promoting consumer brands, they’re not motivated by self-promotion. Instead, they’re moved to promote science within their profession while educating peers. And they like to move quickly – engaging digitally on their channels allows them to be among the first to communicate and share new information.

In 2019, the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the ascendance of DOLs when in-person activities like congresses, meetings, and working in-clinic were severely curtailed. By seeking community online and creating customized news feeds, HCPs cut through the digital noise and found trustworthy experts in DOLs. As a result, they are often now influenced by DOLs as much as, or more than, traditional KOLs.

How to work with digital opinion leaders

DOLs are a new breed of life science influencers with powerful, global networks leveraging the most accessible digital platforms. Because they are distinct from KOLs, it’s essential to use their skills correctly. While it might be tempting to cultivate DOLs into new KOLs – and you can certainly do this – why not leverage their digital expertise to get more value out of your virtual engagements?

Engaging DOLs

Previously, we’ve discussed how social media, social listening, and network analytics can be used to find and identify DOLs. It’s equally important for life science teams to maintain their digital presence if they are to prove to DOLs that there’s value in collaboration. Posting thoughtful, relevant content and engaging with others in your community can help to build an engaged audience and demonstrate to DOLs that there’s merit in engaging with your brand.

But remember: social media is not the place to engage DOLs in conversation. Those discussions should be had via secure, compliant virtual engagement platforms, where conversations can take place with full confidentiality. Before those conversations can begin, life science teams must consider how and why DOLs would want to engage with them. DOLs might be motivated by raising awareness around a particular disease or patient concern, promoting research, or furthering scientific discussion. They’re unlikely to be moved by promoting a company or product or by the promise of self-advancement.

Identifying a project that’s ideal for DOLs

Use what motivates DOLs to inform the kind of projects you’d like to collaborate on. Brand-building projects are unlikely to attract their interest, so consider patient support, disease education projects, or clinical trials instead. Projects must map to their values: improving patient outcomes, disseminating information, or furthering the science.

Potential roles for DOLs

Once you’ve identified the DOLs in your disease community and engaged them in conversation, you must find an appropriate role to extract the most value from their skills and influence.

  • Moderators. DOLs can be particularly valuable as moderators in asynchronous insight generation sessions. DOL patient advocates are often seen as more approachable than pharma company executives in patient-led sessions, helping put advisors at ease and draw out the best responses. DOLs are also digitally savvy, on top of the latest trends and research, and deeply embedded in the community and the conversation, making ideal moderators.
  • Panelists. Creating a virtual panel of DOLs effectively generates insights or monitors sentiment from HCPs and patients. You can also engage DOLs as a steering committee or sounding board to advise on digital best practices.
  • Content creators. DOLs are expert content creators. Collaborating with them to create co-branded content can extend the reach of your digital interactions, allowing you to tap into new audiences and lending your digital communications added reach and credibility.
  • Recruiters. By partnering with patient advocates, life science teams can effectively enhance clinical trial enrollment and retention. DOLs have significant reach and influence, so their opinions tend to carry a lot of weight. Tap into their networks to help meet your clinical trial enrollment targets.
  • Experts. DOLs may not always be HCPs, but they’re generally subject matter experts. Their fresh perspectives can unlock the kind of insights that device manufacturers and pharma companies are unlikely to come up with alone, leading to significant value generation and improved patient outcomes.

To extract maximum value from the DOLs within your disease community, you need to identify the right stakeholders and engage them correctly. Fortunately, this process also benefits from increased digital capabilities: social monitoring can help identify the opinion leaders within your disease community and even provide a score based on their connections and influence, so you can determine who represents the greatest value for your organization. And a secure, compliant, asynchronous virtual engagement platform enables you to engage key stakeholders to unlock the most critical insights.

As the world continues to adjust to post-COVID reality, digital channels and the experts who are engaging online will become even more influential. By capturing the reach of these digital opinion leaders and engaging them in a familiar environment, life science teams can add an important and valuable insight stream.

Healthcasts. The New Rules of HCP Engagement.
Forbes. 97% of executives say COVID-19 sped up digital transformation.

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