If you have ever worked for a pharmaceutical company, you’ve likely heard the ubiquitous term “KOL” several dozen times. But do you know what—or rather who—a KOL actually is?

Also known as a “key opinion leader,” a KOL is regarded as an important figure providing vital counsel to the healthcare industry. Specifically, a KOL is an independent scientific partner, expert, or advisor whose voice is highly respected within their specific therapeutic field.

Because of the swiftly changing nature of the healthcare landscape, approaches to pharmaceutical marketing must evolve with the product or service. Enter KOLs, whose role it is to offer opinions and expertise, with support from a broad professional network. KOLs function as crucial resources to the pharmaceutical industry, as they provide an understanding of the product’s life cycle as well as what is required to achieve market access.

What Do KOLs Provide?
The counsel provided by KOLs applies to a range of activities, from a product’s initial research and development phase to market access. KOLs understand not only the pharmaceutical processes of developing and marketing new treatments, but also how the treatments benefit patients. They may be engaged to help design outcome-based clinical trials, accelerating a new treatment to market. KOLs further help healthcare providers understand the treatment value and help determine how to get the treatment to the patients who need it most (the care pathway).

With more regulations surrounding the practice of healthcare, along with greater complexity of the science behind the products, KOL involvement is now required in more diverse activities. Today, KOL engagement guides companies in developing new products, conducting research and generating data, refining the commercialization strategy, and creating quality medical and promotional content.

What Drives a KOL Partnership?
While many companies use KOLs, they don’t always actively engage their KOL resources or necessarily work to form a true partnership. Deep and meaningful scientific dialogues afforded by key opinion leaders can lead to strong KOL partnerships, ultimately enhancing patient care. So what factors motivate KOLs to partner with a pharmaceutical company in the first place?

It’s important to remember that a partnership should be mutually beneficial. That said, factors that motivate KOLs to work with you include provisional education and training experiences. KOLs by definition are driven by growth: they want to achieve the highest level of education and have access to the most current information. Furthermore, KOLs look for opportunities to be involved in research or clinical trials. As specialists in their field, they have a genuine interest and desire to contribute to medical advances.

Sponsorships provide KOLs the unique opportunity to work in modern labs with access to cutting-edge equipment. Having a hand in the development of innovative new treatments is appealing for a KOL entering a partnership. Likewise, contributing to new clinical outcomes and analyzing unpublished data can help pave the way for KOLs to receive peer recognition, a big factor for KOLs considering a partnership with a pharmaceutical company.

How Do You Strengthen KOL Engagement?
A survey by the Medical Science Liaison (MSL) society shows that KOL management and education are top MSL activities. To help your company make the most of your KOL partnerships, here are a few tips for high-quality engagement of KOLs

  • Utilize an objective-driven approach to KOL engagement. Specific scientific and business goals should be clearly defined for all sides, and should be used to drive engagement activities. By employing a KOL-profiling procedure, you can more effectively engage these valuable individuals. The better you can recognize your KOLs’ distinctive interests, the better you can utilize them. Well-planned KOL engagement that supports your objectives throughout the product life cycle will ultimately provide your product a critical competitive edge
  • Develop a unique KOL engagement plan. As a company, it’s important to define a plan for how to engage and manage KOLs—this helps provide your employees a bigger picture of a KOL’s role. Your engagement plan should address the scientific and medical needs of your KOLs to support mutually beneficial relationships. Involving KOLs in the discussion is a terrific way to create a successful plan
  • Anticipate your KOLs’ needs. When you communicate regularly, and your KOLs begin to open up to you, you will be more aware of problems or expectations that could undermine the partnership. By understanding what your KOL needs, you can quickly offer solutions, winning their trust and gaining efficiency
  • Create opportunities to collaborate with your KOLs beyond the pharmaceutical industry. Cross-functional expert work groups or advisory boards meet to pursue common aspirations pertaining to medical science, and can appeal to KOLs. You may also facilitate international networking on behalf of your KOL or invite collaboration with colleagues in other therapeutic areas
  • Embrace KOL feedback. The best way to actively engage with your KOLs is to encourage and invite their opinions on how to improve your company’s products or services. Creating dialogue with your KOLs can help you improve not only your product (helping you modify the concept, service, or commercial message), but also your status as a partner

Summary
Meeting with KOLs in person is critical; face-to-face meetings can help solidify a KOL’s commitment to your company. In forming a respectful partnership, make sure to have the appropriate staff conduct interactions and lead scientifically focused discussions. Meetings should be well planned to maximize your KOLs’ time. Furthermore, acknowledging the KOLs’ opinions and feedback, as well as their time commitment, is extremely important. In recruiting KOLs, use peer-to-peer recommendations to help build a strong KOL network, as well as expand your access to valuable resources. For the most effective collaboration, consider the individual KOL’s interests, strengths, and alignment with the company’s goals for a particular product or service.