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Key opinion leaders (KOLs) are important to pharma, as they lend a qualified and esteemed voice to your brand strategy. While industry regulations provide substantial hurdles for pharma communications, KOLs have better engagement with larger physician networks.

Traditionally, the value of KOLs was in their ability to move a market. Although this fact hasn’t changed, there is a need for pharma companies to expand the way they identify, engage, and manage KOLs. Beyond using their expertise to guide certain pharma activities, KOLs are instrumental when it comes to navigating the widening communications landscape.

Broaden Your Search When Identifying KOLs
When identifying KOLs, cast a wide net. This is especially important in the oncology sector, where treatment teams consist of a large assortment of different care professionals. With multispecialty oncology practices, the proliferation of media channels, and tighter industry regulations, there is a need to broaden KOL networks.

We’re not just talking about traditional KOLs; pharma companies need to look for digital opinion leaders and connected opinion leaders as well. Just a decade ago, only a dozen KOLs were typically engaged in pharma development or marketing; today, it’s not uncommon to have upwards of 60 physicians involved in a single pharma campaign.

To involve new KOLs, pharma companies must expand the margins of whom to target. In casting this net, don’t be afraid to search for KOLs using Google or talk to committee members involved with scientific advisory committees and board members of academic institutions. Poll attendees at conferences or professional meetings, and seek recommendations from colleagues who have experience in a specific disease class.

Engage With KOLs in a Meaningful Way
While it is acceptable to reach out to potential new KOLs through social media—some may even prefer this—in order to solidify appropriate, professional, and collaborative relationships, face-to-face meetings are critical. First and foremost, engagement with KOLs needs to be meaningful and should establish common ground.

When you begin engaging with potential KOLs, it’s fitting to ask them what they don’t like about current treatment standards or what they look for from a clinical viewpoint. And while pharma has specific goals, KOLs have their own unique goals that are important to acknowledge. In this way, finding commonalities is perhaps the most effective approach to managing KOL relationships.

So what do we know about KOLs and what they want? Most KOLs are driven by academic opportunities that allow them to garner attention and esteem within their respective networks. Gaining access to resources, learning about new products that fill current treatment gaps, getting opportunities to author or review academic articles, or receiving invitations to participate in trial design are all lucrative experiences for KOLs.

Another common goal for KOLs is to nurture their own practice and improve the well-being of their patients. Engaging KOLs on this level includes providing ways to advance clinical opportunities for their patients and adding value to their practice by bringing more distinct benefits to their patients through novel interventions or health management regimens.

Maintain Transparency to Sustain Engagement
Transparency is crucial in sustaining engagement with KOLs. While we would all rather focus on a product’s benefits, withholding any knowledge about adverse effects or hiding important treatment-related findings is damaging to your long-term strategy and could effectively kill your KOL relationship.

It should go without saying that any content that you publish or share with your KOLs should be accurate and correct. The goal is always not to rattle your KOLs or their patients with any unanticipated clinical bombshells. From the very first meeting with your KOLs through product launch, transparency evokes authenticity and builds trust in your relationship.

It’s easy to understand why transparency must be the foundation of your strategy: if unexpected adverse events were to break, your KOLs would feel burned by you, and their patients would lose faith in them. That said, it’s equally important to be aware of KOLs who are vocal against your product and to maintain an open dialogue with them. Understanding dissidence surrounding your product can help you strengthen your positioning.

Be Flexible When Managing KOLs
It’s important to engage a diverse range of KOLs, establish common ground, and be transparent with product information and other pharma activities. However, in managing long-term KOL relationships, it’s also important to retain flexibility. This means understanding which KOLs fit the bill for each stage of product development, marketing collaborations, or post-launch communications.

With that in mind, view KOL management as a fluid concept: maintain relevant relationships, and build new ones when appropriate and where necessary. Often at beginning stages of product development, you don’t have the clarity or foresight to know which KOLs will complement your strategies down the line.

In maintaining a flexible approach to KOL management, it’s often helpful to involve various senior-level members of your organization. In fact, companies today spread this responsibility among different departments and include marketing managers, product managers, and even VPs, helping form more sophisticated and poignant relationships that KOLs find attractive, and solidifying valuable KOL collaboration.

With these methods, you can turn all of the contacts you make at the next conference into engaged KOLs with long-term involvement.