As one of the highest priorities of pharma marketers, engaging with industry leaders is a crucial strategic exercise. Findings from an online survey in 2015 revealed that 62% of medical experts believe that the term “KOL” should be replaced. Yet coming up with an alternative is a challenge.

Terms that lately surface relating to key opinion leaders (KOLs) include digital opinion leaders (DOLs) and connected opinion leaders (COLs).

While there is a lot of crossover in engagement strategies, there are different strengths attributed to each type of thought leader and, of course, different ways to engage them.

An Introduction to KOLs, DOLs, and COLs
KOLs are the most traditional type of thought leader and are specialists typically recognized for their myriad contributions to the healthcare field, each with a long resume of speaking engagements and published research articles in peer-reviewed journals. These are often very experienced individuals who are likely famous in relevant academic and clinical circles; they can lend a compelling voice to various healthcare messaging campaigns.

DOLs are innovative in their approach to digital marketing. The content they bring to the table is far from what KOLs deliver in their thoughtfully researched, highly articulated, evenly balanced opinions. However, DOLs do have a hand in what, if any, KOL-championed theories get circulated. DOLs have an important role in the age of social media: they can easily navigate different digital platforms, and understand how the various channels communicate in order to attain maximum reach. They understand the messaging needs and content preferences that a digital audience finds engaging.

COLs bridge the gap between KOLs and DOLs. They are called connected opinion leaders because they do just that—COLs are usually clinicians who have established some form of influence and respect among providers. Unlike KOLs, however, they are extremely savvy with social media and have a substantial online following made up primarily of physicians and industry professionals. In other words, COLs offer access to an established audience that is highly engaged by healthcare topics on digital platforms.

KOLs Inspire Traditional Practices
KOLs in the pharma space are effectively engaged using more-traditional channels and practices. The methods most appropriate for KOLs includes activities like inviting them to sit on a panel during live events, offering speaking or publishing opportunities, or involving them in clinical trial design. Getting them to collaborate on an article or interviewing them for a podcast is a good way to propel their influence into the digital sphere.

While other thought leaders offer more leverage when it comes to communication practices, KOLs are usually the primary thought leaders involved in the actual development of a compound or clinical enrichment activities. KOLs are often included on expert panels that recommend clinical and prescribing practices, and are involved in publishing treatment guidelines. These are your quotable content experts.

DOLs Are Social Media Savants With Outsized Reach
DOLs have the most to contribute when it comes to communication strategies specific to social media. Because of their outsized reach on various social media platforms (with followers often in the millions), their value to pharma companies is in posting frequent content that is both relevant and resonates with their audience. DOLs are defined by their social media presence and should be engaged specifically on that level, due to their ability to amplify a marketing message.

Besides their ability to post with frequency, DOLs also understand social currency and may advise pharma companies on the most viable and engaging content, which is based on measured engagement activities (likes, shares, comments). So, invite DOLs to create original digital content, live-tweet during an event, or collaborate with you on your marketing message.

COLs, the Most Visible Leaders in Health Care
COLs are savvy clinicians and investigators who have an active Web presence and, like DOLs, have a wide reach. While COLs are indeed practicing physicians, they also know how to engage through digital channels. They help disseminate important information much like KOLs, but know how to articulate the highlights in a way that is more engaging for online platforms. This is especially beneficial because most providers these days have less time to attend formal lectures or read dense journal publications.

COLs have a more authoritative voice than DOLs, and should primarily be engaged on physician-specific channels or through various online health communities. The network built by COLs makes them appropriate targets for online advisory boards or consulting opportunities. They bridge the gap left by KOLs and DOLs by helping a digital audience navigate new medical, regulatory, or marketing challenges specific to a product’s life cycle.

A recent article called COLs “the most visible vectors of innovation today.” You should definitely look to COLs when planning your digital marketing strategy. Invite them to contribute authentic content, which is essential to quality communications, and seek out collaboration opportunities with appropriate COLs who can bring attention to your message.

By learning about the different types of thought leaders, you can leverage their influence most effectively to promote your pharma products.