Keeping up with KOLs

Jul 21, 2009

It's a fact of life that 'new' sells. Whether it's an electronic gadget or a management idea, we all love the new and eschew the old. I thought of this recently when, at a conference on key opinion leadership, many of the delegates hailed KOL management as the critical issue for their future growth. They were right of course. They all worked for research-based companies fighting off inferior but much cheaper generics. For them, survival means inventing great new products and getting them to peak sales level very quickly. In that game, KOL management is critical, but whilst they saw this as news, I saw it in a longer perspective.

Gabriel Tarde1 started it all in about 1890 when he pointed out the different buying behaviour of innovators and imitators. His ideas slept for half a century until, based on research into US president Franklin D. Roosevelt's 1944 election campaign, Katz and Larzarsfeld introduced the term 'opinion leaders' for people who influenced their peers.2 Famously, E.M. Rogers built on their ideas to create the innovation of diffusion model3 and it is from this stream of work that all our ideas about KOL management flow.

Although there's been a lot of extension and development of the theory, not much has changed fundamentally in the 50 years since and, in the pharmaceutical industry, there's disappointingly little good research on how KOL management works.

That lack of good research triggered some recent exploratory studies I've been carrying out with a group of pharmaceutical executives, trying to gather their views on the future of KOL management.4 The work has revealed an interesting picture. They see the management of KOLs becoming not only more important but also more difficult. Competition for KOL attention will become more intense and, as KOLs come to include health economists and politicians, the network of KOL relationships will increase in complexity exponentially rather than linearly. In response to this, firm strategies vary in detail but have a strong common thread. KOL management will become more formal, more integrated and more dependent on specialised software. As one executive put it, "Today's KOL management will compare to tomorrow's like a Model-T Ford to a new Ferrari." Well put, I thought.

So an old idea is coming back to be the next big thing, amplified and augmented by powerful information technology. I wonder what Tarde would have made of it?

Further reading
1. Wärneryd K-E, "The Psychological Underpinnings of Economics: Economic Psychology According to Gabriel Tarde," Journal of Socio-Economics, October 2008, 37 (5):1685–702.
2. Katz E., Lazarsfeld P.F, Personal Influence: The Part Played by People in the Flow of Mass Communication (Free Press, New York 1955).
3. Rogers, E.M.,The Diffusion of Innovations (1st Ed., Free Press, New York 1962).
4. Smith, Brian, "An Exploratory Study of Key Opinion Leadership Management Trends amongst European Pharmaceutical Companies," Paper under review for the Journal of Medical Marketing. Contact [email protected] for a copy.

Dr Brian D. Smith runs PragMedic, a specialist strategy consultancy.

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