Marketing to Professionals: Key Opinion Control

KOL relationship management should be an essential component of any pharma brand team.
Oct 01, 2006


Jim Zuffoletti
Marketing effectively to physicians in today's pharmaceutical industry is more important than ever. No longer can companies rely solely on DTC and sales force efforts to increase drug and therapeutics revenue.

Peer-to-peer programs have emerged as pharma's strategic means to narrow the knowledge gap between existing product data and physician awareness of this information. Key opinion leaders (KOLs) in the physician community are relied upon by their peers to provide a realistic assessment of a drug's effectiveness. Because of this, scientific discussions initiated by medical thought leaders stand out, especially in a highly regulated and media-saturated environment.


Otavio Freire
With pharma looking for efficient and effective ways to manage their relationships with leading physicians, KOL relationship management has now emerged as its own business discipline. Companies that create and maintain meaningful and complex relationships with KOLs on a mass scale will enjoy increased market share and revenues.

Because of federal and PhRMA guidelines, relationships with these physicians are heavily regulated. So it's not just managing the KOL relationships that pharma companies are struggling with, but also integrating this management across functional groups, from medical to marketing, and through the lifecycle of a drug, to derive an efficient, collaborative relationship. Pharma companies must make sure that coordination efforts don't create additional challenges or conflicts of interest.

KOLs are rapidly emerging as one of the most effective strategies for marketing drugs effectively. Companies typically spend 15 to 25 percent of their marketing budget on speaking events, many of which involve KOLs. Much of the promotional and educational material distributed by pharma also is built on research or studies executed by KOLs, further boosting their ROI for companies. A 2004 report by Cutting Edge highlighted KOL development as the second most important product-launch expenditure.

The Evolving KOL Relationship

Determining the best KOLs with whom to collaborate becomes a critical facet of the path that a particular drug or therapy will take. A KOL with a poor match in expertise, skills, or experience with company needs could negatively affect the support for a drug on the market, or even affect a drug's success or effectiveness before it hits the mass market.

In a recent Forrester Research survey in which a number of vice presidents, CIOs, and CMOs were interviewed regarding the impact of KOL relationships, participants identified KOL management practice as "extremely important" for management.

Pharma is willing to invest more in KOL management, but only with an empowered emphasis on efficiency. Six valuable interactions with a KOL can have more impact than eight inconsequential interactions—and it can be less expensive. KOLs themselves echo this thinking.

The public is not the only group losing patience with the pharmaceutical industry. KOLs are also losing faith in pharmaceutical companies. Some KOLs compare pharma companies to the many-headed Hydra of ancient mythology in terms of the different directions in which they move, and the positions they take. Moreover, KOLs feel the pain of an inefficient pharmaceutical company on their practices. An inefficient or wasteful interaction costs them time, which is their most precious commodity. Both parties concur that inefficiency is costly, agreeing that jointly attacking that inefficiency is a powerful means to collaboration.

The large number of potential KOLs makes enterprise-wide adoption of centralized KOL management an essential part of any brand program. While specifics vary by company size, type of therapy, and its adoption in the market, working with KOLs generally involves a number of critical elements, including:

A systematic approach to KOL identification and profiling The beginning of any KOL program starts with the answer to the question of "Who?" Who are the top thinkers in the field? Who are the next generation? And how can a company go about staying current with the answers to the above questions, while remaining consistent in their KOL identification methodology? Another key question to answer is "What?" All KOLs are not created equal and as pharma moves to engaging a KOL most efficiently, it is critical to understand the KOL's development objectives and capabilities.