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Operating Models for Successful DOL Engagement

Pharmaceutical ExecutivePharmaceutical Executive: April 2024
Volume 45
Issue 4

How life sciences companies can design an effective operating model for DOL engagements.

Jenna Phillips

Jenna Phillips
Health and life sciences expert
PA Consulting

With influencer marketing spend hitting $4.14 billion in 2022, life sciences companies are increasingly looking for ways to leverage social media channels to improve their brand reach and awareness through healthcare digital opinion leaders (DOLs). DOLs influence healthcare providers (HCPs), patients, and scientists through their social media presence and can support life sciences companies with a variety of go-to-market activities, ranging from advisory support to co-creation of social media content to posting content on their social media platforms.

A successful DOL engagement approach must be underpinned by a strong operating model for engaging, collaborating with, and compensating DOLs. Without a well-defined operating model, life sciences companies often face challenges with recruitment of the right DOLs, inefficient processes when DOLs are engaged, and potential legal and compliance risks.

Erik Moen

Erik Moen
Health and life sciences expert
PA Consulting

PA has worked with life sciences clients to develop DOL engagement models that align with their existing KOL engagement models. One of our clients was interested in supplementing their engagement with DOLs and requested PA’s support to develop a standard DOL compensation methodology. PA used primary market research to assess compensation models and ranges, developed a tiered methodology and compensation ranges for DOLs based on social media metrics, tested the methodology with several DOLs that the client was actively looking to engage, and worked closely with Legal & Compliance stakeholders and brand leads to validate the output. As a result of our work, the client has a standard process and methodology for engaging and compensating DOLs to drive consistency in the process and minimize compliance risk.

In this article, we offer tips to help guide life science companies in establishing effective operating models for DOL engagements based on our experience working in regulated industries to drive commercial success.

1: Consider where in your organization DOLs will offer the most value

Many life sciences companies associate DOL engagements with commercial or marketing functions. While it makes sense for commercial or marketing to own certain types of DOL engagements, such as leveraging a DOL’s expertise to co-create social media content, there are also cases where other functions like medical affairs, patient advocacy, and clinical operations are well-positioned to engage DOLs.

For example, medical affairs and patient advocacy teams could engage DOLs to participate in fireside chats or to co-create educational content on their social media platforms targeting clinicians. Novartis recently took this approach in their recent post on X (formerly Twitter) about the pathophysiology of paroxysmal nocturnal hemoglobinuria to educate a broad audience. Similarly, Clinical Operations stakeholders might look to use DOLs to support clinical trial recruitment via healthcare stakeholders, or to share findings related to products in clinical development. For example, Dr. Vincent Rajkumar’s recent post on X shared information about myeloma treatment options.

One benefit of these engagement models is that DOLs may be more comfortable collaborating with non-commercial teams on engagements that are more focused on clinician education. By taking a more cross-functional approach to DOL engagement, life sciences companies can more effectively recruit DOLs while also minimizing compliance risk.

2: Align DOL processes with existing KOL processes where possible, but be flexible to add new ways of working if needed

Many life sciences companies already have processes in place for engaging key opinion leaders (KOLs) for advisory boards, speaker events, and consulting engagements. In many cases, existing processes for engaging and compensating KOLs can be partially or fully leveraged for DOL engagements.

For example, the process of engaging a dermatologist DOL to advise a pharmaceutical marketing team on digital content creation for psoriasis drugs will be similar to the approach taken to engage a dermatologist KOL to advise on the product strategy for the same psoriasis drug. In both cases, the HCP is engaged for their expertise and will be compensated for the time spent providing advisory services, typically on a per-hour basis. Leveraging different processes and compensation models for the two HCPs would create inefficiencies and raise compliance risks.

Alternatively, in cases where DOL engagements require use of the DOL’s digital platform, new processes for engaging and compensating the DOLs may be required. If a DOL is engaged to co-create educational content with a medical affairs team and then post the content on their own social media account, it may be more sensible to compensate the DOL for the creation and posting of the content, rather than for the time they spent to post the content. While using existing KOL processes will make it easier to integrate DOL engagements into business-as-usual and reduce compliance risks associated with DOL compensation, new processes will be required for certain types of DOL engagements.

3: Define effective KPIs for DOL engagements

It is critical for life sciences companies to define key performance indicators (KPIs) for DOLs to assess whether DOL engagements are delivering value and to inform future DOL engagements. Typical marketing metrics, such as click-through rates and return on ad spend are less useful for DOL engagements since the goal of engaging DOLs is to leverage their influence or online reach to support educational outcomes. In our experience, life sciences companies should use KPIs that more closely align with the objectives of DOL engagements.

For example, if a medical affairs team engages an oncology DOL to post on X with the goal of raising awareness of treatment options for breast cancer, using social media metrics like (the number of people that view the post) or (the number of people that interact with the post) will provide the best view of the DOL’s influence or reach. A similar scenario could occur when a Marketing team leverages a DOL’s expertise to create branded content to post on the pharma company’s social media platforms. The content might provide information targeted at a clinician audience about an oncology product and have the goal of increasing the number of prescriptions for the drug written by HCPs. In that case, the KPIs could be based on new-to-brand prescriptions (NBRx). In this instance, the DOL could only be compensated for their advisory services and would not be able to post the branded content on their own social media platforms to avoid violating anti-kickback regulations.

In cases where social media metrics are used, DOLs can use creator reports from their social media platforms of choice to track impressions, engagements, followers, and other metrics.

For life sciences companies that want to use DOLs to enhance brand awareness and provide educational content online, having an effective DOL engagement strategy is critical. Without a strong operating model for DOL collaborations, these companies may face difficulties with DOL recruitment, create inefficient or duplicative processes that stymie DOL engagements, or even raise legal and compliance risks.

As life sciences companies work to develop effective operating models for DOL engagements, they should consider where DOLs will offer the most value and provide opportunities for non-Commercial functions to work with DOLs, leverage existing KOL processes where possible, and define effective KPIs for assessing DOL engagements. Our experience has demonstrated that DOL channels can be highly effective in augmenting business outcomes across pharmaceutical organizations, when applied appropriately.

Jenna Phillips is a health and life sciences expert at PA Consulting
Erik Moen is a health and life sciences expert at PA Consulting

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