A beginner’s guide to HCP Digital Opinion Leaders for Medical Affairs

31.07.2023 | Pharma 101

A beginner’s guide to HCP Digital Opinion Leaders for Medical Affairs

CREATION.co defines a Digital Opinion Leader (DOL) as an individual or an organisation, who influences the views or behaviour of other health stakeholders through their digital activity. However, DOLs are often confused with KOLs (Key Opinion Leaders) who can hold similar characteristics to some degree, yet differ in their key purpose

Typically only 20% of Digital Opinion Leaders are also Key Opinion Leaders 

A KOL is usually a healthcare professional who is considered to be an expert in their field due to their seniority, experience and role, and especially their publications within more traditional channels of media. 

In contrast, DOLs have greater influence online, often through multiple channels. They make use of their online influence by connecting with their peers and other healthcare stakeholders through social media platforms. 

Nevertheless, their influence is significantly different due to the access they have. While a KOL may be restricted to the room and conference where they are presenting, a DOL who is seated in the same room could be sharing their thoughts with thousands of people online who can engage with and discuss the same content. 

DOLs and KOLs differ in their characteristics, however, it is possible for a DOL to be a KOL and vice versa. Whilst having a great level of experience and influence on traditional platforms, a KOL could also intentionally choose to build their influence on social media platforms, thus classifying them as a DOL as well. Typically we see when identifying the top 10 DOLs in a specific treatment area, only 20%, 2, are likely to also be KOLs.

What makes a Digital Opinion Leader?

Activity – When being considered for DOL status, a key point we observe is how active the HCP is online and the level of engagement they receive from their peers with regards to the specific therapy area or topic being focused on. This shows a level of trust in the DOL’s content through the network of HCPs they have built. 

Reach among HCPs – The strength of a DOL’s network online is an indication of the reach their content can have. For example a DOL based in England could be followed by an HCP in Australia who could retweet their post to their own following thus expanding the DOL’s reach much further than their own level of influence. 

Trust and influence among HCPs – A key sign of trust in an HCP can be seen through the number of HCP followers. In turn with their growing number of followers the number of retweets and mentions can signify that level of trust and influence their content has with their peers.

How does an influencer differ from a DOL?

Within the healthcare space, an influencer often differs from a DOL in certain aspects. Although having a large level of influence online, they are rarely practising HCPs themselves and their influence often has little to no impact on HCP views and behaviours. As they grow on social media their content is typically associated with brands through sponsored content and there is minimal focus towards clinical data that is generated through their personal engagement with other HCPs as is a key factor of DOLs. Having an independent, unbiased voice online is a significant part of being a DOL as their content is not generated through sponsorships. 

Why are DOLs important? 

Here are a few points to understand why DOLs are important and why their opinion is relevant within the healthcare industry. 

  • DOLs can affect peers’ knowledge, beliefs and viewpoints.
  • DOLs can influence local and global HCP behaviours.
  • DOLs can support unbranded communications, marketing and content strategies. 
  • DOLs can be identified to relate to specific business goals.

Which DOLs should you engage with within your therapy area?

A number of metrics can not only determine which online HCPs are DOLs but also whether they are a good fit for your project specifically within your therapy area. Some of the metrics our team at CREATION.co look at are: 

  • Do they post relevant content?
  • Do they have an HCP or public following? 
  • Are they trusted among their online peers?
  • Are they active in the online conversation surrounding their therapy area? 
  • Do they have public influence? 
  • Are they active across multiple platforms?
  • Are they in an existing relationship with you? 

What makes the right mix of DOLs for your company? 

To create the right mix of DOLs for your company, a couple of questions need to be answered first; 

  • Is our goal primarily awareness, activity and influence, or are we looking for partnership and activation with the DOLs?
  • Do we need a mix of Advocates and Detractors? 
  • Do we need a mix of roles (prescribers, pharmacists, patients, scientists)?
  • Do we need a mix of DOL social behaviours across different social channels?

Different DOLs, different focuses

Whilst establishing a DOLs status based on the quantitative metrics of level of engagement and reach, we also take a qualitative approach in terms of whether their content is being received by their followers in a negative or positive manner. 

Nevertheless, they all are content creators as a whole however, we often categorise them further based on certain characteristics observed in the manner in which a DOL chooses to share content. For example Allyson Ocean has been categorised as a ‘Digital messenger’, which can be explained as someone who shares relevant information from other HCPs to her following thus, engaging with a broader audience. Mark Lewis, another DOL, has been categorised as a Patient advocate. Whilst sharing content that empathises with patients suffering with cancer, he is also a previous patient who has suffered with cancer himself hence, he shares a more personal association with those who suffer with the disease giving his content a different perspective due his personal experience. 

KOL Campaign vs DOL Campaign

As has already been established, a KOL differs from a DOL, which in turn results in different campaigns set up for these two categories.

To set up a KOL campaign, you often first need to identify the KOLs through their academic and congress publications as well as guidelines, which add credibility to their position within the campaign. After which a contract is set up with the KOL in order to engage them to produce more publications that meet your requirements. 

A DOL campaign on the other hand looks different as the manner in which you identify a DOL is often quite dynamic and can change over time. A key factor to the whole process is the building of a relationship between you and the DOL, that is founded on trust. This can only be achieved through understanding their interests, needs and conversations from an unbiased perspective that can only be done by listening to their online conversations over time. This is due to DOLs being especially concerned in protecting their independent and ‘unbought’ opinion online for the benefit of their followers. This is starkly different from a KOL campaign as over the years an understanding of the relationship being transactional in return for their time at key events is expected. Therefore, our teams help in assisting you in looking for compliant and creative ways you can engage with DOLs based on their interests and needs. 

Daniel Ghinn, CEO at CREATION.co and Paul Grant, in their book, ‘101 ways to transform your Pharmaceutical Brand Strategy’ look into a number of ways in which pharmaceutical companies can engage with DOLs in an engaging and effective way. We also regularly update our list of 14 ways you can engage HCP Digital Opinion Leaders.

How to get started?

With over 25 years of experience listening to and understanding the voice of HCPs online, CREATION.co has built a growing data set of 3 million HCP social media profiles where we can identify the right set of DOLs for your project. Our research provides you with a strong understanding of what are the drivers behind the social media platforms HCPs are using, what they care about, and how to build long lasting relationships with them in an engaging and authentic manner. 

If you would like more information about DOLs, CREATION.co has a range of free educational resources, irrespective of where you are within your own DOL strategy planning. You can also get in touch with us to set up a 1-2-1 meeting with one of our consultants to understand what a DOL project could look like for you. 

Share this article

Meet the Author

Natalie Verghese

Natalie uses her passion for social media, content and all things creative to educate pharmaceutical companies on what HCPs think and CREATION.co’s services.

As a huge dog lover, Natalie enjoys spending time playing and walking her dog, Lucas. She also runs a food blog called Natknowsgoodfood, where she enjoys trying out different cuisines from around the world.