Activating Digital Opinion Leaders

User research informs education website

Since we have considered the role of Digital Opinion Leaders in shaping the behaviour of others, it will be essential for a pharmaceutical company wishing to partner with Digital Opinion Leaders to take steps to encourage positive engagement. This does not occur by chance but is possible by taking a three-step process:

  1. Identify Digital Opinion Leaders
  2. Engage Digital Opinion Leaders
  3. Activate Digital Opinion Leaders

At first glance this approach may appear to be similar to the traditional method of working with Key Opinion Leaders. The difference is that, as we have already seen, in the digital world the role of influencers is non-linear and not limited by traditional models of stakeholder engagement.

1. How to identify Digital Opinion Leaders

Accurate targeting will ensure the most effective deployment of resources in activating Digital Opinion Leaders, and will increase the likelihood of positive outcomes. To identify those influencers who will be most relevant and effective for a pharmaceutical company, the goals of Digital Opinion Leader engagement should be clearly defined.

What is the desired outcome of Digital Opinion Leader activity? Is it, for example, to influence prescriber behaviour, or that of patients? To influence policy? Or to prepare a market for a product launch? Identifying these goals will direct the search for digital opinion leaders.

Research into Digital Opinion Leaders may take place using a range of tools, including the following:

  • Social Media Research, or ‘Passive Listening’ includes analysis of themes, language, and attitudes discussed around a particular topic such as a disease area or drug, to identify channels and individuals of influence.
  • Digital Primary Research often involves ‘Active Listening’, asking research questions in a social media environment, and may include any form of primary research such as surveys or polls posted onto websites, forums, communities or by email.
  • Digital Influence Analysis is an in-depth study of the influence of individuals online. Attention is given not merely to the numbers – such as number of followers – but to the focus of engagement, to identify insights relevant to the goals that have been set.
  • Digital User Behaviour Analysis is the study of actual and likely journeys taken by stakeholders across digital channels and may include search activity, social media engagement, and website content browsing. A range of software tools and manual analysis techniques are used to develop a picture of user journeys in order to plan for the role of Digital Opinion Leaders.
  • Closed Networks Review includes a diverse range of research approaches inside closed networks, subject to tools and techniques made available by providers of platforms such as doctors’ social networks.

All of the activities above may be carried out either by a pharmaceutical company’s in-house teams, or by external multichannel research and planning specialists such as Creation Healthcare, or in many cases, a combination of both.

In my book, Pathways to Engagement for Healthcare Organizations, I write about Pfizer’s ‘Can You Feel My Pain’ initiative which was awarded the Healthcare Engagement Strategy ‘Patient Empowerment’ Award for its activation of patients and advocacy groups online. Louise Clark, Director International Public Affairs and Policy at Pfizer describes the use of research in the campaign planning process: “We carried out research to look at who was talking about what, in which places; and those greatest places of engagement opportunity were our initial target.”

2. How to engage Digital Opinion Leaders

Having identified possible Digital Opinion Leaders, establishing mutual goals will be essential to any successful collaboration, advocacy or partnership. Engaging Digital Opinion Leaders may take place online or offline, although digital channels are often used for initial contact.

For over three years, Roche Diabetes Care has been engaging an online community of diabetes bloggers in the US. Rob Müller, Associate Marketing Manager with Roche, says that the engagement started with honest conversations in the online communities where the bloggers were active. “We went in [to online communities] and told everybody, ‘Hi, I’m Rob, I’m with Roche, I’m here to answer any questions you may have’”, he says.

It takes patience to engage Digital Opinion Leaders, as trust is established over time. For Roche Diabetes Care, it has been worthwhile. After the company had hosted an annual summit of diabetes bloggers for three years, one of the bloggers, Kerri Sparling, wrote about the Summit: “Seeing my fellow diabetes bloggers and advocates is always the highlight of this summit.  I can’t lie about that.  Walking into a room and wanting to hug everyone in it is a rare thing. However, since this was the third Roche Summit I’ve attended, I sort of wanted to hug the Roche people, too.”

Partnering with Digital Opinion Leaders requires an alignment of messages that serve mutual goals, and selection of channels for the most effective impact. Research carried out during the identification step is likely to inform these requirements.

In some cases, the collaboration between a pharmaceutical company and Digital Opinion Leaders is relatively uncoordinated, with few parameters of channels fixed. In others, deliberate selection and use of specific channels between partners can support the building of engagement momentum.

“We learned a lot from talking with the patient groups and understanding how we could shape the campaign,” says Pfizer’s Louise Clark about the ‘Can You Feel My Pain’ initiative in which the company partnered with patient advocacy groups across Europe using social media channels including Flickr to share photos.

3. How to activate Digital Opinion Leaders

Having identified and engaged Digital Opinion Leaders, activating them is a deliberate step to ensure that their advocacy or engagement is communicated online to those who they influence. As with any partnership, the Digital Opinion Leader must see the value in this process to them, not just to the pharmaceutical company.

Value given to Digital Opinion leaders may take various forms, such as increasing the profile or status of the Digital Opinion Leader; providing a new platform or tools for engagement; providing unique knowledge; up-skilling the Digital Opinion Leader for digital engagement; or or support for a mutual cause.

“We helped [our partners] to deliver beyond this campaign, online… Now these organizations are tweeting, undertaking their own social media activities,” says Louise Clark about Pfizer’s partnership with European patient advocacy groups which equipped them to be more active online.

In some cases, then, activating a Digital Opinion Leader means strengthening the ‘digital’ aspect of their opinion leadership. Thus any current opinion leader may become a Digital Opinion Leader by being digitally equipped or activated.

Finally, the quest for Digital Opinion Leaders does not necessarily negate the role of traditional Key Opinion Leaders or current channels used in KOL activation. Remember that even Digital Opinion Leaders are real people offline, too.

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