Breaking out of the erratic Digital Opinion Leader engagement cycle

By Laura McIntyre

Earlier this year, my colleague Anni Neumann spoke about the need for a paradigm shift to improve Digital Opinion Leader (DOL) engagement strategies. Among other great insights from CREATION.co’s experience, Anni highlighted the importance of starting with the big picture and moving systematically from DOL identification, to engagement, to activation.

One of the greatest impacts this paradigm shift in strategy can yield across the industry is the ability to establish healthy DOL activation frameworks that are rooted in trust and meaningful collaboration, which in turn produce tangible business results. 

At CREATION.co, we see this hunger for change is already across the largest pharmaceutical companies, as they seek ways to break out of the erratic “paid Tweet” cycle with their DOLs. We are talking to them about how to step further from routine DOL mapping and look to embed sustainable DOL strategies, both globally and locally. 

After all, DOL activation is a process which is rooted in meaningful relationship building. It takes time, effort and good planning to build, develop and maintain a successful DOL activation strategy.

The value of a relationship

While it is difficult to put a monetary value on a relationship there is and should be a measurable return on investment (ROI) in your DOL activation. A decade of DOL mapping and consulting has shown us that the ROI in this case stems from ​​value transfer. It operates as a cycle and produces qualitative (such as corporate reputation, mobilising of patients, insights) and quantitative (such as market access, prescriptions) ROI. What they both look like in practice is dependent on your objectives and the challenges you are looking to solve, or the behaviours you are looking to change. Therefore, having a clear focus of your DOL initiative is essential to ensure you are driving the right results.

The Qualitative and Quantitative ROI from building HCP relationships

Qualitative ROIQuantitative ROI
Corporate reputation:Market Access:
- Trust- Pricing
- Partnership- Reimbursement
- Collaboration- Payer engagement
Mobilising patients Prescriptions
Data and Insights:Patients on treatment
- Insight-led activitiesOrganic leads:
- Content planning- Email campaigns
- Brand Planning- MSL Contacts
Awareness- Traffic

DOL activation journey

To help teams develop clear focus and ensure they are driving the right results, CREATION.co have identified 6 steps in the DOL activation journey. The first three seek to set a good foundation and the last three dive into more “hands on” phases:

  • What is a Digital Opinion Leader?
  • Why do we need Digital Opinion Leaders?
  • Who are the right Digital Opinion Leaders for us?
  • Building strategy
  • Planning and execution
  • Measuring

Let me walk you through this journey of DOL activation with CREATION.co step by step. 

What is a Digital Opinion Leader?

Asking your team this question at the start of the DOL project may seem strange but too often, future hurdles can be rooted in past assumptions. Before the work starts we sit down with the team to make sure that we are all on the same page and have a unified understanding of the DOL concept across the relevant parts of the organisation. This may include understanding what truly makes a DOL, what types of DOLs there are and what are the ways to engage them that exist. It is often a good time to learn how DOLs are different from KOLs (not stating the obvious) and what this means for your DOL strategy. 

Why do we need Digital Opinion Leaders?

Now that the team is aligned on the core element of the project, aim to be as specific as you can while exploring why you really need DOLs. Too many teams jump aboard a DOL ship purely because they are following a trend or because someone told them to. Clear understanding of what challenge you are trying to solve and how will DOL activation support that challenge, will shape your DOL activation strategy direction and focus. 

Who are the right Digital Opinion Leaders for us?

Trust us, not all DOLs are the right DOLs for you and your team. Pinpoint which DOL relationships will help address earlier identified challenges and add value to your objectives. Invest time in the DOL due-diligence process to avoid future risks and build an effective DOL identification and selection process you can rely on in the future.

Building DOL activation strategy 

If you followed the steps carefully you should have a good idea of why and where you want the DOL activation to take you. Now it is important to understand how you will get there. In order to identify what steps are needed to plan effective activation we work with the team on defining what success will look like and how we will measure it, and determine if there is the right infrastructure and risk management plan in place to sustain the DOL relationships long-term. 

Planning and execution

In our years of experience of working with pharmaceutical clients, it is this stage of planning and execution which often gets overlooked by some but that we believe is crucial to success. It is important to plan in detail the actions and tasks. A lot of time-consuming activities can be avoided with planning ahead and having accountability.
During this phase, we work with teams to develop clear DOL activation plans and determine other stakeholders’ (such as legal and compliance) involvement and engagement. 


Now that your activation strategy is up and running, it is key to look back at the objectives and KPIs you have set out and measure results. Some success measures will be leading indicators, giving early indications of performance when the ultimate success metrics need a longer time to measure. These indicators “lead” to results by showing the progress we are making towards the goal and will help keep the team on track in order to hit the strategic objectives. Others will be the ultimate, yet lagging, indicators of success – metrics that take a longer time to impact or measure.

During this step we measure, reevaluate and re-align consistently and feed back the leading indicators to the team to create agility and sustain momentum. Lessons learned are then captured, collective intelligence shared and success celebrated to inspire other business areas.

What have we learned?

  • Planning often takes more time than anticipated, therefore timelines may look different to initial expectations – setting the right expectations from the start is key. You are building a relationship with real people and developing trust takes time.
  • In-depth landscape insights and richness of DOL profiles is not to be taken lightly – to determine the right tactics and to make informed decisions, the team really needs to fully understand the key digital customer insights.
  • Intelligence silos within teams need to and can be broken through cross-functional collaboration. Your colleagues may have valuable knowledge or experience around your DOLs and can determine the success of your project.
  • Consent to contact DOLs and first DOL contact roadmap can be more complicated than you think – utilise the collective intelligence of your team and compliance resources to ensure smooth operations.
  • Plan well to feed into MSL and medical advisor work – think of the first and then every subsequent contact your DOL will have. DOLs will see it as a customer experience with the brand as a whole – make sure the right team is taking care of your DOLs day-to-day and that ALL the messaging is aligned.
  • Getting the new DOLs on the existing activities/events/resources is not a small task, but nonetheless an important one.
  • Bring in legal early – envisioned, and collaborative legal colleagues can be success enablers. 

At CREATION.co, we have been working with clients in healthcare and specifically large pharmaceuticals on their Digital Opinion Leader activities for over a decade – in fact, we were the first to introduce the term ‘Digital Opinion Leader’ to the industry, in 2012. During that time, we have worked with many clients and on many projects that are at all stages of the DOL journey. 

If you are new to this approach and just want to discuss where you could start, we would be very happy to talk to you about what could be possible. However, if you are further into your DOL projects and are perhaps feeling underwhelmed and uninspired by what you have achieved so far, or you are just wondering how you can improve the work done to date, we are full of ideas and very happy to help our pharma clients at whatever stage they’re at, so please get in touch.

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Meet the Author

Laura McIntyre