Identifying digital opinion leaders and social media influencers

Oct 13, 2021

Q. What do Ed Sheeran and Dr Tyler Black have in common?

A. They have both used social media to fuel their trajectory to great success. While one is (occasionally) a doll, the other is most certainly a DOL.

What is a DOL?

As with many a fine acronym, it is in common usage, but there is not actually consensus about what it means. What actually constitutes a ‘DOL’ in Pharma?

As an industry, we can be guilty of looking at the consumer world and expect things to apply in the same way. But you’re not going to get someone with 34.5 million followers in Pharma. Sorry. Different metrics apply. And you can take three zeros off for a start. Tyler Black, regarded as an exemplary DOL, stumps up just shy of 40k followers on Twitter.

For us, a DOL is someone posting on a regular and consistent basis about a disease. They will have a significantly higher number of followers on social media than their peers. Their followers will consist of a substantial number of HCPs, important organisations and journals. In short; they influence the influential.

Why are DOLs important?

In our current research, we’re finding that only 10-20 % of our KOLs are on social in a meaningful way. The other 80% may have an account but they are not using it much.

But of course, there are millions of doctors, customers and opinion leaders who are reading Twitter posts. If you’re silent in that environment the only voice your customers will hear is that of your competitors – or detractors. Whether it’s live comment or a repository of ‘evergreen’ content for people to find when they’re looking, it is important that people find authentic and expert references around your brand over time, not just a short-lived marketing push.

DOL? KOL? What’s the difference?

A KOL has his or her credentials backed up by traditional publications, conference presentations to their name, guideline authorships, organisation committee roles; a DOL is certified by the number of important people following them and the number of posts in their area.

We see three different types of DOL:

  1. Traditional KOLs who are strong on social.
  2. DOLs who are posting a lot, with lots of important followers, who are making informed comments on existing research.
  3. Then there’s the Holy Grail: people who are using social as a brand-new platform for disseminating and discussing research – circumventing traditional channels. They’re sharing their nascent research with their online audience, getting feedback and builds; informing themselves and making their research better known without being published in the Lancet. A bit like Ed Sheeran who, in the digital era, didn’t need to hang out in Kings Cross hoping to ambush Universal’s R&D guy or gal with his demo tape when he could simply broadcast what he liked from his bedroom.

How do you separate the headliners from the fake news?

Straight DOLs are hard to find as you have to trawl through all the noise – the generic content related to a subject area, depression for example, rather than content of interest to HCPs.

Our approach is to use the very best of technology and the very best of people to get the right results. We use all the automated tools known to man and woman and then having done that we put real human beings onto it and manually check every result that comes up on the list. Whatever the subject matter, we are looking for someone our clients can work with as people.

What is the opportunity?

There is a massive opportunity for any client prepared to put in the work over the next 2-3 years and either develop their existing traditional KOL base into digital influencers or to find new blood and build relations.

How do you go about this? What can you bring to the table as a Pharma company?
DOL’s don’t feel as tied to the machine; they’ve got where they have off their own back, they’ve created their own profile. They don’t need to jump how high at the behest of the ‘label’.
What does a record company give to Ed Sheeran? The marketing and the big push. It’s about adding value to the DOL.

Will DOLs kill KOLs?

20 years ago, someone asked me “is digital the death of paper?” and I said, “you’d never read a computer on the beach”. In some ways I was right and in some ways I was wrong.

Yes, we’re all on screens on our sunbeds. But while it’s a different device, it’s still the same story. It’s the way of communicating it which is changing; always has been.

In 10 years time having a scientific discussion on social media will be as normal as having a satellite symposium – or whatever medium the kids who’ve just started secondary school will have dreamt up for us by then.

Does being a DOL favour the young?

I think it does. Our children’s generation has grown up with phones and when people talk about screen time it makes me laugh – go and live in the Victorian era and send them down the mine for some exercise. We see PHDs and researchers use social media a lot, so it will become much more mainstream within the industry over the next decade.

Will we have, not KOLs or DOLs, but rather HOLs?

At some point the distinction becomes immaterial. I’m going to put my flag in the sand and say HOLs will kill DOLs and KOLs and it will just be people with opinions again. Human Opinion Leaders. And we can help you find them.

By Simon Rosenberg


Related content: Find out more about DOL mapping and advocacy.

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