Under the influence

In the new age of influence is the traditional Key Opinion Leader model still relevant?

I was recently lucky enough to see Mr. Dave Trott, advertising guru, rant at a room full of SEO specialists in Brighton. He drew the crowd’s attention to a basic principle of messaging to the masses: the focus of successful marketing activity should never be on the channel, it should always be on the “punter” (I should mention David is originally from the east end of London, Cor blimey, guv’nor, strike a light etc. etc.)

With the rise of digital channels, particularly social media, we’ve seen the emergence of a new kind of punter – one that Trott sees at the heart of the most effective communication strategies: the punter with influence. Target your spend to the ‘opinion formers’, he reasons, and you’ll also pick up the ‘opinion followers’ without needing to target them separately with a far higher, more diffuse budget.

Obviously, the notion of focusing spend on opinion formers is nothing new to the pharma industry. There’s an established tradition of drug firms reaching out to Key Opinion Leaders in order to exploit their influence with their peers; and now, digital channels – particularly social media – offer new ways both to identify opinion leaders and for these KOLs to disseminate their messages.

Harnessing a new breed of ‘influencer’?

Social media have also led to the emergence of a new and vocal group of ‘KOLs’ who break the traditional mould by not necessarily being academic boffins, regular conference speakers or even medical professionals. Rather, they are bloggers, pundits and commentators whose voices and expertise, once largely behind the scenes, are now being amplified through the internet: they might be patients; they might represent advocacy groups; they could be writing for established online media, or running their own blogs. Let’s call them ‘Influencers’, rather than KOLs for the sake of clarity.

There are even tools to identify them, including Klout, Peerindex and new kid on the block Kred. And the tools don’t stop at influencer identification, they can even help brands to reach out and reward individuals for promoting corporate messages. Klout and Peerindex currently highlight brands such as Disney, P&G, Nike and Reebok who’ve used these services and clearly deem them to be of value.

That said, the potential of services like these – particularly in terms of the accuracy of just how well they do (or don’t) work – currently remains uncertain, and it’s easy to find criticism of the actual algorithms underpinning them.

Klout, for example, recently overhauled its service to ensure that singer Justin Bieber was no longer considered more influential than Barack Obama, and the service still doesn’t take into account – for example – users who are active and have a strong following on YouTube. It still also deems me an expert in smartphones, despite not even owning one.

I guess the question from a healthcare marketing point of view is whether tools like this can help the pharma industry. Do they highlight a new way to identify, harness and reward a new breed of Influencer, and ensure (as best they can) that some of the loudest voices in the social choir are singing from approved hymn sheets?

From my perspective, as someone who spends a fair proportion of time reviewing online environments specific to therapy area or disease issues, the first part of this question isn’t hard to answer: yes, tools like Klout can help identify influencers (as can the services of healthcare specific providers such as Sharecare), but can these influencers be harnessed to your messaging? Well, that’s a different story altogether.

The fact is that identifying influencers isn’t difficult. For major topics (therapy areas such as diabetes or breast cancer for example) many of the most influential aren’t really a ‘new breed’ at all – they’re writers or columnists for established online media properties, and probably already firmly on the radar of your PR teams. And while there may be highly influential independent voices out there which are new to you, it’s not going to take specialist software to track them down – not when Google’s search algorithms are so well-tuned to reflecting social popularity.

Are your customers mere ‘punters’?

It seems to me that the main purpose of the commercial influence rating platforms out there is to provide a turn-key service for identification, reward, management and reporting on influencer campaigns. And ‘campaign’ is the key word here.

Rather than buying media placements, a campaign investment with a Klout or Peerindex will let you put Dave Trott’s theory into practice: you’ll be spending on relevant opinion formers only and trusting that their followers will be picked up organically along the way.

If you’re in the business of targeting ‘punters’ in new, more cost-effective ways this actually sounds fantastic, and a proposition well worth exploring with a pilot initiative. But for me, this is where this type of influence marketing falls down for pharma.

Pharma’s customers aren’t ‘punters’. You’re not selling soft drinks or running shoes, or the release of a new DVD boxset. Nor can you be seen to be adopting approaches geared to this “punter” mind-set when the traditional KOL model is already under scrutiny for its transparency, ethics and standard operating model – as pointed out by Ben Goldacre in one of his many gripes about the industry.

So where does this leave you? Is this just a re-run of much of the ‘pharma social media debate’ where the pharma marketers are left staring at companies in less regulated industries wishing they could do the same?

Well – sorry for the ambiguous answer – but to my mind it’s a case of yes and no. I don’t think you can go out to track down ordinary ‘punters’ who’ll accept your reimbursement to amplify your messages but influencer identification can still work for you: it’s all about how you act once you’ve identified them.

Top starter ideas probably run like this:

  • Identify a new type of KOL, one who is active in social media – the tools available can ratify their credibility in this arena, possibly. This would add another level to segmentation of the audience depending upon who you are trying to reach e.g. a few thousand GPs in the UK vs. a handful of microbiologistists in Scandinavia
  • For physicians, maybe think laterally. Your end goal might be for them to magnify your messaging through their own digital channels, but maybe you should be thinking about their end goals? Maybe there’s a role around educating physicians around this aspect of professional practice?
  • The industry has done well in the past through using meetings and seminars to educate customers around other aspects of practice management, maybe focus some of this effort on helping them understand how to use new channels to build their own reputations, and hope for a knock-on effect?
  • For patients, think about a hybrid approach – just because your end influencers operate in a digital sphere doesn’t mean you need to go all digital to reach them. The best example in this space (and feel free to let me know if you can think of a better one) is that of Roche Diabetes.
  • Roche is a company that went out in 2009 and identified the most influential bloggers around diabetes (NB. They did this without the need for an ‘influence’ platform – Klout was still busy touting for first round investors at the SXSW conference that year). They didn’t try to engage these bloggers through digital channels – they did it in the real world. Each year, the most influential are invited to a summit and – completely transparently – they blog about the value of it and increase Roche’s social capital in the area.
  • If patients are contributing there is an option to combine the customer centric model and social influence to diversify the pharma offering beyond the simple KOL.

Whatever you do, don’t be taken in by new platforms that promise a world you should have good reason to question, and do always remember that healthcare is different: patients aren’t punters, and your job isn’t just another trend-driven marketing gig.

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