Apr 17, 2015
The art and science of local KOLs
Marketers can stay ahead of the curve with regional knowledge
Looking at a slide from a recent AstraZeneca investor presentation on segmenting patient subsets in severe asthma, I was struck anew by the rate at which the industry is moving towards highly targeted patient populations.
This trend is changing the game for healthcare decision-makers – and for the marketers trying to reach them. Pharma companies now adopt a KAM-centred sales model: account managers focus on building partnerships with a smaller number of key customers. This rationalised approach means a leaner sales team, but puts greater pressure on target selection: if you engage with fewer customers, you need to know they’re the right ones. And while identifying payers and non-clinical decision-makers is relatively straightforward, the clinical KOLs who influence them can be much more elusive. In this article, we will explore how KAMs can be helped to identify the most influential local KOLs: the key to success is a more complex and collaborative approach than you might think…
Experience tells us that companies often allow KAMs to segment opinion leaders by criteria of their own choosing. A regional business manager might vet their approach, but neither one has been trained in systematic KOL identification. Where brand teams do provide selection parameters, these can be difficult to implement: a KAM is unlikely to conduct a full literature search on the ground.
If you commission an agency to assess local opinion leaders, their approach will invariably combine quantitative analysis with desk research. It’s a powerful methodology, but, as the case study below reveals, not as powerful as it can be when maximised by the client’s own resources.
A client approached us for help in deploying its sales force for a new product in an unfamiliar therapy area. The client had 17 KAMs to cover 2,000 potential targets. The need to rationalise that list was clear. We began with a literature search, and assigned scores for a range of additional opinion leadership criteria, including speaking appearances and executive offices within professional bodies. We looked for indicators of local influence, including membership of formulary committees. The resulting listing allowed us to divide the 2,000 targets into stratified groups: international and national opinion leaders based in their territory; regional and local influencers; and those not yet classified.
The capacity to micro-segment customers will become vital for marketers
Our listing was based in solid quantitative research, but its limitations were obvious. Formal networks of influence among clinicians are measured in professional offices and appointments, but at a local level, informal networks are equally important: energy and force of personality can increase an individual’s influence in ways impossible to capture by objective measures. Some people attend every committee meeting; some argue their position persuasively; and others work behind the scenes to influence decisions. In short, over-reliance on public-domain information is risky: it may conceal individuals best placed to make the case for your product.
We always stress to clients that opinion leader listings are only a starting point. They are living documents that should change from very first field use: KAMs bring local knowledge that third-party fact-finding can’t match. A belt-and-braces approach allows the client the rigour of an objective listing, but with added insights from those on the ground. These are especially important when targeting local-level influencers.
For our client, we developed a method of formalising the KAMs’ input into our listing. We designed questionnaires to ask customers about their participation in training and shared-care agreements, and for names of colleagues involved in new-drug approval. They would also be asked to rate their own influence, and nominate others whom they considered influential.
The idea met with some resistance from the KAMs at first: they worried that the questions would seem intrusive. But, as a few brave souls among them began to report, customers enjoyed considering local lines of influence affecting their practice, and they responded in large numbers. We refined our data accordingly. The figure to the right shows the listing for one territory.
The result was an optimised list of customers who could not have been identified through a single research approach. These days, of course, our questionnaires are digital: integrated into the modelling and mapping functions within our clients’ CRM systems. As the pharma market shifts towards highly targeted products, the capacity to micro-segment customers will become vital for marketers. We are continually developing tools to meet that need. Last month, we explored network mapping’s power to identify decision-makers within clinical communities. Powerful research tools, combined with the ground-level knowledge only a good sales force can supply, will help marketers stay ahead of the curve.