The great Enlightenment philosopher Immanual Kant based his systematic moral philosophy on the idea that we should never treat people solely as a means to an end but instead always recognise them as an end in themselves. This is something that we should bear in mind when working with key opinion leaders (KOLs). It is easy when you have your own targets to achieve to see KOLs as means to achieve your own ends – what do I want them to present on, what advice do I want from them, etc. We know this from our own relationships but we often don’t apply it to our jobs. You should look at this relationship as much from the point of view of the key opinion leader (KOL) as from what you want out of it. Why should they want to get involved with your company? What’s in it for them? This will depend on her interests, the nature of your product, especially whether it is a genuine advance, and the stage in its lifecycle. Reasons for getting involved may be the opportunity to get to know your product early, to participate in educational initiatives, or maybe just because it is rewarding to advise on marketing matters through an advisory board.
For most opinion leaders, at least one of the attractions of developing a relationship with a company is the opportunity for research. If opinion leaders have a positive experience with the product and the company, they are likely to become supporters of that product. But, according to CenterWatch, a US-based clinical trials listing service, companies are not making the most of the opportunity to build good relationships with investigators. CenterWatch undertakes surveys in the US and in Europe to find out what investigators think of the pharma companies that sponsor trials. In their latest US survey looking at relationships between companies and trialists, they reveal there is a gap between the companies who are excellent to work with, and those who are less so. Indeed, in the 2021 survey five of the fifty-three individual companies rated improved their performance across all their areas but most of the others fell below their 2019 score indicating that companies are getting worse at KOL relationships, or KOLs are demanding more fulfilling relationships with companies. Certainly, when advising companies on their KOL engagement, we often have to remind our clients that while the reason they want a KOL to work for them is important, they also need to consider why a KOL would want to work with them.
Reading back over this, we realise that this may be read as a calculated way of working with KOLs but actually the relationship works best if we are open, honest and want the best for the KOLs. While we want our KOL engagement strategy to be objective, we want our relationships with KOLs to be authentic, or, as Kant may say, we want to see them as ends in themselves, rather than as means to our ends.