It might sound like a truism to say that the most effective KOL activities, particularly those that succeed in developing a cohort of advocates for a product, are those that are planned as a single cohesive programme. In my experience, however, most pre-launch KOL programmes come together piecemeal: activities are staged ad hoc to meet specific needs.
Approaching KOL engagement with a masterplan is a different beast altogether: it means considering the aims and objectives of the programme as a whole, rather than just those of each functional team and the individual activities they are responsible for. Each clinical trial, each advisory board, each educational activity and sponsorship to congress contributes to a big picture, and the company which has a clear idea of what it wants that picture to look like at the outset has a much better chance of bringing it to life.
None of which is to say that everybody should be so busy looking for the wood that he forgets the trees: clearly, each component of a launch programme comes with key considerations and immediate objectives. A trial must be optimally designed to test the most appropriate hypotheses. Scientific and commercial advisory boards must generate much-needed balance and considered advice on important questions. But to embark on either without a view to how each activity will contribute to the whole is to miss a trick – and a very big trick at that.
You may be thinking it isn’t possible to develop a company template for a pre-launch KOL programme. Every launch will have its unique needs: the profile of the product; the extent of the trial programme and the quality of its results; the nature of both the unmet needs and the competition in this therapy area – and all the other things we put in a SWOT analysis. If a company is not well known, or at least not well known in the TA in question, its strategic KOL needs will differ to those of a company with an established reputation for successful product innovation in the field.
But it is also true that most products share a number of key launch requirements. Developing a cohort of advocates, for example, means identifying individuals with genuine influence: people who have the respect of their peers, and who have had sufficient exposure to the product to give them both the credibility and the motivation to educate others about its place in therapy.
Identifying not only the most influential individuals in the current community, but those most likely to retain or acquire that influence in the years before the trial reads out or the product gets to market, requires careful mapping of the opinion leader landscape.
Ensuring that they know the product well and understand its strengths and weaknesses will require that they are involved in advisory boards, attend scientific presentations, and, ideally, participate in clinical trials.
Getting them motivated to communicate its benefits means securing their respect for more than just the product: they must like and respect the company and the individual personnel with whom they interact. Luckily, psychology is on the company’s side: a process called ‘mere-exposure effect’, or ‘the familiarity principle’, encourages us to develop a preference for people we have regular interactions with. A strong KOL programme will therefore involve plenty of opportunities for meaningful engagement between the KOLs and the company. I find it reassuring that there is a corollary to this principle – exposure to people we initially dislike makes us dislike them even more. In other words, first impressions must be good. KOL-facing people must be what we now term ‘authentic’, but they should also understand how KOLs judge companies and what values they expect the company’s representatives to demonstrate. This is where engagement training, integrated into the launch programme for all KOL-facing staff, can help.
Despite the range of core needs common to all launches, teams tend to go through the planning process as if it was the first time the company had approached the market. Wouldn’t it be better to have a company template, a set of norms, for a KOL programme?
Admittedly, it takes a lot of time to plan a programme of the type I suggest. It means coordinating the needs and activities of various functional groups whose natural inclination – and almost certainly whose KPIs – consider only the outcomes of their own activities. But establishing your company’s KOL engagement norms only has to be done once, or once every few years, to be institutionalised as core practice from which all associated launch teams can draw. The real advantage is in freeing up team focus for the unique, specific challenges that come attached to a new product. The team which adopts core preparatory actions as standard can spend its thinking power where it’s needed most.