Connected Opinion Leaders, or COLs, play an increasingly important role in the world of peer-to-peer medical communications, both complementing and, in some ways, displacing traditional Key Opinion Leaders (KOLs). Identifying and engaging them are among the highest priorities of your Med Ed team and partners.

What are COLs?

COLs are the influential and respected clinicians who have developed superb social media skills and whom other physicians follow online.

They’re healers with hashtag savvy and a commitment to an active web presence, whether on physician-specific channels such as SERMO, Doximity, Doc2Doc, and QuantiaMD, or through more widespread means such as Twitter, YouTube, SlideShare, and Instagram. They blog, whether to inform their peers, amuse them with satire (for laughs, see GomerBlog.com), or to passionately advocate for a personal cause. Most importantly, their activities and posts have tremendous reach: They get amplified virally via re-Tweets, re-posts, comments, and content forwarded by their hundreds of dedicated and loyal followers.

Opinion Holders vs. Opinion Molders

Historically, opinion leader identification focused on two areas. So-called “opinion holders,” clinicians, and investigators with extensive experience (including many with marketing savvy), have always been (and still are) sought for their input into strategic decision-making. Via advisory boards and other consulting engagements, they remain vital navigators who help pilot medical innovations through the shoals of medical, legal, regulatory, and market challenges throughout the product lifecycle. “Opinion molders,” on the other hand, sit on the expert panels that publish treatment norms and guidelines—the doctors others consider to be at the top of their specialty. (Some KOLs are both.)

We’ve realized in recent years that while it’s still essential to develop trust-based relationships with both of these classes of KOLs, there’s no guarantee that they’ll be web-savvy. That could be a serious setback. In today’s topsy-turvy world of multichannel communication, it’s the channel masters whose voices predominantly get heard, not necessarily the wisest or most competent.

KOLs Dwindling Audience

The busiest practicing clinicians—the most valuable to those disseminating innovations—today can spare less and less time attending venues where traditional KOLs orate. Long, dense articles KOLs publish often lie unread in piles of dusty journals. But clinicians still have time to glance at their smartphones and catch up with their favorite COL’s take on a trend, a new product, or a new idea, expressed concisely in easily digested sound bites. Increasingly that’s where they’re getting the news. And that’s where we need your content to be.

Purists will object that a Tweet is a far cry from a peer-reviewed controlled clinical trial replete with p-values and appropriate cautionary caveats. Indeed, we need rigorous research discipline and responsible publishing now more than ever, with medical innovation expanding exponentially. There will always be a role for those skilled in science writing to help anchor clinical progress in precise language, and a need for the methods, study populations, interventions, analyses, and results to be presented in rich detail.

It behooves us all, however, to recognize that just as the leaves of a tree, not the roots, are what get the most light, the most visible vectors of innovation today are the COLs rather than the investigators developing the fundamental medical insights that COLs post about. High visibility is key to the value of COLs. Any medical education plan that overlooks them today misses an essential component in communication.

  • Wendy Balter

    Wendy Balter is President of Cadent Medical Communications, a Syneos Health Company. Wendy has 30+ years’ experience in multi-channel marketing and is a pioneer in the management of integrated accounts.

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