1. February 2005 05:00
WHILE HISTORICALLY the KOLs were clearly the hospital consultants, in the last few years the changing face of the NHS, has muddied the waters and the KOL is no longer easily identifiable. While pharma companies are starting to realise the complexity of the situation, most have only a tenuous idea of how to address it. In many cases they have to build relationships with new KOLs from scratch, yet they continue to blanket market the 30 or 40 KOLs in a specific area based on a central model, without tailoring the message or understanding the relative value of each individual measured. Indeed, this unsophisticated approach totally ignores two key sets of opinion leaders: the retired consultant and the up and coming local thought leaders. While the retired consultant may not be seeing patients and prescribing products, he is undoubtedly retaining an interest in the area, continuing to speak and influencing a broad network of still practicing consultants. Yet, once retired, he frequently gets dropped off a pharma company’s KOL list. At the same time, the pharma companies pay little attention to KOLs on a local basis. Yet at this level, the KOL will have specific local knowledge, understand local market needs and is set to become part of the next wave of regional and national thought leaders. Pharma companies may increasingly recognise the importance of these influence networks and KOLs but they do not fully comprehend the big picture. And without understanding the real influence of each KOL they cannot maximise the value of the influence network. But understanding the complex relationships that exist within influence networks is one thing – and, in itself, not something that pharma companies have yet achieved. However, once relevant Key Opinion Leaders within a network have been identified, creating and delivering the right message is a further challenge that will require a significant shift away from traditional sales and marketing techniques – this is not a role for the average pharma rep. Messages must be targeted to the audience. Consultants – who care little for budgets – are unimpressed by talk of cost savings or comparisons; although this will appeal to the pharma advisor at a PCT or local health care trust. The consultant wants to know about reduced side effects or other clinical advances – a message that must be delivered by a peer or other credible person. Adding a doctors’ pack, patient pack, support in prescribing trends over and above core product information will also hit the consultant’s buttons. The ability to map networks of KOLs (Key Opinion Leaders) requires significant research, but repays the effort by enabling more effective targeting and segmentation. In the case of smaller companies, in particular, it is prudent to review vacant territory strategies, evaluating the difference between covered and vacant territories and then using lateral thinking to find alternative ways to cover important vacant territory (mailings, symposia and face-to-face calls with selected KOLs all being viable options). Consideration of these influence networks and vacant territory strategies have led some companies to go for a complete restructuring of the sales force, or even its dismissal in favour of other techniques. Collaborative approaches, where the pharmaceutical company funds education or nurses, have proved a successful way to reach decision-makers, but may be beyond the reach of smaller companies. In a number of ways, technology can help companies evolve and execute their new marketing strategy. Reformulating targeting and segmentation is made much easier if you have the ability to map networks of influence, backed by up-to-date databases that offer the ability to create profile and identify links between individuals. Also invaluable is software to analyse the effectiveness of vacant territory strategies. Having this type of software can put small to medium organisations on a level footing with larger companies when it comes to getting their message across. Indeed, smaller players may actually have an advantage in that it is easier for them to change their business processes. The days of one message fits all are long gone. Pharma companies need to identify the KOL and then create the micro message that fits. In the past, a lack of detailed information made this impossible. Today, however, the systems are in place to gather detailed information that informs pharma companies on both the role of a KOL within the network and the issues that most affect that individual. Leveraging this information to deliver the micro message to the micro market will deliver a significant competitive advantage.