Influencing the Influentials


Mr Natural: the original Key Opinion Leader (KOL)

Mr Natural: the original Key Opinion Leader (KOL)

The debate about the effectiveness of marketing through opinion leaders is an important one for us.

We run online communities so that our clients can, among other things, identify their advocates and community opinion leaders and amplify their voice. The objective is higher marketing ROI as marketing-numb customers still listen to their peers even if they have stopped noticing advertising.

The pharmaceutical industry has experimented with this style of marketing for many years, with most large Pharma companies having explicit Key Opinion Leader (KOL) marketing strategies and programs to launch and promote their products. This is easier in the US than in Australia, as individual physician’s prescribing data is available – allowing marketers to promptly measure the impact of their actions on the script-writing behaviour of targeted doctors.

Things were not looking good for the idea that KOL doctors can influence the speed-to-volume for new drugs when a 2001 study around the launch of the antibiotic tetracycline found no evidence of ‘contagion’ (WOM influence) [Van den Bulte&Lilien, AmJSociology, 2001]. Old fashioned marketing explained that product launch on its own.

Things look a lot better for Pharma KOL effects after an  2008 MSI study on ‘Opinion Leadership and Social Contagion in New Product Diffusion’ by Iyengar, Van den Bulte & Valente. They found evidence of contagion working over network ties, after controlling for marketing effort, in a new anti-viral drug launch.

Their findings are really illuminating for Key Opinion Leader marketers; oversimplified they are –

  1. Contagion from KOL’s may not always occur. The difference between the 2001 product launch and the 2008 study is that a life-threatening illness was the target of the second drug launch; consequences were much more serious than for tetracycline. Appears that contagion is more likely when the category is a serious one. “Depending on the product, target audience, the amount and effectiveness of traditional marketing communications deployed… contagion is or is not likely to be at work.” Test!
  2. The 2008 study distinguished between self-reported and peer-reported opinion leader status. The two turn out to be only moderately correlated. You may think you are influential, chances are your peers do not agree. This is an issue because so much of influentials marketing relies on the self reporting of social connectedness and influence. Both types of opinion leader tend to be early adopters, but the peer-reported are much more likely to be.
  3. Doctors who perceived themselves to be opinion leaders (though their peers did not generally agree) responded less to peer behaviour. In network terms this meant that inbound social links facilitated contagion, outbound links did not. There is such a thing as the quiet achiever.
  4. Contagion was affected most by the prescription volume of the doctor – ‘Physicians who prescribe a lot are a more credible source of information…’ Heavy users are likely to be more influential than light users when contagion requires evaluation rather than awareness – if there is low risk, awareness through standard marketing is enough to cause adoption – if there is high risk and evaluation is required, volume-enhanced credible WOM causes adoption.

The implications…

  • Research/determine if more than awareness is required to cause your target customers to take up your new product. Is your product risky?

If evaluation is required for prospects to become customers…

  • Identify the largest volume users of products, in your category, that are already in the market. They are the most likely and the most credible opinion leaders and causes of contagion. (Opinion leaders have the highest lifetime value by the way; they adopt early, and are heavy users). Then,
  • Promote to them, recruit them, amplify their voice so other customers can hear them

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