News | 13 October 2021

KOLs vs digital influencers in healthcare

Let’s not blur the line between respected experts and content creators

As the virtual events and spaces in healthcare marketing continue to evolve, there’s a lot of clever stuff going on, from newsroom-style sets seamlessly linking live and pre-recorded video to clever interactive elements. Still, healthcare is about people, and everyone I’ve spoken to is keen to get back to in-person interaction. Unfortunately, virtual is going to have to prevail for the time being as a lot of those attending are actual clinicians who can’t afford to take risks with COVID infection.

Healthcare and medical device companies have long worked with KOLs (“key opinion leaders”) to help them develop products and take them to market. Providers are keen to work with respected experts in their specific field. Their reputations are built in the real world – with published research and articles, public speaking, and presence on advisory boards and committees. But as we move further into virtual healthcare, brands may look to add another breed of ‘helpers’ to the marketing mix – digital influencers.

While KOLs provide expert endorsement, digital influencers are engaged for their follower count and content curation skills. The pandemic has only strengthened social media’s importance in marketing. With people, especially young people, spending so much time on social, those with health conditions will naturally listen to those they admire when looking for solutions. The range of individuals with social media influence in the health and wellbeing space is vast. At one end, you’ve got Kim Kardashian posting about a morning sickness drug (and drawing the ire of the FDA to its manufacturer, Duchesnay, for not listing side effects). At the other end, you have respected clinicians who have a knack for content curation and are followed by other professionals in their field.

There’s a world of difference between, a proper, credible KOL working at the top of their game in their industry, versus someone who is a curator of content that just pumps it out. As digital permeates everything, it may seem like the lines are blurring, but there should still be a clear differentiation in any brand work. Every campaign and product launch requires its own strategic approach to reach patients, care givers and clinicians. The fundamentals haven’t changed, but digital opens up a whole new way of communicating with people.

In our work at Embrace, we have found that if brands want to work with KOLs, it takes time and dedication to gain trust and show real commitment to the causes they care about. Experts work hard to build a good reputation in their field, and can’t be seen to get behind commercial projects without good reason. They only want to talk about a subject which they totally believe in, and which they think is going to make the lives of patients or healthcare professionals dealing with these conditions better.

We do a lot of work in wound care and Urgo Medical has been a client for several years. They make dressings for chronic wounds that are difficult to heal. Selling to healthcare institutions is quite difficult as it always plays on price, as if all dressings were interchangeable. But procurement tends to look more favourably around companies that add more than just the product, with training or raising awareness. For Urgo we did a hard-hitting campaign called Save Feet, Save Lives around the impact of diabetic foot ulcers and what sufferers can do to look after themselves. There’s no mention of product, but the whole initiative is supported by Urgo and the main campaign colour is the same blue as the Urgo brand.

By getting involved with industry bodies, boards and think tanks on the issue, it was possible to find KOLs who were passionate about improving the lives of those with diabetic foot ulcers. They were happy to get behind this initiative because it helps the industry get better. They were interested in the fact that somebody was out there really trying to make things that will be useful for doctors and nurses in practice. The KOLs helped with practical advice to create the tools and assets and championed the campaign in their networks. There's an immense amount of integrity and credibility in what they do, so the only way to get them interested in a commercially backed project is to make it relevant enough or useful enough for them to want to talk about it, support it and advise on it.

There almost an expected responsibility now that commercial businesses in the healthcare space do more than just say ‘there's my product, buy it’. They've got to contribute, train, educate, and try and make a difference to be a respected player. Sometimes it's counterintuitive, because at the end of the day, you’re aiming to make things better so that less people may need your product.

In terms of digital influencers, if the campaign and the initial work with KOLs is good, then there will be much more organic sharing of content on social. Of course, there may be lots to be gained from strategically finding digital influencers for a healthcare brand’s content. Entire go-between agencies have sprung up to help companies do just that. But while some clinicians may be more skilled at digital communications than others, in the world of specialist medicine, a high follower count has little bearing what makes a respected KOL.

If you’d like to chat about healthcare marketing, do get in touch.

Author
Simon Davies,
Managing Director