As a strategic marketer, I’m very much in favour of getting Key Opinion Leader (KOL) opinions and advice early in drug development. After all, they are key customers, and may well be the experts who are involved in setting up treatment guidelines in the future – when your product reaches the market. But if you’re a biotech with limited resources, it’s important to ensure that while seeking expert advice can add value to decision-making about product development strategy, a KOL consultation can quickly turn into an expensive endeavor which raises more issues than it solves, if it’s not well managed!
So how can you be sure that your KOL interactions will add value?
Consulting a KOL without a clear objective is unlikely to deliver meaningful input or valuable advice to support development strategy for your product(s). So before you initiate any contact with KOLs, be clear on:
- what type of information or advice you’re seeking;
- objectively, who is best-placed to provide that information or advice; and
- which questions you need to ask to get the information or advice you need.
Sometimes the obvious or easy option is to talk to a KOL located near to your offices, one who is familiar, or even one who speaks the same language. And while this may appear to be efficient, it may not always deliver what you actually need – which is objective advice from someone with cutting-edge expertise in the area, upon which you can confidently make future-oriented strategic decisions. It’s risky to work only with local or familiar KOLs, as they may not be aware of all of the developments in the field or may not represent a global perspective, and you could miss out on significant opportunities in key markets.
Asking the right questions in the right way is crucial. So ensure that you think through the questions you need to ask and how you should ask them, in order to get the information or advice you want. Remember: a KOL will answer the question you actually ask, not the question you meant to ask – but didn’t get across properly! So be sure that you phrase your question carefully so that it cannot be misinterpreted, and you don’t get the answer to another question, which is not relevant to your current needs.
Also, don’t forget to always ask “why?” Sometimes this simple follow-up question to a negative or unexpected response from a KOL can lead you to insights into not only what physicians do, but also why they do it – which can be very powerful information in strategy development. If you understand the rationale for their decision-making process, you could design your clinical program to deliver promotable product claims that will compel prescribers to make a different prescribing decision once your product reaches the market.
But don’t change your strategy based on a single KOL’s advice. Ensure that you confirm that the insights you’ve generated are broadly applicable, and not the opinion of one eccentric professor! And that the insights are also relevant to other external stakeholders, like regulatory agencies, payers and patients.
Optimizing KOL interactions
It should be noted that engaging KOLs as external advisors does introduce some risk – both in terms of the investment involved, and the fact that you may need to share some sensitive preclinical or clinical data to optimize outputs. While advisors are happy to sign confidentiality agreements, not all are equally good at keeping secrets! So you will need to accept the risk that some data may be leaked, and be prepared for issues that may arise as a result of an indiscretion.
Before initiating contact with any KOL, it’s best to have a plan of how or whether you intend to follow up with them. That way you can manage their expectations from the outset, and won’t leave them feeling confused or disappointed about their involvement with your company or product. If the interaction is to be a once-off, be clear that this is your intention – and don’t make any promises about getting them involved in clinical trials or advisory board meetings, if you have no plans to follow up. It’s not a good idea to ruin your company’s credibility with leading experts in the field before your product even reaches clinical development!
If you plan to establish a scientific advisory board, and sign up permanent or semi-permanent members to meet on a regular basis, be sure that you recruit a group of KOLs who can work together. But don’t select your advisory board members based on the fact that they all think alike on a key issue in your market. The purpose of assembling a group of KOLs, rather than talking to each individually, is to thrash out the issues or use the differences in their opinions to reach a more “consensual” view of how the field may evolve. So diversity of opinion is good, but this can take some managing from the chairperson if the discussions become heated or emotional at the meeting!
The key to successful interaction with external advisors is in the details. Managing meeting schedules, planning an interesting agenda, preparing briefing materials and following up to demonstrate that you are acting on the advice you’ve received is time-consuming if it’s done well. But the benefits of securing objective scientific advice and constructive criticism cannot be underestimated.
Involving external consultants to gather KOL advice
In some cases, using external consultants may be the best way forward. For example, if you don’t have internal experience of working with KOLs, if your organization is under-resourced, or if you’re seeking unbiased opinions through a once-off consultation. It’s important to recognize that KOLs are human, and that they may be telling you what they think you want to hear – either because they like you, or because they’d like to stay involved with the further development of the product. So there is value using an external facilitator or moderator to keep everybody honest:
- from the sponsor’s side, a consultant may help to ensure that any briefing materials provided are objective and not leading; and
- from the advisors’ perspective, it’s sometimes easier for them to provide their honest (especially if it’s negative) opinion through a neutral person who is not closely associated with the product or company. This is particularly true once a bond has formed between the advisor and the sponsor.
However, for the most part, I would recommend that the company or product team should “own” their relationship with KOLs, and that a company spokesperson should be their primary contact. But this does not exclude use of consultants to assist you in planning KOL interactions, scheduling meetings, preparing briefing materials and presentations, or drafting follow-up communications.
If you would like to find out more about how we can support you in your efforts to optimize your company’s KOL interactions, please feel free to contact Debbie at STRATEGIA (email@example.com).
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