KOLs vs LOLs: How social network analysis can help identify bona fide opinion leaders

Tried-and-true methods of identifying and managing KOLs do not always yield optimal results. They tend to lean toward high-profile experts who are “top of mind” for the professionals entrusted by pharma and biotech companies with spotting and engaging them, and the hidden risk in this is that some of those prominent KOLs are in fact LOLs – “loud” but unimpactful opinion leaders in the clinical research ecosystem who produce more noise than signal.

The traditional approaches to KOL identification, which rely primarily on observation, surveys methods, and literature searches based on standard publishing metrics, suffer from observer and response biases and are far from unearthing the most effective potential collaborators, while at the same time overlooking social information that could turn up powerful insights. Because they tend to prize quantity – in the form of peer-reviewed journal articles, conference appearances, clinical trials management, advisory board participation, or other quantifiable scientific activity – over quality, they risk failing to distinguish between purely prolific producers of output and truly influential advocates whose work has meaningful repercussions beyond publications and the echo chamber of conference halls.

Indeed, research has shown that relying on bibliographic searches or considering only the number of publications or conferences attended as indicators of thought leadership fails to spot more than 50% of influential actors compared to social network analysis (SNA) – and this is research dating back to 2010, when SNA did not have the capabilities it has today. (The study, which questioned the dominant KOL identification methodology even then, can be consulted here.)

The “secret” to identifying KOLs using SNA is that this approach, which makes explicit the webs of relationships between thought leaders and derives insights from their centrality and connectedness to others in the network, allows for selection of criteria that are not easily mappable using traditional methods. Such criteria may include identifying KOLs with more recent publications rather than with a greater number of publications, with recency being assigned higher value than sheer volume, thus potentially reducing the impact of age or career length on KOL selection; the frequency of collaboration within a network of experts, which can be interpreted as evidence of authors´ preferred working relationships; or the social reverberation of publications, keynotes or other appearances related to a given therapeutic area, measured as the sum of substantive comments and engagements on social media.  

An example of a KOL identified through SNA who may not necessarily have been captured using a literature search would be an author of a publication that is well received on social media and commented by Twitter or LinkedIn members as having an impact on clinical practice or real-world outcomes research. By contrast, an example of a LOL identified through conventional bibliographic search would be a highly visible, prolifically published expert whose work falls short of meaningfully impacting clinical practice, physicians´ prescribing practices, or community conversations.

Of course, using SNA for KOL identification should be done discerningly because it has its own dark side: the presence of hyperactive social media commentators and self-proclaimed experts who “talk the talk” and have all the bearings of – and perhaps even the networks typically associated with – KOLs, but whose engagement with and impact on others remains at the level of metaphorical back-patting without translating into concrete actions (e.g. evangelizing new research ideas, driving market adoption of a new drug or treatment).

In the era of AI and Big Data, it is paramount for pharmaceutical and biotech companies of all sizes to get smarter about their KOL strategies and upgrade their tactics. If you have already leveraged SNA in your practice or are considering doing so after reading this blog, we invite you to share your experience in the comments or contact us directly with feedback. Here at PeakData we are always interested in learning how we can best help our clients and are constantly tweaking, fine-tuning, and adjusting our methodologies so we can be of service to you.