Engaging OLs ‘over time’ online for greater insight

Neil A. Jones

Medical Marketing Research International Ltd / Medical Marketing Studies United States Inc

Despite all the promises of the web to engage opinion leaders and other key stakeholders online for marketing research and other activities, the pharmaceutical industry is still challenged with making it work – for everyone. What should be considered to ensure effective online engagements with key stakeholders?

We have all participated in ‘live’ web meetings online where one of the participants is struggling to hear and another is unable to see the presentation as their web-browser “isn’t working”. Given all the variable links in a live webcast – web browsers, phones, compatible operating systems – technology issues soon arise and these lead to frustration among the participants which, in turn, results in a loss in productive sharing and learning, and expense.

The key to success is in the ability to keep things simple – and flexible – when conducting online forum discussions with key stakeholders. In this context, “simple” means two things, firstly, having a learning goal that is not overly ambitious for the web, and then creating an online experience that is easy for the opinion leader or expert to understand and participate. With the flexibility for an individual to participate at any time and inclusion of well-structured and compelling subject matter, an online forum is an effective approach for achieving robust and detailed insight.


“The key to success is in the ability to keep things simple – and flexible – when conducting online forum discussions with key stakeholders.”


Opinion Leaders (OLs) are significant individuals in their respective field, thus demand for their time and attention is at a premium. Any suitor who vies for their participation in an online discussion forum must convince them that the forum is well-organized, reputable, worthy of their time, easy to participate in and flexible to work within their schedule. Offering flexibility to participate in an online peer discussion forum can not only win over the opinion leader, but may result in capturing more actionable insight since they will have more time to think about or research an answer offline before posting it. In addition, an online forum allows a truly ‘international’ discussion, whereby opinion leaders from across the globe can all take part, log-in and respond to posts at a time that is most suitable for them.

In simple terms, we are talking about the shift from engaging stakeholders in real time (e.g., a live webcast) to engaging them over time when they have more time to participate. Consider what might happen when an opinion leader or expert is able to contribute to an online forum discussion on a leisurely Sunday afternoon, their participation may not only be an enjoyable experience for them, but potentially more insightful as time constraints and the pressure of a real time or in-person group discussion are removed.

One of the keys in conducting online discussions over time is not to be overly ambitious with the learning goals. It is best to keep questions on a specific topic succinct and to a minimum and, in this way, the participant can easily focus on a particular set of questions at a time, providing the sponsor with the opportunity to monitor the answers within the message thread and follow-up with a ‘probing’ question at a later stage. For example, a discussion guide with many questions could be parsed out over a series of two-week cycles (figure 1).

Figure 1: An online Advisory Board (eAdBoard) strategy for engaging opinion leaders over time online can potentially result in more robust data insight. Each Cycle represents a two-week online message thread session comprising of two to three questions within a specific topic. In this model, respondents can post additional thoughts and opinions on previous cycle message threads should a current discussion spark more thinking on the specific questions posed in the cycle.

There are certainly trade-offs between the real world and the virtual one when engaging key stakeholders. First and foremost, you must be willing to forgo the dynamics of a real time group discussion that offer the inherent benefits of a lively debate between two peers, or the non-verbal body language that can be observed during an in-person advisory board or focus group.


“There are certainly trade-offs between the real world and the virtual one when engaging key stakeholders.”


On the other hand in an online forum structured as per the model presented above, if each OL takes part in the forum for a minimum of half an hour a week over 8 weeks, they each actively participate for at least 4 hours, whereas in a traditional one-day advisory board, which may only offer 5 hours of true discussion time, each OL will actively participate and put their thoughts across for significantly less time overall.

Every engagement method with Opinion Leaders and other key stakeholders represents another piece of the puzzle in building a successful and appropriate business relationship. Effective use of a tailored online approach can add significant value and clarity while being both time- and cost- effective for all involved.

About the author:

Neil A. Jones is the Director of the Branded Solutions Division at Medical Marketing Research International Ltd (MMRI) and Medical Marketing Studies United States Inc.(MMS). MMRI / MMS are an international healthcare Consultancy, Market Research and IT Solutions agency who specialise in identifying, profiling and working with Opinion Leaders and influencers across all therapeutic areas. MMRI / MMS’ programs are being conducted for numerous companies throughout the pharmaceutical and biotech industries globally and provide highly actionable information that supports R&amp,D, marketing and key business decisions.

For more information please visit their website at www.mmr-international.com or contact Neil at n.jones@mmr-international.com, Tel: +44 (0)1932 351 733.

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