How to use social network analysis to pinpoint more than KOLs

Philip Topham

Lnx Research

With Facebook boasting over half a billion members worldwide, the concept of the “social graph” has entered nearly everyone’s consciousness. Yet while Facebook helps to clarify social relationships, much more sophisticated suites of social network analysis tools can extract and deeply analyze the social and organizational intelligence hidden in professional networks.

Social network analysis (SNA) creates visual maps of how people organize themselves socially, but it can go much deeper than that by applying metrics to gauge relative levels of social prestige and influence, and patterns that affect interactions. In numerous academic fields, real-life social networks play a critical role in determining the way in which problems are solved, organizations are run, and the degree to which individuals succeed in achieving their goals.

Benefits of social network analysis

Real influence in medical and pharmaceutical communities exists within relationships and networks, many of which are informal or hidden. Social network analysis provides the ability to engage with many relevant people through the few influencers who really matter in their respective communities.


“Social network analysis provides the ability to engage with many relevant people through the few influencers who really matter in their respective communities.”

On a company org chart, for example, the CEO usually appears to be the most influential person in the organization. However, closer analysis might reveal the real influencer is in fact the chief financial officer, or even a particular scientist!

Social network analysis can be applied to both KOL (Key Opinion Leader) development and market access strategy. Pharmaceutical companies have begun to leverage social network analysis to mine massive quantities of industry-related data to identify and target exactly those KOLs who can provide advocacy, influence, feedback, and even open new market segments and international territories to their products and services. This intelligence also drives research and communication strategies that are targeted to the communities client companies work with.

Use Case #1: A pharmaceutical company developed an anti-infective product. Social network analysis identified a KOL who specialized in treating a form of cancer specific to the infectious disease population. This not only revealed an unmet need to the product team, but also enabled the pharmaceutical company to explore market expansion into the oncology community by leveraging this opinion leader’s expertise and contacts that bridged the two communities.

Use Case #2: Penetrating international markets can be a particular challenge, and a compelling argument for SNA. One client wanted to identify key opinion leaders in global ophthalmology, particularly in developing markets. Social network analysis enabled the company not only to find KOLs in Asia, Latin America and Africa, but also identified an American at Johns Hopkins with strong personal and academic ties to China. He was ultimately engaged as an ambassador to China, where he’s now working to create opportunities with local KOLs.

The process

In the process used by my company, mapping and analyzing relationships is a six-step process spanning 6-10 weeks that synthesizes massive quantities of data. Here’s what to expect if you engage in an SNA project:


“Penetrating international markets can be a particular challenge, and a compelling argument for SNA.”

1. Data Aggregation: Thousands of relevant sources of data and articles on the topic are collected into a database, including clinical trials, grants, journals, etc.

2. Add People: All the names of the scientific leaders who authored these publications are added, disambiguated and de-duplicated.

3. Mapping: A visual map of the working relationships between community opinion-leaders is created.

4. Analysis: Proprietary algorithms analyze these connections. Each individual leader’s position in the network is mapped.

5. Measuring: Leaders are ranked by position, and a visual diagram emerges showing how information and data flow through and within individual networks, practice areas and communities. KOLs can be segmented as political leaders and connectors, niche connectors, regional leaders, prolific publishers, etc. This segmentation can help match the right person to the right role or need.

6. Insights: Trained analysts help “read the tea leaves” for marketers to understand not just the value of the individuals who emerge in the network, but also to help identify the stories, anecdotal trends and insights in between the network nodes.

Figure 1: Example of social network analysis of the global Melanoma research communities, looking specifically for existing strong ties into China.

The “Invisible College™”

Scrutinizing these amorphous, informal organizations and their many constituent parts uncovers hidden organizational patterns (clusters and communities), as well as the social prestige of individual community members, and we term this The Invisible College™. Pharmaceutical or life science executives often enlist the important and / or influential people to play a role in product development, advocacy, feedback and marketing.


“Social network analysis is a powerful and sophisticated tool that comes with its own set of best practices touching many departments within the organizations using it.”


SNA best practices

Social network analysis is a powerful and sophisticated tool that comes with its own set of best practices touching many departments within the organizations using it.

1. Education: Marketing strategy and brand managers must understand how social network analysis compliments and expands upon more traditional forms of market research and KOL identification. If they’re habituated to working with surveys, scorecards and personal connections, they may need help in putting social network data to use.

2. Inclusion: Consider yourself part of the ecosystem, not outside it, when developing questions and insights. Where are you now? Where do you want to be? Map strategy from there. This is diametrically opposed to how most KOL development is currently done, but much more efficient as you don’t canvass people who are relatively less important.

3. Don’t “map the world”: Include sufficient data for the topic you’re studying, but avoid going to broad or too narrow. Too granular a focus could cause you to miss opportunities or insights that matter at scale, or fail to reveal enough people in the consideration set to show meaningful organizational patterns.

4. Realistic expectations: Knowing the research questions you hope to answer upfront drives the process forward, but appreciate that some data simply isn’t available in the process. If you want to include “favorite golf course” or “left handedness” into the mix of understanding populations of medical researchers, you’re probably out of luck.

5. Data privacy: While social network analysis as a scientific discipline is over 50 years old, it’s a very new field to most legal departments. Your own legal department must be educated as well lest they try to prevent its use.

The medical and pharmaceutical industries are vast and complex, and only becoming more so. Not only do they span the globe, they also encompass specialties and sub-specialties numbering in the thousands.

Pinpointing the very few KOLs who matter, or market entry points within these intricate networks-within-networks is more science than art. Fortunately, advances in computation and algorithms are making the very real and measurable value of social network analysis more accessible.

About the author:

Philip Topham is Lnx Research’s general manager and driving force – combining passion, strategic thinking, knowledge and business acumen to be a true bizknowlogist. Understanding complex systems has been a lifelong pursuit. A practitioner of lateral thinking, he looks to find new ways to make complex problems simple. The launch of Lnx Pharma brings Philip’s social network analysis experience and the proven Lnx Research technology, under development since 2006, to the forefront. Mr. Topham holds a Master’s in Business Administration from Pepperdine University, and Bachelors of Science in Biological Systems.

Lnx Pharma, wholly owned by Lnx Research, helps pharmaceutical and biotechnology accelerate innovation, reduce risk and drive revenues by aggregating and leveraging social capital to create community capital. Through social network analysis (SNA) techniques, Lnx Pharma reveals the hidden relationships and intelligence arising from the business of science and research. Proprietary technology processes comprehensive &amp, unbiased data sets to deliver strategic community maps, and Lnx Pharma expert analysts provide in-depth guidance in “reading the tea leaves.” In addition to trend analysis and insights, Lnx Research’s regulatory-compliant mathematical models find key researchers, opinion leaders, rising stars, innovators, information brokers and organizations. Lnx Research is a closely held company dedicated to leadership in the social network analysis of knowledge-creating communities.

To explore SNA and its application in life sciences further, we offer additional social network analysis white papers free for download and discussion.

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