In a world searching for competitive insight, could we gain more from thought leader research?

Stephen Godwin

THE PLANNING SHOP international

Contrary to popular belief, the best thing about international thought leader research is that it can be done quickly, often in as little as three weeks. This means that their perspective on healthcare, drugs or technology can often be achieved faster than “conventional” project research.

Getting the right questions

But if you want thought leader (a.k.a. ‘key opinion leader’ or ‘KOL’) research done effectively and quickly, a key provisos is that you design the research to be of interest to your target audience. One learns the hard way that while KOLs may be highly valuable in some subjects – a new agent, especially with a novel mode of action, is a good example of such a subject – other topics, like rating company images, have the power to switch them off at best, antagonise at worst (and an error like this when I started KOL-focused work caused one key neurologist to avoid contact evermore.)


“KOLs are notoriously sensitive about any sort of questioning that feels repetitive or “meaningless”.”


Likewise, just because a person is an expert – and KOLs are, by definition, experts in their field – it does not mean that he or she will be prepared to fill answers to complex tables or forms just because they are connected with new products. KOLs are notoriously sensitive about any sort of questioning that feels repetitive or “meaningless”.

The most effective way to question experts is to employ their knowledge, make them use their powers of reasoning, indeed, the more intricate the therapeutic discussion, the more they often enjoy it.

Three rules which thus govern getting the most out of a KOL during an interview are:

• design the questions to be interesting, relevant and demanding – don’t ask questions whose answers can be looked up in a textbook (or worse, Wikipedia).

• know your subject – interviewer preparation and understanding is of real value if you want to be able to debate KOLs’ responses intelligently.

• do not slavishly follow your list of questions, weave them into a discussion that flows based on answers – (watch the best political interviewers for typically excellent examples of this).

And the rewards are self-evident, KOLs can on occasion reach out to you to participate in a study that one of their colleagues has mentioned to them.

Getting to the right respondents

International KOLs are not hard to identify… and not hard to attract either, providing you adopt the right approach. The most obvious factor to bear in mind is that there are not many of them! In fact, in a project specifically designed for the purpose, less than 40 KOLs effectively ‘governed’ communication in one specific neurological therapy field – via their apparent domination of key roles in peer-reviewed key journal boards and at the major international conferences.


“International KOLs are not hard to identify… and not hard to attract either, providing you adopt the right approach.”


Thus, if you try to recruit too many KOLs, you could risk diluting the most experienced insights with misinformation. [A salutary lesson: on one occasion a top French KOL learned – we don’t know how – that we had invited someone he evidently considered more ‘junior’, he consequently refused to participate, professional standards needing to be maintained!]

Remember too that real KOLs will know and understand the whole range of views that exist across their colleagues and are quite prepared to discuss these in their perceived role as commentators on the therapy area. Presented with peer quotes as stimulus for discussion they often know the area so well that they can identify who said what.

Getting the right study design

It helps when designing studies to think of KOLs as AGENTS OF CHANGE rather than mere commentators. They may, in addition to answering the questions, also put them in the context of how they feel their field is going to evolve. It follows that much of their perspective is geared towards future scenarios – invaluable for most early pre-launch product research.

And international studies of KOLs are, well, international! Few KOLs will restrict their ‘answers’ to their own country if tempted otherwise. More often than not, KOLs tend to answer in ‘global-related’ terms, then expand to note important country or region differences (like vaccines’ access in Africa), and then go on to comment on what is relevant for the EMA – and may then round it off with information that the FDA requires.


“…if you try to recruit too many KOLs, you could risk diluting the most experienced insights with misinformation.”


It follows that one of the big mistakes – in my opinion – is to try to “localise” KOLs’ response too much, while it may seem neat and logical to invite two KOLs from each the five big EU markets, this is frequently NOT the best thing to do from your project goal’s viewpoint. So often we find that the most influential KOLs in Europe with respect to FDA or EMA guidelines may work from Amsterdam, or Zurich, or Vienna, or Stockholm. It is clearly better to drop “sample symmetry” to collect the best views.

Look at KOLs as a global resource, find them and address them with questions accordingly.

So, how should we use KOLs for projects?

Many projects, especially projects dealing with new or nearly new products would benefit from a just a small number (from as few as four or five, up to 10–12 depending on the field) of KOLs… employed properly.

By listening to what they say and the way they say it, hearing what they hope will happen, but often believe will not, through the use of intelligent, interesting and relevant stimuli, KOLs can undoubtedly provide you with a master-class of understanding of a specific product therapy area – quickly.

KOLs are very well worth thinking about!


About the author:

Stephen Godwin began his professional life as a post-doctoral, serotonin-receptor scientist, evolving through pharma industry (with Merck and Lilly), UK retail and International Management Consulting into pure marking research on the agency side.

Following 11 years of general healthcare research as a TNS Healthcare Board Director, he joined Isis, (later Synovate) to develop and hone a speciality in international scientific opinion leader research – focused principally on assessing drugs early in the pipeline.

Currently, Stephen is Head of Key Opinion Leader Research at THE PLANNING SHOP international.

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