Digital opinion leaders: The role of influencers in Medical Communications

By Hilary F. Armstrong, PhD, Director of Medical Strategy at AREA 23 on Hudson; Kent Bhupathi, Group Director, Data Sciences & Engineering at SOLVE(D); Suzie Boulos, Co-Managing Director at ProHealth

It’s 2023 and you would be hard-pressed to find someone who isn’t active on or engaging with social media daily. A large and growing percentage of healthcare professionals (HCPs) use social media, with a significant proportion using it to improve their clinical knowledge and education. Additionally, social media influences physicians and their perceptions of medications. In a 2023 survey by Sermo, 57% of physicians said they frequently or occasionally change their initial perception of a medication due to social media.1 The results of the survey also revealed a strong influence on prescribing habits, ongoing medical education, and professional networking.

On average, dermatology, rheumatology, and gastroenterology are the most prevalent specialties across Facebook, Instagram and X (formerly Twitter). When comparing markets, global HCPs have slightly higher social reach compared with HCPs in the US (32% vs 23%).2 Social media can be a valuable tool for marketers to engage with HCPs directly, especially in the case of digital opinion leader (DOL) partnerships and unbranded disease awareness campaigns. Third-party partner social media accounts are also valuable drivers to sponsored content, as social media activity is often bookended by digital engagements in the HCP workday.

There are many informed, knowledgeable HCPs who talk about a disease state online, but not all of them are influencers

IPG Health utilizes algorithms that combine quantitative and qualitative data to identify and prioritize a potential DOL. The Sermo survey mentioned above also found that HCPs follow influencers based on their credentials (27%), knowledge of a topic (26%), and relatable content (26%). In their simplest form, three criteria can be used to help define a DOL worth engaging:



How large an audience do they receive regularly? This is in part measured by the number of followers an individual has, but can also include how often people view or interact with their posts. It’s important to note that reach is an ongoing measurement. A single post may go viral, but if it’s a one-off post, the individual’s reach is not very meaningful for influence.


What percentage of their posts are dedicated to a specific disease state or topic? A DOL may have a far reach, but if they discuss numerous disease states, the content is less influential. When identifying DOLs, it’s best to look for someone who is consistently invested in a disease state instead of a jack-of-all-trades. A DOL with content regularly focused on a particular area is seen as more genuine, leading to greater influence.


How much of a DOL’s content is reposted through organic shares? This helps to indicate how much the audience finds them interesting and worth repeating.


Influencer mapping helps achieve strategic objectives

Influencer mapping can help you decide who is key to reaching your target audience, who is talking about treatment options, and which platforms are being used. It can also compare influencers to help with prioritization. Influencer-mapping should be aligned to your brand goals and strategic imperatives. To illustrate, if a goal is to expand awareness on the unmet need of patient mental health and quality of life, it may be worth exploring influencers outside of traditional HCPs in your field – for example, success may be more likely with someone who is an influencer on patient adherence, such as a psychologist. Mapping and quantifying supplemental data such as geographic location, insurance coverage, HCPto-HCP referrals, co-authoring or referencing manuscripts, and involvement in advocacy groups can also help provide a pathway for charting influence.

Case study: generating pre-launch social buzz

With compelling Phase III results and waning in-person attendance at an upcoming conference, social networks such as X (formerly Twitter) became the primary channel HCPs were using to access key event content.

Moving quickly, we implemented a proactive, high-impact strategy for socially optimizing the trial data that ensured ownability and broad message visibility to the target HCPs, leveraged the strong interest in conferences to expand reach, and maximized the ROI of the in-person event.

Our omnichannel strategy and DOL-identification expertise allowed us to pinpoint the highest-impact content among the target audience and match it with HCPs’ native social media use. Using our identified top DOL partners and hashtags, we amplified an X-friendly, animated infographic that summarized key trial insights, which was easily consumed and shared by HCPs.

The combined social reach of the DOL partners was top-of-feed and highly visible. There were over 1,000 likes and reshares from DOL infographic posts, a 40% boost in organic product mentions across social media three months post-event, and a 20% increase in traffic to the client’s brand site where HCPs could sign up to be notified about product approval and launch.

A successful DOL campaign combines AI with a specialized team

There is a vast array of companies and technologies that allow you to identify DOLs. With AI, much of the identification process can be automated and combined with intelligence analytics. However, it is important to work with a specialized team who is accustomed to contracting and overseeing this process and its nuances to help with efficiency and compliance. After identification and mapping is complete, the first engagement is critical, as it sets the tone for the relationship you are looking to build. Your agency can help you engage in direct conversation to learn more about the DOLs’ content from their perspective, the peer following they seek, the platforms they prefer, and their collaborations, both in the office and online.

A significant proportion of a brand’s budget is invested into key opinion leader (KOL) engagement for relationship-building and understanding the clinical nuances in each therapeutic area.


An open dialogue and good rapport with your DOLs help you to understand the latest in areas of unmet need and how that drives clinical decision-making

The efficiencies in having a single foundation can facilitate in-person advisory boards and marry them to the insights obtained from your DOLs

DOL insights can provide you with yearround access to test out messaging, ensuring you are constantly at the forefront of the market

One size does not fit all: the importance of content and platform customization

When the time comes to create content, asking for feedback or co-creating content is important to ensure the DOL feels invested in the material and that it is customized to their voice. This helps it feel genuine for their audience. A one-size-fits-all X (formerly Twitter) blast can easily be identified as company-sponsored, but taking the time for small tweaks in language can make a big difference in ensuring the content feels authentic from the DOL. Your agency should ensure this is in the upfront plan and that alternatives are ready to help with internal review timelines and avoid delays. Additionally, HCPs are more trusting of closed community groups such as private Facebook groups, Sermo, or Doximity, and are more likely to download information from these sources.

Case study: creating organic shares through a DOL toolkit

Largely anticipated positive readout data release at a conference was receiving good organic social media mentions. However, the images retweeted were blurry cell-phone pictures taken of the slides presented at the conference. While great for exposure, these digital mentions lacked the detail and finer points of the data.

Our team was brought in to create a solution: a digital toolkit to own the narrative during the upcoming data release, to expand the reach of HCPs who have access to the brand data, and to ignite organic online discussions on topics aligned to key brand strategic initiatives. Simple adjustments made a huge impact on the social media shares. For instance, we created a QR code at the brand booth and within the product theater presentation that automatically downloaded the assets in a share-friendly format for HCPs to disseminate on their personal social media platforms. We also worked with key HCPs, including the key presenter, to provide compliant “sneak peeks” of what would be presented on their social media platforms, to help generate anticipation and increase social media sharing.

The digital toolkit allowed the data to be shared in the way it was meant to be seen, and sparked organic online discussion about the brand data and the key issues. Through our understanding of the market and the interests of the audience, we developed a tailored set of best practices for this approach and for how the KPIs were formatted into lead-generating insights.

Storytelling and customizable content are keys to success

You want HCP interactions with your content to be seamless and high-quality. It has been said that a DOL is a KOL on a digital platform; however, while a DOL can be a KOL and vice versa, the management and objectives of each differ in how they are best suited.

  • A good DOL develops a personal connection with their followers, helping the audience to engage with the content and feel like it is tailored for them
  • DOLs are trusted authority figures who not only educate, but also provide their personal experiences and opinions
  • DOLs are early to communicate new information and to lead conversations, and can effectively cut through the noise and provide quick updates on the latest developments
  • Once identified and mapped, DOLs offer a unique opportunity to generate brand awareness and disseminate information Combining the right tools and agencies can help you utilize the power of DOLs to spread awareness, generate leads, and start conversations.



1 More than half of physicians admit to changing perceptions of a drug due to social media  

2 Synthetica Bio announces funding for biopharma AI platform