A matter of opinion

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Key opinion leader development is now a vital part of the marketer’s armoury and critical to commercial success. But, in a changing market, are UK sales forces getting all the opinions that matter? Pf Editor Chris Ross looks at the growing importance of non-clinical opinion leaders.

Over the course of the past ten years, the pharmaceutical industry’s investment in Key Opinion Leader (KOL) development has increased significantly. Research suggests that companies now spend as much as a quarter of their marketing budgets on meetings programmes and speaking events, most of which deploy KOLs to support and endorse clinical findings. In addition, a huge proportion of the educational material developed by pharma is built on studies carried out by KOLs. As a consequence, KOL development is now considered one of the most important initiatives in any brand’s lifecycle. For the sales professional, getting to know your KOLs is critical. And therein lies the conundrum: who are they? In an evolving market where traditional customers are no longer the only game in town, new stakeholders and influencers have emerged and their ‘opinions’ could be ‘key’ to the success of your products. The battle is finding them, understanding them and engaging with them.

Despite clear evidence that the decision-making power of clinicians is declining as PCTs grow stronger – highlighted not least by clinicians losing control of their own budgets – the UK pharmaceutical industry has been slow to move away from the traditional approach that has earmarked the GP as its key target. As the majority of medical representatives will attest, actually getting in front of these primary customers has become more and more challenging and, as a result, access rates in the UK are now among the lowest in Europe. Despite this, many companies still build their sales strategies around high volume activity and measure performance against the twin pillars of access and call frequency. And the GP remains at the fulcrum of their attack.

Non-clinical opinion leaders

It would, of course, be churlish to suggest that the importance of the GP in the delivery of healthcare is being marginalised – clinicians will continue to play a significant role and will no doubt remain a key customer at the heart of the pharma industry’s sales and marketing strategy. But, as its customer-base expands, the industry’s focus must expand with it and break away from what has largely been a sole focus on clinicians. In an era where Continued Medical Education (CME) is regarded as a central plank in any sales and marketing strategy, KOL development must reflect the shifting customerbase. In fact, for the greatest success, non-clinical Key Opinion Leader development is emerging as a must-have initiative for pharmaceutical marketers, in concert with the sales professionals who are charged with delivering their messages out in the field.

Payers are players

So who are these non-clinical Key Opinion Leaders? Broadly speaking, though not exclusively, they can be categorised as ‘payers’. They have an influence over which drugs can be used and how they will be funded. The most common non-clinical influencers include:
• Commissioners
• Prescribing (or Pharmaceutical) Advisers
• Directors of Public Health
• Medicines Management
• Business Managers.

The question remains: how well do you, as sales professionals, understand these important groups? There has been much written recently about the industry’s widespread move towards an ‘Account Management-led approach’ to sales and marketing. This philosophy aligns with the theory that the decision-making powers of traditional GPs is being diluted and that stakeholders from across local health economies now exert far greater influence on how healthcare is delivered in the NHS. The move towards account management does appear to be taking place and, as a consequence, payers have become vital customers for sales professionals. In an, albeit embryonic, era where representatives (or Account Managers) are being afforded greater autonomy and given responsibility to engage with a diverse range of influencers across their local health economies, you will no doubt already be calling on individuals from the disciplines listed above. But how much do you know about them?

Understanding the responsibilities and priorities of new customers is paramount to success in the modern market. Ideally, this understanding will be developed well in advance of any product launch. Indeed, the most proactive brand teams will be engaging with non-clinical opinion leaders early enough for them to influence clinical trial design in a fashion that may drive health outcomes data that could be vital at launch. For most, however, simply engaging with these emerging influencers takes them into new territory. Literally.

“Sales and marketing departments need to move away from their traditional silos and to work collaboratively to develop a range of effective marketing messages that resonate with specific customer-groups and address their priorities”

A marketer’s mission

With tight ABPI regulations governing communication between the industry and its customers, particularly dialogue involving sales representatives and NHS professionals, great care needs to be taken during discussions with non-clinical influencers. Dialogue must not, of course, be promotional. As such, non-clinical or payer opinion leader development is very much an initiative for marketers. Nevertheless, to ensure pay-off at launch and beyond, when sales activity begins and those carefully crafted marketing messages are delivered, close interaction between sales and marketing teams at the earliest possible stage is critical. Marketers are charged with the responsibility for developing the messages that representatives take to market. When these messages work, marketers are happy to accept the praise. When they don’t, they are quite often happy to blame the sales effort! In reality, there is little to be gained from playing the blame game. Sales and marketing departments need to move away from their traditional silos and to work collaboratively to develop a range of effective marketing messages that resonate with specific customer-groups and address their priorities. The sales force is, of course, a pharma company’s largest customer-facing body and, as such, is responsible for delivering huge amounts of market intelligence and customer information back into head office. This data is vital in the development of brand messages and sales and marketing strategy. However, to complement this, marketers too have a responsibility to develop insights into their customer-base, to help craft stronger messages for the sales force to deliver.

Clearly, in an environment where newer customers are exerting a greater influence over whether a specific therapy will be funded and, in real terms, prescribed by the clinical community, how your marketing team interacts with non-clinical influencers could well be a significant factor in how well you are able to perform in the field. How well you understand your new customers is vital. In the first instance, this understanding may well depend upon the effectiveness of your marketing team’s non-clinical opinion leader development programmes. With this in mind, before you embark on implementing your call strategy, it is important to ask yourself, and indeed your marketing team, the following:
• Has our marketing plan captured insight from non-clinical stakeholders?
• Do we understand the roles and responsibilities of the non-clinical customers who may influence the use of our product?
• Do we know where each individual customer sits, and how they interact with other clinical and non-clinical customers? Who are the stakeholders? Who are the influencers?
• Have we established the local and national issues that may impact each individual customer? What are their priorities? Does our brand help them address these priorities? Could it be delivered as part of a new service to help them meet their goals?
• How are we going to access these customers? And once we have, how are we going to ensure that we return to them and keep the momentum going? What is our strategy for ongoing engagement with these key decision-makers?

The key to a successful sales and marketing strategy depends upon developing and delivering messages to the market that resonate with influencers critical to the uptake of a product. In the current pharmaceutical market, capturing the opinions and perspectives of what is now a wide array of stakeholders and influencers, and crafting messages that align with their needs, is vital. Clearly, achieving a balance of clinical and non-clinical opinion leaders will go a long way towards determining the success of your brand. The battle is to understand them. The challenge is getting in front of them to begin that process.