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Cover art for podcast episode Building an Effective KOL Program

Building an Effective KOL Program

Welcome to the Health Marketing Collective, where strong leadership meets marketing excellence.

On today’s episode, Julia Steele Rodriguez is joining us to talk about Key Opinion Leader (KOL) programs and their indispensable role in healthcare marketing. Julia is an industry leader with a background leading diverse teams in marketing, operations, revenue cycle, and clinical education, and she’s bringing us her insights on the impacts that KOL partnerships can have on health marketing strategies.

Our conversation focuses on the fundamental aspects of building and sustaining effective KOL programs. We explore best practices for identifying the right KOLs, fostering long-term and mutually beneficial relationships, and the critical nuances often overlooked in these partnerships. Julia also offers her insights into the marketing advantages of robust KOL programs, spotlighting how they can transform healthcare initiatives and enhance brand trust.

In addition, Julia shares her perspective on handling common challenges in KOL relationships, the importance of clear communication, and how to measure the success of such programs using the right KPIs. Her holistic approach and emphasis on human connections provide valuable lessons for anyone looking to leverage KOLs to drive healthcare marketing success.

Thank you for being part of the Health Marketing Collective, where strong leadership meets marketing excellence. The future of healthcare depends on it.

Key Takeaways:

1. Clear Definitions and Expectations: Julia emphasized the importance of having a shared understanding of what constitutes a KOL within the organization. This clarity helps align objectives and ensures that everyone involved is on the same page. It’s vital to have a mutual understanding with KOLs themselves to foster an effective and productive relationship from the start.

2. Strategic Identification and Engagement: Identifying the right KOLs involves a mix of objective data and subjective measures. Julia suggests looking at publications, conference participation, and leadership roles in professional societies. Additionally, engaging with KOLs in their natural environments, such as conferences, can provide deeper insights into their fit and potential for partnership.

3. Fostering Long-Term Relationships: Building long-term relationships with KOLs requires mutual benefit and respect. Julia notes that understanding what KOLs want to gain from the partnership, beyond financial compensation, is crucial. Many KOLs seek to influence market developments and innovation, and providing them with insider insights and involvement opportunities can strengthen the relationship.

4. Internal Alignment and Communication: Internal consistency in dealing with KOLs, from contracting to invoicing to regular updates, is critical to maintaining smooth and effective collaborations. Missteps in these areas can lead to frustration and disengagement. Julia highlighted the importance of trust and proactive communication to keep KOLs engaged and valued.

5. Measuring Success: Success in KOL programs isn’t just about immediate ROI but also about long-term impacts on healthcare outcomes and organizational credibility. Julia points to anecdotal evidence, changes in market sentiment, share of voice in industry conversations, and the overall influence KOLs bring to marketing strategies and product adoption as key indicators of a program’s effectiveness.



Sara Payne [00:00:11]:

Hello everyone and welcome to the health marketing collective. Where strong leadership meets marketing excellence. I'm your host, Sara Payne, a health marketing strategist at Impella Communications, and I'm bringing you fascinating conversations with some of the industry's top marketing minds. Today's episode is about how to build an effective KOL program. As most of you know, KOLs are a critical component to many health marketing programs as they can lend credibility and influence to enhance brand trust and your reach. By engaging KOLs effectively, brands can communicate complex information to both clinicians and patients, fostering education and driving adoption of your product or solution. In our conversation today, we'll talk about how to nurture relationships with KOLs and outline some key characteristics of an effective KOL program. To dive into this topic with me, I'm thrilled to welcome Julia Steele Rodriguez, who leads the market access, clinical and economic outcomes, medical relations, sales training, and trade shows and events teams for the breast and skeletal health division of Hologic.

Sara Payne [00:01:19]:

Julia has a background leading diverse teams in marketing, operations, revenue cycle, and clinical education in med device. Throughout this impressive tenure, she has helped build and nurture KOL relationships for various med device companies. Welcome, Julia. Thanks for being here.

Julia Steele Rodriguez [00:01:38]:

Thanks for having me, Sara.

Sara Payne [00:01:39]:

Yeah. Absolutely. I think this is a really important conversation, for marketing leaders. KOLs obviously are are, as I mentioned in the intro, critical component of marketing programs. As we start off this conversation today, I think it's important that we have a shared

Julia Steele Rodriguez [00:01:56]:

definition of KOL. How do you define a KOL, Julia? Great question. So my first answer obviously would be a key opinion leader, but in the context of talking about how you build a KOL program, I think it's really important that we ask ourselves and our organization what we think a KOL is because what I've discovered as I'm building and developing these programs is that there are often very different ideas about that. So it's really interesting to talk to different stakeholders, to even talk to the positions that you have relationships with and understand kind of what they what they think of a KOL, and get that kind of mutual understanding and a place to start. So I think today, in our organization, as we're looking at KOLs, we try to think of it as an objective definition of somebody who's influencing, you know, beyond the walls of our organization, influencing with their peer or influencing their peer group, influential within their industry, might be patients as you mentioned. And in order to kind of have that objective assessment of who's influential, you need to look at objective data. And so looking at data sources like publications, participation in research, kind of determining what those objective criteria are.

Sara Payne [00:03:18]:

Yeah. I think being aligned on on clear definitions and expectations is really important as you mentioned, and just anecdotally, I I've seen some organizations use the the term KOL to mean their own champion customers or influential customers. So that's why I wanna start there, so that everyone listening knows that for the purposes of today's conversation, you and I are using the term POL to refer to someone who is influential among their peers broadly, not just within a a brand or a company's own customer base. Absolutely. So let's talk about how and and where to find KOLs. What strategies do you recommend for identifying the right KOLs for your organization?

Julia Steele Rodriguez [00:04:05]:

So I think once you've figured out what you're hoping to accomplish with your KOL program, so that's like rebuilding reputation in the market to get ready for launching a new product. You might be looking for a specific specialty, people with a specific type of expertise, so it'd be easy to identify, you know, who are the people doing research in this area? Who are the people speaking at major conferences about this topic? A lot of that information is easy to find, you know, Google. Looking at, the major professional societies or conferences, scouring agendas, previous years' agendas, looking at, leadership of these societies, who are the committee members, things like that. So just starting to get familiar with who tend to be the people that are, you know, either asked by their peers to speak or, kind of in those prominent positions. So I would I would start there to kinda get a sense of who you're targeting. From there, you know, spending some time wherever they are, you know, you can kind of be in the wild with with, these people that you're looking for. So again, going back to, attending conferences.

Sara Payne [00:05:13]:

One of the things you I that really resonated with me that I remember you included in your outline was, to talk not to not just look at like their their CV or their resume of expertise, but to also look at the subjective measures. I found that to be, really important point.

Julia Steele Rodriguez [00:05:34]:

Yeah. So the adapted data is really important when you're determining the kinds of people that you want to engage with. So again, figuring out the specialty, what kind of experience you need them to have had. If you're looking specifically for people who have experience with research or publishing, who are well networked within the publishing community. Those would be, different places that you would book. But, ultimately, how you are going to engage with these people, can impact your selection criteria too. So for example, if you are looking for specific expertise, in order to get product feedback and you want to engage with these people, with R and D, you might not be looking for somebody who's a great speaker. If you're looking for people who are going to be at the podium, who you want to engage with in sponsored medical education, you know, you wanna see them present.

Julia Steele Rodriguez [00:06:27]:

If you're looking for somebody who's going to come and help you train your sales force or who's going to come and rally, you know, rally your troops or do some internal work, you're looking for somebody who's a little bit more motivational and friendly there. So I think it's, you know, what is the what is the work that you're hoping to do with them and then finding environments for you to be able to assess their ability, to do what you would be hoping to engage with them on. And then finally, you wanna look for that, you know, that fit and that personality that's gonna make them easy to work with. So ultimately, if you're probably looking for, and I would encourage you to be looking to develop long term relationships with these people, and so if either you or people on your team are going to be engaging with them on a regular basis, You know, are these people who are going to turn in paperwork on time? Are they going to invoice you appropriately for payment? Are they good conversationalists, in a dinner when you're having them at a dinner program? Like are these people you're going to enjoy working with and developing the litigants? Like are they easy to work with? So it's not only who do you target for a specific expertise, you know, what are the skills that you wanna see, but ultimately are these people that you wanna work with and invest the time in developing the relationship

Sara Payne [00:07:35]:

Yeah. I think that's excellent advice. I think it's so so important to be looking at the subjective elements as well, not not just their their resume, their CV. Things like personality and fit for your organization is just so incredibly important because when those things aren't a good batch, it can create a lot of hurdles to getting good work done together. But also those things are gonna be harder to sniff out initially because you're not necessarily gonna see it on paper. Right? And I love your point about sort of getting out there. And if you want, you know, someone to have that charisma behind a podium, then go, you know, watch them speak somewhere. I'm just curious, do you do you have any good vetting strategies, to help identify some of those right fits when it comes to more of the subjective aspects of it?

Julia Steele Rodriguez [00:08:24]:

Yeah. I'd say, you know, 2 approaches are, doing a little bit of research and and poking around with people to engage with, would be the first one. So, you know, start with where you are and the people that you know or the people that you have initially started building relationships with and ask them not only who are the people that they see as experts in that field, you know, understanding what you're hoping to accomplish or who you're looking for, but ask them, you know, what they think. Is this somebody that is easy to work with? What is their reputation? Are they considered, a good player in this space? So I think asking around and, you know, it's kinda like dating. Like, you wanna check people out before you commit to them. And and on that commitment piece, you know, you don't have to before you commit to them. And and on that commitment piece, you know, you don't have to jump all in. You don't have to get married right away.

Julia Steele Rodriguez [00:09:09]:

Like, can you start with some small engagements, with low commitment? You know, there will be missteps, there will be some people who seem great upfront, or they might seem great for a particular purpose so then as you see them you might identify other opportunities so I would suggest, you know, starting small, you know, let both sides kind of suss each other out too, like do they really wanna work with you and it and, you know, kind of pick small,

Sara Payne [00:09:36]:

take small steps. The point you made earlier was about, you know, this this start small. But but ultimately, you wanna look at once once you've identified these people are the right fit, you do wanna think about this in terms of it being a long term relationship. Right? Because as an organization, you put a lot of time and effort into nurturing and cultivating these relationships. So as you think about that, how can companies foster that long term relationship with their KOLs, making sure that it's mutually beneficial. Beneficial to them, beneficial to you. And how do you make sure that you're getting out of it what you need to get out of it for the company?

Julia Steele Rodriguez [00:10:14]:

The mutually beneficial part is probably the most important thing here. Again, it goes back to being really clear on, you know, what are you looking to accomplish. And if you're really clear about what it you're looking to accomplish when you're going out there and interviewing or dating, you can, you know, ask the right questions. You can assess needs and interests. The KOLs are getting as much out of this, possibly not, you know, even more than you are, and I think I've learned that we tend to underestimate and undervalue what they're getting from the relationship. Now, of course, we're often paying them appropriately for their time and years of effort and influence and, you know, their all of these skills that they've taken, you know, years decades to develop. And so that is one exchange of value. But they also recognize that, you know, we're kind of in a in a new world where we have to partner industry and KOLs together.

Julia Steele Rodriguez [00:11:12]:

This is how most research is happening. They see the value and are interested in playing a part in influencing where organizations are going, how we're developing markets, how innovation is happening. So I think I've been really surprised with the curiosity of a lot of the KOLs. I assume that their interest was in, you know, research, in in publishing, and in, you know, those other more traditional benefits that we think of KOLs getting from engaging with industry. But where I'm having the most fun is learning. They want a a peek behind the curtain. They wanna understand how work functions, how we think about the market, how we decide when and where we take products to market. I think it helps, not for everybody, but I think there's a good number of people that just have that curiosity so I I found that to be very interesting to uncover when there is that, you know, value in their relationship.

Julia Steele Rodriguez [00:12:10]:

And so some of our best relationships over the long term have been with people who have helped us progress and build the market and, you know, develop products over time. So I think if you can find somebody who has that interest, those are the people you're more than likely to maintain long term relationships with. One of the big watch outs I would say I've seen and the reason why we say build a KOL program, we're probably not really building a KOL program from scratch, we're We're probably rebuilding. I think in most organizations, there there are always physicians involved in that device. Sure. Yeah. Who is maintaining them over time is the question and if you're building a new program, the answer to that is probably nobody or somebody somehow the ball got dropped. Right? So that's where, you know, I challenge our teams to think about building the relationship not between it's not Julia and the KOL or it's not the individual who's the primary contact and that person, it's how do we build a relationship with that company and the KOL.

Julia Steele Rodriguez [00:13:14]:

So in order to do that, I think that's another reason to give them a little bit more access into what your long term goals and strategy are and under you know, try to find those ways or find out what it is about new strategies that they're interested in, but also developing relationships at different levels. Right? A lot of people or a lot of KOLs I find are very interested in spending time with our executives. They wanna understand how they're seeing things at a macro level. So that's one level of relationship. They may wanna engage obviously functionally with, you know, with engineering, with R and D, with other areas like that, But I think it's really important to think just beyond the, you know, the owner of the relationship and where it can be built, with the company.

Sara Payne [00:13:57]:

So many great points there. I think you're absolutely right that we give them more value than we're giving ourselves credit for. I I've seen this to be true. Just in the limp, my my world of of marketing and PR and thought leadership, I've seen this to be true. But, you know, even the world well, you're talking about is even much broader than that. Right? R and d, in research. I mean, you're talking about peak behind the curtain, relationship with, you know, executives within the organization, talking about sort of how they see the future together in in sharing those dialogues. So I think that is, really wise advice, for those people listening in, to really give ourselves credit for that.

Sara Payne [00:14:43]:

Right. And really think about that as we're thinking about these relationships. Because this is a marketing podcast, I wanna really kinda hone in on marketing with this with this next question. Can you give some examples of how effective KOL partnerships have influenced health care marketing strategies? Yeah.

Julia Steele Rodriguez [00:15:05]:

I would say, I mean, at Hologic, this is our our big success story in mammography has been bringing 3 d mammography to women as standard of care in the US. And it has been our partnership with KOLs not only in research and publication and, of course, the the podium presentations and the evidence dissemination that comes from that and obviously can only happen in partnership with KOLF, but also in, you know, in payer initiatives, in again rallying the sales organization. It, you know, it couldn't have happened without our very intentional partnerships with selected people to help us bring forward, this new technology. So that would be like the most prominent example, that I

Sara Payne [00:15:53]:

I can give of, you know, recently. I know of Hologic not because we've worked together, but because you guys are are everywhere in in the marketplace. And so I have to give a lot of credit to to you and your colleagues in the marketing organization to really have put 3 d mammography on the map. And as you've said, KOLs, your relationship with KOLs has certainly has certainly played a big a big role in that.

Julia Steele Rodriguez [00:16:18]:

Yeah. It's really, amazing to see the impact that bringing clinical voices, you know, to on the hill for, you know, speaking with local at the state level, the federal level, local governments influencing policy to increase coverage. Like, we we underestimate how impactful those external and objective clinical voices can be and, you know, there's there's so much more we need to do and and talk about aligning objectives and passion. You know, we couldn't be more passionate about it and, you know, an example of breast radiologists, they couldn't be more passionate about expanding access. So when you can align, interests that way, it's incredibly powerful.

Sara Payne [00:17:03]:

Yeah. I I think there's this point about when we talk about aligned interests, it's it's aligned core values. It's aligned mission. Right? Their their interest in doing what's best for their patient and leading to the best possible health outcome and, you know, detection early for if it's, you know, breast cancer, is so incredibly important. And that's the same, you know, same mission and and and values that your organization has as well. And so when we're working together for that common outcome, I've seen that works incredibly well because we're rallying together around increased education, increased awareness of an issue to ultimately impact better outcomes in health care.

Julia Steele Rodriguez [00:17:45]:

Yeah. Absolutely.

Sara Payne [00:17:47]:

You've talked about some of the the challenges, that come along with with building and maintaining, KOL partnerships. Any any others that we haven't mentioned so far that are worth calling out, and how those can be overcome?

Julia Steele Rodriguez [00:18:02]:

Yeah. I I think looking as you're building a program, looking for potential friction points internally is important. Things like contracting, invoicing, payments, communication, they're little things, but they quickly churn into the big things. Mhmm. I think having a a smooth process there. Regular communication is important too and that gets back to expectation setting. But where I've seen these programs fail and where I've heard these horror stories from, you know, from KOLs that we've engaged with is when when companies ramp up a program and they go gum ho, we're gonna, you know, we're gonna do this, we're gonna do that and they they get them they get the KOLs excited about all of this work and they do maybe one speaking engagement and run crickets, Nothing. And, you know, people like we're saying, you get them all excited about this work that can be done and then to not communicate, to not give regular updates.

Julia Steele Rodriguez [00:19:01]:

Yeah. What's a these are relationships that need to be maintained with clear expectations, regular communication, and just we are respecting the the the human that's there, right? Yeah. They want feedback also and you know one of the really fun things in building a KOL program is when you can help somebody build their career, if they're looking for more more time speaking, they're looking to develop as a speaker, they're looking to do more research and just kind of build build their brand and and, you know, build their their leadership within their peer group, it's amazing. If they're open to feedback and want to partner, that could be a terrific opportunity. I caution to be careful, that you know that somebody is open to feedback before you give them a clue them but look seek out those people. Again, as that comes down to, like, picking who you're dating, not everybody will be somebody that you can develop over time or who wants to develop or is good getting good taking feedback, but if you can find a couple of those, they're well worth the investment. I'd say same with a group that you could call, like, emerging leaders or rising stars. Yeah.

Julia Steele Rodriguez [00:20:13]:

Who are the people that will be the KLLs in the future? So whether we're talking, you know, 5, 10, 15 years in the future, and this might not be relevant for for all organizations, but if you can build that relationship early so they get to know your your company, again, not one person but your company, you can help them develop as a speaker, as a presenter, or, you know, help connect them with other people in the industry. You know, helping to build connections works both ways. That that trust that builds over time, that relationship equity builds over time, and pays dividends, you know, well into the future

Sara Payne [00:20:48]:

for both sides. Yeah. You mentioned trust, and you also mentioned feedback. And as you were saying that it dawned on me that ideally your organization wants the feedback to go both ways. Right? And that comes down to having a relationship of trust and this ability like a true relationship. Right? Where this ability where your organization can give them feedback on how, you know, things could be going better, what else they could be doing, but also for them to turn around and give your organization feedback as well, it has to be incredibly valuable. Absolutely.

Julia Steele Rodriguez [00:21:21]:

And that's that can be one of the most powerful uses too internally, especially depending on how your organization gets input in other ways. Right? There are obviously times when you need different kinds of market research and feedback but hearing from these influential customers, because they're almost always customers to some degree, can be incredibly important. That's also another kind of, unsung benefit of these relationships and it can be leveraged 1 on 1 or in an advisory board group setting is, you know, what are the messages that the leaders in the organization need to hear, and and who do they need to hear it from? Sometimes it can be incredibly powerful for them to hear a message that may be available other ways but when they hear it come from key customers, it can have a greater impact. And so for that reason, also, when you're looking at fit, you want to think about are these the types of people that my leaders, that this organization wants to hear from and and will hear from? Yeah. Great point.

Sara Payne [00:22:32]:

Of course, we have to talk about KPIs. Right? So how do you measure the success of a KLL program, Julia? Are there any KPIs that are particularly helpful for evaluating the impact of these partnerships?

Julia Steele Rodriguez [00:22:46]:

Yeah. So, I mean, you have to be careful obviously with payments and, you know, we're not directly measuring ROI on payments to physicians, of course, but when we look at the, go stack 2 again, what were we hoping to accomplish in the first place? Right? I I think there are there are easy measures of success with a KOL program. Initially, I think it's more anecdotal where you start to see and you said to see and hear from internal customers and external external customers, whether it's, change in sentiment. You can measure, you know, chain share share of voice, whether, you know, you're hearing more about your product, those are a little bit more objective. I would say the subjective measures are the ones that are

Sara Payne [00:23:37]:

a little bit more complicated but easier to come by. Absolutely. Any final advice that you would give health marketing leaders looking to establish their KOL programs? And and you said it earlier, maybe it's not established, but reestablish or rebuild their keyhole

Julia Steele Rodriguez [00:23:52]:

programs. Yeah. I mean, I think I've I've been through it and I've I've spoke with a lot of colleagues. There are, it's very tempting to wanna go big, and to look at, you know, what is the the database that I need to manage these relationships or what is the software that I need that's gonna give me the most up to date publication information and, you know, give me visibility into how we're engaging with these people. I I I think like most things, it doesn't need to be that complicated to start, and I think it needs to be iterative, if it's especially if you're starting something that the organization hasn't done in a while. So I I would caution starting small, be intentional. You can start with a small group and build from there. If you're picking a critical number of people to engage with who share the same desires, vision, value as you and and and are willing to help you build a network too, that can be incredibly valuable.

Julia Steele Rodriguez [00:24:47]:

And so that time spent picking the first two people that you engage with will help you quickly expand and develop a program rather than getting caught up on, you know, we need the the top 500 influencers in this field, and we won't stop until we have relationships with all of them. Not really necessary.

Sara Payne [00:25:06]:

Yeah. No. I I love that point. I think that's really important. Well, I I'd like to switch gears here, Julia, for a special segment we call the collective quick fire. It's a fun way to to end the episode here. I've got 4 questions for you. Are you ready for the quick fire? Sure.

Julia Steele Rodriguez [00:25:23]:

What's the best piece of advice you've ever received? Don't run away from something, run to something.

Sara Payne [00:25:32]:

Oh, that's a good one. How do you stay ahead of market changes and trends in the industry?

Julia Steele Rodriguez [00:25:39]:

Oh, I can tie this one back to the subject. It's being curious and developing relationships with people who have different perspectives. And I that's the most fulfilling part of engaging with KOLs and the work that I, you know, is a part of the work that I get to do is, you know, learning, being curious and just, you know, what are you hearing? What's coming? What's next?

Sara Payne [00:25:59]:

What should we be looking at? Love that. What skills are important to you in your own professional development? What are some of the things that that you're focused on?

Julia Steele Rodriguez [00:26:09]:

I I think it goes back to, again, just developing and maintaining curiosity, having, some focus and discipline to set aside time each day or each week to be able to to do that. And like I said, it could be building relationships and, you know, the conversations that come from those relationships. But there's so much busyness and if we don't take the time to be curious and to learn, it's yeah. That's a shame.

Sara Payne [00:26:38]:

So true. Last question. What's the best podcast episode or book on leadership that you've read or or heard recently?

Julia Steele Rodriguez [00:26:48]:

I am a huge Adam Grant fan. Name. So I would just say in general on average, I get a lot from every single episode of his and it's not all health care all the time, but I I love that about it. It's just good human advice. Same. Yeah. So applicable

Sara Payne [00:27:09]:

to so many things in life, whether it's our career or or parenting. Right? There's a lot of great stuff that comes from from Adam. Well, Julia, this has been really fun. Thanks for doing this with me today. How can listeners get in touch with you?

Julia Steele Rodriguez [00:27:23]:

Well, these days, the only social media that I'm using are LinkedIn and Strava. So either of those will work, look to see

Sara Payne [00:27:31]:

on LinkedIn. Wonderful. Well, so many great insights from this conversation today. If you're feeling inspired, do us a favor and subscribe wherever you get your podcast. Thanks for being part of Health Marketing Collective where strong leadership meets marketing excellence because the future of health care depends on it. See you next time.

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