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Thought leader mapping: do we need a radical rethink?

Published on 13/01/14 at 08:30am
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The effectiveness of healthcare communications is often more reliant on who’s delivering the message than the content of the message itself. This is because we give more weight to information from what we perceive as ‘credible’ sources. 

Pharma companies are seen as highly credible sources of information about their own medicines. However, most healthcare professionals prefer to get information about when to use one medicine over another from other more ‘independent’ sources such as publications, peers, guideline committees, congresses and educational meetings.

Therefore, it is critical for companies to understand and engage with the key sources and shapers of thought leadership in their given therapy areas. The ultimate success of any medicine is highly dependent on the views of thought leaders. 

It’s important to remember then that every thought leader is different and understanding their individual interests, associations and connections can greatly enhance interactions. 

Thought leader - or influencer - mapping is a well-established process for identifying and ranking the key sources of information for healthcare professionals. The basic process hasn’t really changed for at least 20 years: 

• Conduct a thorough search of publications, affiliations, associations, meetings presence and clinical trial participation

• Rank and score those identified based on the search results

• Conduct peer-to-peer endorsement calls to validate the desk research

• Create detailed profiles of nominees

• Finalise the database and create the report. 

This type of structured research produces a remarkably accurate picture of who is active and, most importantly, who is setting the agenda in a specific field of medicine. It yields a list of people who are actively communicating on target topics.

In addition, it highlights areas of overlap where collaboration with industry may offer mutual benefit in the enhancement of clinical understanding and practice - an objective industry and thought leaders share.

Given that the traditional approach to thought leader mapping has been effective in helping companies engage and work with key opinion formers for many years, is a change to this process needed? In short, I don’t believe it is.

However, thought leader mapping is not value-adding in itself, it is what’s done with the data that really makes an impact and adds value for all parties. Specifically, how partnerships with thought leaders are formed to support medical education activities that positively impact clinical practice.

There are three key developments that I believe are radically changing thought leader mapping to enable the delivery of more impactful medical education activities: 

• Identifying and ranking digital influencers

• Mapping and leveraging influence networks

• Segmenting thought leaders by their style of communication.

Identifying and ranking digital influencers

Digital is an increasingly important channel; however, it is important to keep digital influence in context and weight it alongside traditional channels like publications, affiliations, meetings presence and clinical trial participation. 

One consideration that separates it slightly is that the leaders in this space tend not to be the same people who would be identified as leaders in traditional channels. What is needed is real understanding of the digital environment to accurately assess how influential an individual might be and in what context.

It is all too easy to see people with lots of followers or connections as highly influential. As an example a doctor with 100,000 followers on Twitter may not have any influence when it comes to changing clinical practice because he tweets about patient issues and has very few other healthcare professionals (HCPs) following him. 

On the other hand, a doctor who has set up a private LinkedIn Group with fewer than 100 members may be highly influential if that group discusses clinical practice and is made up entirely of relevant HCPs. Ideally then, digital activity is simply added into the desk research step and given a weighting based on reach, credibility, relevance and engagement in the same way any other activity is. 

Alternatively, a digital audit of thought leaders you already have relationships with, or those identified using traditional means, can uncover champions for specific digital medical education projects. What is critical, as with all mapping activities, is having the right information to be able to pair thought leaders with different types of communication.

For example, the thought leader with 100,000 Twitter followers is the perfect person to talk to about a disease awareness campaign. Partnering with them could bring with it an instant and direct channel to voice the message to the right people. 

For digital projects it is likely to be a lot less work, and much more effective, to find and work with those engaged in digital already - rather than train traditional thought leaders to become digital champions. I am not saying it can’t be done but those successful in the online environment tend to dedicate significant time to it. 

The majority of traditional thought leaders are unlikely to have the time and dedication needed to nurture a significant digital presence and their time is generally better used working in the areas where they are already established.

Mapping and leveraging influence networks

Traditional thought leader mapping provides detailed information on what individuals are doing in a specific area of interest; however, activity and thought leadership is not always one and the same thing. It is not unusual for some of the most ‘active’ thought leaders to also be perceived by peers as not credible. 

This can be because of perceptions around industry relationships, differences of opinion, or simply that the activity has been poorly targeted and not reached the right audiences.

Sometimes this perception is unfair but working with people who are negatively perceived by the audience you are trying to reach can be detrimental. It is important, therefore, to understand not just how much and individual is doing but also the strength and nature of their relationships with others. 

A simple evolution of the traditional mapping approach can tell us a lot about who influences who. In addition, it is possible to understand the likely reach and influence of individuals amongst a target audience - this can be done by mapping who works with who as well as individual activity. 

Tracking the people publishing together, working on the same committees, speaking at the same events and working in the same departments, tells you a lot about the nature of different relationships. The value of this is significant because it allows you to engage people a little more strategically;
for example:

• Identifying the key person from each major research group, interest area, or department can broaden the reach of interactions and help identify differences of opinion

• Finding and engaging the people with loose connections to lots of groups can help you broaden the reach of your messages

• Targeted interactions with a number of people from a single group may be a good way to shape and constantly communicate a new direction. 

In addition to the above, relationship mapping will identify outliers, or groups of outliers, and can even identify the themes that separate them from others. It is very unusual to see those with different opinions publishing together, for example.

You may be reading the above and thinking that this type of mapping is significantly more work and therefore more time consuming and costly to conduct. It is not. It does require a slightly different approach that captures relationships as they are discovered during the desk research phase.

In addition, the information needs to be captured in a database that is set up to report relationships as well as activity. This process does not necessarily need to be complex, and the benefit of putting it in place makes it well worth planning at the beginning of any mapping project.

Segmenting thought leaders by their communication style

We all play different roles in our social and business networks and healthcare professionals are no different. There are many models used to segment people but when it comes to medical education campaigns, and the likely outputs a piece of thought leader mapping results in, then Malcolm Gladwell’s ‘Law of the Few’ from his book ‘Tipping Point’ provides a very effective platform.

Gladwell identifies three types of people who are critical to spreading information throughout communities:

• Connectors (or social influencers) - they know large numbers of people, from a number of interest groups, and have a habit of making introductions, bringing people together and connecting ideas

• Mavens - who accumulate knowledge, especially about specific areas of interest, through deep study and research into a field. They tend to be highly respected within a small niche  

• Salesmen or persuaders - who have an indefinable trait that helps them gain agreement from others. They tend to be able to build consensus, convince an audience of an argument, and drive behaviour change. 

Understanding the natural skill sets of different thought leader segments, offers a practical way to identify potential partners for specific activities. For example:

• If you are looking for a lead author in a niche interest area, then you need a ‘maven’ to maximise the credibility of the paper - optimising the likelihood of it getting into your chosen publication

• When considering co-authors, it is valuable to have at least one ‘connector’ to increase the paper’s reach across groups. In addition, the right co-authors can be critical in ensuring the acceptance of the paper by different sections of the community

• If you need a compelling speaker or meeting chair, then a ‘persuader’ can make the difference between an interesting talk and something that drives real changes in practice.

This simple segmentation step can make all the difference to the effectiveness of medical education campaigns. As with the other evolutions of thought leader mapping discussed, it is not a complex process assuming that the influence network research step has been undertaken. 

With this data in place, ‘mavens’ and ‘connectors’ can be identified directly from the desk research based on their profiles. Understanding the ability to persuade is not something the metrics can tell you, therefore ‘persuader’ identification requires a modification to the ‘peer-to-peer endorsement call’ step in the traditional process.

It requires a short series of questions on who peers describe as ‘compelling’, cross-checked with internal company feedback on speakers, and a measurement of the number of high-profile talks given. This is not a fool-proof method, however, it provides invaluable insights that greatly aid speaker selection.    

While the core process of thought leader mapping is still fit for purpose, the increasing need to see the activity of individuals in the context of the networks they belong to means we need to radically re-think how we link information together. It’s no longer enough to know who is active in an area.

We need to know who they work with, how they are perceived, their digital presence, and the areas where they offer most value in terms of personal skill sets. This can be achieved through more effective utilisation the data generated by the traditional process - analysing it in a way that delivers a more practical and usable set of thought leader profiles.

In addition, visually linking the networks, subgroups and connections that tie thought leaders together can open new insights into why some collaborations succeed and others fail. Most encouragingly, while this new approach provides a revolutionary new level of insight, it does not require significantly more time or resources to implement. 

It also offers a way for companies to be more efficient as well as effective in planning their medical education campaigns around the strengths, interests and personalities of the thought leaders they work with.

The role of digital in healthcare can only grow and understanding who the leaders are in this space is becoming more important. 

Generally, those considered traditional thought leaders do not have large digital footprints. It tends to be a different group of people who have already invested significant time in embracing this new channel and its audiences.

While digital does not supersede traditional activities, it does present new opportunities and scales of interactions - particularly with patients - which can totally transform audience beliefs in the time it takes to write 140 characters.   

Thought leader mapping, when developed to track networks, not just individuals, can be radically more effective as a platform for the delivery of medical education campaigns that create greater medical understanding and drive positive change.

Chris Bartley is director of Havas Life Medicom.

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