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"Key Opinions" Shouldn't Be the Only Opinions That Matter

By John C Mitchell

Product developers and managers at medical device firms are well-acquainted with “key opinion leaders.” Usually shorthanded as “KOLs,” these physicians and nurses invent new techniques, publish articles, present at society meetings, and are generally held in high esteem by their colleagues for being at the top of their field. KOLs are influential, so medical-product innovators rightly rely on them for valuable insights. Sometimes, however, KOLs can steer innovation off course. It is important for innovators to understand how to balance their perspective against that of others 

Focusing on KOLs is an application of lead user analysisa method studied extensively by Eric von Hippel of MIT’s Sloan School of Management. By examining how KOLs use existing products, and more importantly, how they use existing products in new ways, upstream product managers can spot opportunities to innovate. In addition, since KOLs are generally the best informed about the evolving standards of care in their fields, and often push the proverbial envelope of treatment, their behaviors and practices may predict overall market direction. Figure out what KOLs need today, the thinking goes, and you will know what the rest of the market will need to know tomorrow.  


That 
theory is not wrong, but it does pose a risk. Too often, device makers attend their KOLs to the exclusion of everyone else. Such myopia presumes that the needs of KOLs are all that matters. Overlooked is that mainstream clinicians—which by definition are the majority of the market—may prioritize their needs entirely differently. In my experience, KOLs often treat cases that most other physicians never see or are happy to refer out, leaving their own schedule clear for more familiar, more routine cases that reimburse just as well. Consequently, KOLs may need more technical performance as they continue to advance the field, whereas mainstream physicians may prioritize needs that indicate solutions to increase procedure throughput, improve ease-of-use, or reduce total cost.  

The best course is not to limit your market research to KOLs alone, and instead, to be intentional about enlisting providers in your research who may be more representative of the rest of the market. A good first step is to hypothesize how your various clinician customers may differ in what they need by expertise, experience, and case volume. Then, develop a “sample frame” of clinicians that ensures balance between KOL and mainstream providers. Use this frame to design your interview and survey plan, and then compare what you learn from KOLs against what you learn from the rest of the market. 

To learn more about how Applied Marketing Science can help you broaden your perspective of your clinician customers, please contact us today.

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