HCP KOLs and DOLs: Differences and Common Ground

April 24, 2023
Posted by: Danny Flamberg, VP Strategy- HCP

In the race to find, harness, task, and deploy effective influencers, pharma marketers have two options: Key Opinion Leaders (KOLs) and Digital Opinion Leaders (DOLs). The former is a well-established HCP marketing tactic. The latter is emerging and evolving at the speed of digital transformation.


Classically, KOLs are established and known leaders, published authors, investigators, and clinicians in their specialties, acknowledged and appointed by medical affairs teams. Selected based on seniority, role, experience, expertise, and reputation, KOLs lend authority, credence, and validation to the strategy and the science behind new drugs and new treatment protocols.

They can identify objections and questions in advance based on their experience and understanding of markets and clinical thinking. KOLs are perceived as brand advocates.

Typically, KOLs are tasked with raising awareness of new products, engaging peers and practitioners at congresses, delivering medical presentations, targeting patient populations, serving on advisory boards, and talking to the press. Their content and sensibilities are formal and focused on specific diseases, treatment strategies and emerging technologies. KOLs are generally reticent to shill for pharma companies or brands and are increasingly reluctant to be closely associated with specific brands.



In contrast, DOLs are younger, self-appointed, self-promoting, digitally savvy, informal clinicians and practitioners dedicated to sharing information with their professional peers. DOLs have established themselves as independent brands with distinct points of view and unique voices. The serve as reporters, analysts, facilitators, critics, advocates, and occasionally as disruptors.

DOLs include NPs, PAs, nurses, pharmacists, patient advocates, payers, and administrators.

DOLs can be supportive or skeptical about pharma companies and brands. Tasked to co-create content, often in their own style and from their own perspective, they inject a real-time practical element into the on-going conversation. Their credibility and followings depend on providing relevant, realistic, evidence-based expert insights into medical and clinical topics. Followers relate to DOLs because they experience and reflect the same medical and practice challenges as they do.

DOLs offer broad reach and a free range of ideas, emotions, and opinions. There is no party line. DOLs have direct on-going online engagement with peers, frequently in long threads, including participants from all over the globe, focused on news or clinical challenges. There is a sense of commonality, immediacy, and urgency in these conversations on both public and private platforms.


Key difference between KOLs and DOLs



Digital immigrants Digital natives
Established reputations Building personal brands
Associated with institutions Independent
Vetted by pharma Self-appointed
Content by pharma Co-created and individual content
Tasked by pharma Self-directed
Brand & condition advocates Reporters, critics, peer commentators
Primarily MDs Full range of HCPs


There is some overlap between KOLs and DOLs which is expected to grow. As older Baby Boomer KOLs leave the scene, the distinctions are likely to blur over time. Savvy marketers will see the wisdom of deploying both kinds of opinion leaders in omnichannel marketing strategies to cover the range of seniority, expertise, perspective, formality, immediacy, and reach needed to launch new medications or treatments by engaging and persuading time-starved HCPs.

Learn how to vet and analyze DOLs with this free HCP Influencer eBook.


Reach out to the author: Danny Flamberg, VP Strategy – HCP, danny@liveworld.com