BLOG | December 6th 2019

What's a KOL and What's Their Role in Influencer Marketing

Over the past decade, influencers have become a mainstay on social media. People flock to their accounts to check out amazing content. 

The beauty of social media is that you can find the influencer that’s perfect for your specific lifestyle as opposed to one-size-fits-all.

This level of curation means that influencers have a close-knit relationship with their audience and can, well, influence peoples’ views and purchasing habits. As a result, influencers and influencer marketing overall has skyrocketed over the past few years. 

But have you heard of KOL marketing? KOLs, and KOL marketing, is an essential – and growing – component of the broader influencer marketing universe. 

What is a KOL?

KOL is an abbreviation that stands for Key Opinion Leader. They are experts in their respective fields and their opinion carries weight. When a forensic expert is called to testify in court, that’s a KOL whose professional opinion determines the outcome of events.

The term KOL comes from China, where a whole industry has developed around them.

In fact, KOL marketing in China is a huge $17 billion market. The market is skyrocketing because ads from companies are trusted by so few people.

This is an emerging issue in the U.S as well, but much more intense in China. So instead of relying on official ads and government reviews, consumers turn to KOLs.

KOLs provide expert opinions and recommendations on products and services. And interestingly, many of them will be quick to tell you that they are not influencers. 

What is the difference between KOLs and influencers? 

Perhaps the single largest difference is that influencers work online, whereas KOLs are online for work. What do we mean?

Marie Kondo is a KOL. Well before social media, she was recognized as an expert in organizing, had published books, spoken on panels and more. Only in recent years has she established a social media and e-commerce presence.

Even if she deleted her IG tomorrow, she would still be an expert in the space and could still sell books. However, by having an online presence, she is able to reach a larger audience and drive even more sales. In other words, she is online to work. 

Conversely, influencers work online – they exist because of social media. They create their IG and start building it from scratch. Over time, they develop a specific niche and gain followers.

The content that they create is geared and optimized for online platforms. Think “do it for the ‘gram.” So to keep going with the above example, someone can create an IG account to document re-organizing their house.

Over time this can become a popular influencer account geared around home organization as the influencer keeps producing content. They work to create online content.

Another key difference between KOLs and influencers is the way that they communicate. KOLs tend to be one-way communicators while influencers are two-way communicators. 

Influencers tend to heavily engage with their audience while KOLs rarely respond back to comments, questions, or suggestions posed by their audience.

Even when KOLs do respond, it can sometimes be just through a personal assistant or social media manager.

This is why in influencer marketing, micro-influencers tend to be more powerful. They are more likely to engage with their audience when promoting a brand, rather than just posting a sponsored ad and letting it be.

Why KOLs are important 

Influencers are great at starting conversations and building awareness. Many celebrities are considered influencers. When they share a post about a topic it can go viral or start trending very quickly.

That said, their opinion might not carry a lot of weight in driving sales, especially if the product is geared towards a specific demographic.

KOLs are different. 

They provide credibility to your brand and are essential to driving sales since they have a ready-built and loyal audience. As such, their recommendations carry a lot more weight and can drive more sales. 

Just how much more credibility and sales do they add? Well, according to the chief e-commerce officer for Greater China “if you don’t have a KOL, you won’t sell.” 

This is because KOLs tend to have huge followings. Their knowledge and experience in their space are so widely recognized that when they speak, people buy.

In fact, they are usually so powerful that many receive a sales commission when they partner with brands.

Overall, while KOLs and influencers have many similarities there are also a few crucial differences between the two.

Of course, this doesn’t mean you need to pick one over the other! They both have unique pros and cons, and as a new decade begins, the smartest brands and marketers will build a strategy that utilizes both effectively: influencers to kick things off, and KOLs to seal the deal. 

Download our content report to learn more ways Influencer generated content can help your business grow.

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