The difference between Key Opinion Leader (KOL) & an Influencer

First off, we need to know the difference between a Key Opinion Leader (KOL) and an Influencer as I recently had a chat with a person that claims to be a KOL and made me correct her by labelling her correctly. Why? Because to me, is just a social media user with a handful of following.

In my opinion, the definition of a Key Opinion Leader is an expert whose opinion is valued in a specific industry or area of knowledge, and is listened to by a broader audience. KOLs are individuals who are trusted and respected specifically for this knowledge. The term Key Opinion Leader in marketing is not new. .

An example of a KOL? BTS (방탄소년단) or Bangtan Boys that recently recently donated to Black Lives Matters movement and as a reaction, got fellow celebrities, BTS Army and brands across the globe to match their donation to the BLM movement as well. Now, that's a KOL.

An influencer on the other hand, applies to people who are bloggers, online content creators, vloggers and live streamers and has a small following. They can help brands to promote their services/products to their audience through the relationship that he/she has build with his or her audience. A following in a distinct niche, with whom he or she actively engages.

Is an influencer a KOL? Although the two terms are often used interchangeably, they are not exactly the same. Understanding the differences can help you decide whether working with an influencer or a KOL is right for your brand or campaign.

The difference?

Influencers can have a strong influence on an audience present on social media platforms like Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. While KOLs may have a presence on social media, these platforms don’t have to serve as their main communication channel. An influencer’s credibility comes from their online persona, their content and their perceived authenticity.

On the other hand, A KOL’s credibility comes from direct experience in an industry, professional qualifications or time spent engaged on a subject. In contrast, the trust of an influencer’s audience is based on identification and personal preference.

KOL or Influencer? Finding the Right Fit.

Influencers and KOLs appeal to different audiences, so if you’re deciding which one to work with, you’ll need to consider who your target demographic is.

Influencers appeal to the average consumer.

Compared to KOLs, influencers often have an unspecified audience. What connects all of the followers is a shared interest in the influencer’s attitude, personality or lifestyle. People follow influencers because their content matches the follower’s interest, taste or opinion. Because of these similarities, the follower is more likely to identify with the influencer, but does not necessarily match the demographic of the influencer.

Key opinion leaders, on the other hand, speak to a particular demographic. Their audience values the KOL’s opinion due to their expertise and experience in a certain industry. Followers turn to them for knowledge and advice and usually have a deeper understanding and knowledge of an industry themselves. Unlike influencers, followers aren’t necessarily fans of the KOL as a person but they respect the KOL’s expertise.

If you want to target audience members in a specific demographic or with interests in a specific topic, then finding Key Opinion Leaders who speak to that demographic can be an effective way to reach a new audience, or extend your reach. However, don’t pay more for a KOL who has a large reach but is working outside your area of interest. Their pricing might be based on the reach they have within a certain topic area, and their influence will not be effective outside that area of expertise.


In recent years, there's a growth of online celebrity that market themselves as KOL. Especially in China, its own terminology to refer to an influencer marketing practitioner: key opinion leader (KOL) or “wanghong,” which is the romanization of the Mandarin pronunciation for “online celebrity.”

An industry of “wanghong incubators” or “KOL academies” is thriving to meet the flood of KOL aspirants. Some incubators span the entire supply chain, handling people’s careers much like a talent agency would. Incubators start with talent discovery and development, and then move that talent into content creation and beyond, including production of products and logistics. Top-notch KOLs may get a full production team devoted to them.

It’s difficult to get an exact count of how many of these academies are operating, but it is definitely a growing market being led by China, such academies are sprouting up in almost every country across the globe.

Some marketers deploying influencer campaigns use KOL and wanghong interchangeably. It’s not always clear-cut which they mean, but there are some important distinctions. KOLs have developed expertise on a topic and have created relationships with their audience over an extended period. Wanghongs became famous because of an internet presence, but their opinions may not necessarily be trusted as expert in relation to the products being hawked. That leads some KOLs to take offense when they are referred to as wanghongs.

The Takeaway

An influencer loves something but a KOL lives it. Engaging with a KOL might be right at one stage of a campaign or product launch while engaging with influencers might be more appropriate for other times – neither is inherently better than the other.

Identify the demographics of the audience you want to target and start from there. Do you want to target the average consumer? Is your product or service primarily designed for a specific group that requires expertise to be convinced of a product? The answers to these questions will help you determine whether a KOL or an influencer is right for you.

Now, why would you want to engage KOLs and Influencers?

  •  Reach more people in a target market 
  • Gain credibility through word-of-mouth marketing
Millennials are 115% more influenced by word of mouth than traditional advertising.

KOLs influence the influencers.

Influencers look to key opinion leaders to as subject matter experts.

Brands work with influencers to gain access to their followers.

Key opinion leaders are thought leaders because they have the credibility to back up their opinions — not because of their follower counts.

What can you do if you want to engage with KOLs and Influencers to help you boost your brands?

  • Do a bit of research on the KOLs and Influencers that is most suitable to your branding needs
  • Reach out to the KOLs and Influencers
  • Work with the KOLs and Influencers to work out a marketing plan to maximise the ROI for your brand
If you are not sure of where to start, just ask around, I always believe in the idea of 6 degrees of separation, asking around among your friends/contacts would eventually lead you to the right path.

If you stumble upon this site while trying to find an answer, then you can also reach out to me. It is that simple.

Hope you will find what you are looking for in planning out the next direction for your brand. Til then, do let me know if this post helps or if you have any tips to share with other readers, do share with us.

Michael Yip

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