Key opinion leaders (KOLs) are recognized experts in an industry or specific area of knowledge. KOLs are the go-to people for advice. There always have been KOLs – they have existed long before the rise of influencer marketing. However, the internet has given an entirely new opportunity for KOLs to develop their status and widen their circle of influence.

You often encounter KOLs being interviewed by the press. They are the obvious people for journalists and reporters to go to when they want a soundbite or clip. You will also often see KOLs representing sides in significant debates.

Is the Term “Influencer” Just a Different Name for a KOL?

On the surface, key opinion leaders and influencers appear to be similar people. Many influencers are in fact KOLs. Both tend to claim expertise on a subject. Similarly, both influence the decisions of consumers in some way. However, some influencers don’t have a particular specialist area – some influencers are loved because of who they are and their general personality.

A key difference is probably the different ways that KOLs and influencers use social media. Social networking sites like Instagram, Facebook, YouTube and blogs are the key platforms for most influencers. Some KOLs may have a powerful social media presence, and as such operate as genuine social influencers. However, there is no requirement for a KOL to have an active social presence, or even spend time on social networks at all.

For example, in a small town, your local doctor and dentist are the key opinion leaders on health-related matters. As far as their town is concerned, they are key opinion leaders on medical matters, but they have no relevant online following to be an influencer.

That doesn’t mean that the residents of that town don’t follow health influencers, though. The global internet environment allows people from all over to find the information they need – much of the time from influencers across the world.

Some KOLS may have a wider audience, but use another, more traditional, method to share their knowledge. Indeed most celebrities follow this pattern. Celebrity chef, Jamie Oliver, made his name by mastering television, being personable in shows like The Naked Chef. While Jamie’s 7 million Instagram followers would be enough to make him an influencer, it is more of an afterthought, and not how he made his name.  Influencers are those who have built their reputation and followings through the content they’ve uploaded on to social media.

KOLs and Influencers – Key Differences

KOLs often build their credibility by their inside experience of an industry. For example, many of today’s Instagram models can be considered KOLs within the fashion and beauty industries. Also, Jamie Oliver built up a background as a chef before he started appearing on national television shows and producing healthy meals for school children. The niches of some KOLs may be more catered to a very specific audience, but they still offer people a lot of value in their particular industry.

Another way to look at the difference between KOLs and influencers is that influencers technically have two areas of speciality. They have also learned the skills required to operate a successful social media account, building a large following in the process. To do that, they will first, of course, have had to develop a specialist niche, where they use the knowledge to establish themselves as subject experts. Unlike influencers, KOLs have only had to build expertise in one subject, and are less likely to have a popular and engaged social media account.

Like mentioned earlier, one major difference between influencers and KOLs is the fact that some influencers don’t have to have a specialist area of knowledge or expertise. Thousands of influencers simply just produce content documenting their day-to-day lives. They are simply loved because of who they are and their personalities, or even by the quality or uniqueness of their Instagram photos. Audiences almost see them as ‘friends’ that they’ve never met, in oppose to celebrities or KOLs.

KOLs and Influencers Sometimes Have Different Online Aims

KOLs generally build their fame outside social media. Many have social accounts, but their interests tend to lie more in what they do from day-to-day. Many of higher status tend to employ assistants to operate the accounts on their behalf. Their main concern often lies their subject of expertise.

The late Stephen Hawking may have enjoyed playing himself on TV shows such as The Big Bang Theory. There can be little doubt that he was a KOL on subjects such as theoretical physics and cosmology. But running his Instagram account was evidently not his main concern.

All KOLs Influence, Despite Not Necessarily Being Influencers

You may know everything there is to know about a subject. You could be more knowledgeable on that subject than anyone else on the planet is. However, people won’t consider you a key opinion leader, or an influencer, if you don’t publicise your knowledge. Think back to the old television show, Mastermind. Many of the contestants had phenomenal knowledge of often-obscure subjects. However, until they made their initial television appearance, few people would ever have heard of them.

You will never be a KOL until people recognize your knowledge and skill in your field of interest.

Often today’s influencers take inspiration from key opinion leaders who have helped them learn about the niche and form their opinions in the past.

One way you can look at the difference is by thinking about how similar somebody is to his or her audience. Micro-influencers, in particular, are very similar to the people they engage with daily. KOLs, on the other hand, have wholly outgrown that original audience. They usually live a different lifestyle, and their daily life has little in common with everyday social consumers. They still influence decision-making and tastes, however, often by establishing trends for influencers to disseminate to their audiences.

Consumers Use KOLs for Confirmation

Often consumers will read, listen to or watch something on social media or in a blog post for confirmation or reassurance of something.

For example, if you are interested in business, you might read about a new motivational technique in a social post written by one of your favourite influencers. This might give you the incentive to go to the website of a subject expert, such as Seth Godin or Brian Tracy, to see if they have ever written about the subject. You are subconsciously looking for confirmation from one of these key opinion leaders.


Consider Your Target Market before you Select a KOL or Influencer

Ultimately, any successful influencer marketing depends on how well you can select an influencer / KOL. You might be tempted to work with a KOL, just because you recognise the name. However, he or her’s influence may not be as powerful on social media than that of an influencer.

We recently described how the majority illusion is very prominent in influencer marketing. This assumes that people tend to unconsciously agree with a message if they think the majority of people also agree with it. KOLs will usually make true statements regarding their specialist subject. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the majority of people believe them. It is the influencers who can actually change the opinions of their followers on a much wider scale.

There is one question you should ask yourself when deciding to work with somebody influential or knowledgeable in your niche. Does their expertise, their attitudes towards particular topics and audience best suit the objectives of your upcoming marketing campaign? Are they going to make a big impact on your target market?

If you require a KOL, you should make the most out of your budget by utilising an influencer that is also a KOL. In our own experience, we’ve found that working with influencers that are KOLs can be incredibly powerful – those that have a credible and engaged online following. The majority of the influencers we work with at our influencer marketing agency are in fact KOLs (Chromo-Influencers). It’s clear that influencers with a higher status and expertise in particular subjects or industries are more powerful in making audiences act.


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