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When I started writing this blog post on KOLs and influencers in marketing, I immediately thought of doctors and dentists. Do you remember those TV commercials for toothpaste that featured a wise-looking grandfatherly man in a white coat smiling at you with his shiny teeth and explaining how only Colgate reduces your plaque by up to 98%? Whether or not the dentist influenced my buying decision, I never questioned his assertions because of his expertise — he must know what he was talking about because he was a dentist.

That dentist is an example of a KOL – a Key Opinion Leader. In this post, we’ll examine the differences between KOLs and influencers and discuss how to decide which is best for your marketing campaign.

What Is A KOL In Marketing?

The definition of an 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. As in the case of our dentist, the term is more common in healthcare marketing. That’s because KOLs play an important role for the pharmaceutical companies who depend on doctors as advocates for their brand – if a dentist says it’s good, it has to be good, right?

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 Between KOLs And Influencers

Both influencers and KOLs are individuals who influence a consumer’s opinion about a product or service.

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.

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.

For example, I choose to follow @dariadaria instead of @anajohnson because the girly pink color favored by the latter simply doesn’t match my taste. But if I follow a KOL’s recommendation, it’s because of their knowledge, not because I can relate to them personally.

KOL or Influencer? Finding the Right Fit for Your Brand

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.

KOLs Influence Influencers

Let’s clarify the difference between a Key Opinion Leader and an influencer by looking at the following examples.

Chiara Ferragni

The Italian fashion icon Chiara Ferragni is a Key Opinion Leader in the fashion industry. She started her career with her blog The Blonde Salad and now ranks among the most-respected fashion experts. After collaborating with brands like Steven Madden and Intimissimi, she opened up her own retail space in Milan to showcase her fashion collection.

Chiara Ferragni (11m followers) is on top of the Pyramid of Influence. She infrequently promotes outside brands and you won’t find discount codes on her Instagram stories. Instead, she lives fashion. She sets trends herself and influences the influencers.

Jessica Alba, Alessandra Ambrosio, Paris Hilton, and brands such as Dior like and comment on her postings, as do many fashion magazines. We can see that she engages with people who are knowledgeable in the industry themselves.

Rachel Martino

Rachel Martino (243k), on the other hand, is an American fashion influencer living in NYC. She engages with her followers in a different way. Her followers can relate to her as a person.

She speaks to the average consumer and promotes brands that she herself is influenced by, that she likes and that the average person is likely to buy.

In contrast to Chiara Ferragni, Rachel promotes brands on a regular basis. In the past, she teamed up with brands like RalphLauren, Aveda, Wella,  Nordstrom or Mastercard.

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.

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