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The What, Why, and How of Key Opinion Leaders in Influencer Marketing (2024)

Joe Anderson
Founder at MightyScout
June 06, 2024

Over the last decade, influencer marketing has exploded into a multi-billion dollar industry.

Millions of people love influencers for their creative and entertaining content. Brands are cashing in, too—nearly 85% of marketers say influencers work as well or better than other channels.

The potential is huge. No wonder 60% of brands plan to increase their influencer marketing budgets this year!

But even with all this growth, brands need help finding the right influencers and building successful campaigns. You need something to set your business apart.

But how can you do this if everyone is hiring influencers?

Enter key opinion leaders (KOLs). If you have yet to hear of them, KOLs are crucial for innovative, effective influencer marketing that truly works.

But who are they? What makes them different from other influencers? Can they really boost your brand to a whole new level?

In this blog, that’s exactly what we’re going to find out and more.

Key opinion leaders vs. traditional influencers

Let’s start with the most obvious question—who are KOLs, and how are they different from traditional influencers? Here’s your answer.

Key opinion leaders (KOLs)

Key opinion leaders (KOLs) are influential individuals with in-depth expertise and credibility in a specific sector. They strategically engage in influencer marketing, often promoting brands, products, or services as external experts.

Unlike traditional influencers who are popular on social media and can attract large audiences, KOLs are trusted because of their authority in a specific field.

This authority comes from years of experience, significant contributions, and recognition by their peers and the public. Their strong engagement with their community makes them authentic and reliable sources for brand messaging.

Some characteristics that make brands want to partner with KOLs for their influencer marketing campaigns include:

  • KOLs are experts in their respective fields. Their knowledge comes from professional degrees, years of experience, and significant contributions. Naturally, people trust and value their opinions a lot.
  • KOLs are trusted because they know their stuff. Their influence comes from their ability to talk smartly about industry trends and issues, not just their follower count.
  • KOLs are always sharing their knowledge. They're not just talking heads—they actively engage with what's happening in their industry. You’ll often find them writing articles, doing interviews, and appearing on TV or podcasts to share their opinions.
  • KOLs aren't just in one area; they're everywhere. They can be writers, teachers, leaders, athletes, and even business owners. For example, if you’re launching a luxury brand, having it backed by a KOL like Bernard Arnault (CEO of LVMH) will throw you in the spotlight and boost your sales over a few weeks.
  • KOLs make complicated ideas easy to understand. Their in-depth expertise allows them to break down the most complex ideas into the simplest terms, making them digestible for everyone around the world.

As of today, KOLs have impacted pretty much every industry out there. And their platforms of choice? Social media, blogs, podcasts, videos, and everything in between.

Take Dr. Sanjay Gupta, for example. He's a neurosurgeon and a well-known KOL in the medical field.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta's Twitter image

With a whopping 2.4 million followers, Dr. Gupta is a constant presence on Twitter. He’s known for sharing in-depth knowledge and opinions on a multitude of topics ranging from drug crisis to Alzheimer’s disease.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta's sample IG post

He’s also quite popular on Instagram! Boasting a following of about 251K, he talks about current news and often shares snippets from his podcast, Chasing Life (which is available on major streaming services like Spotify and Apple Podcasts).

If you go through his profile, you’ll also notice that, in 2022, he authored the #1 New York Times bestseller 12 Weeks to a Sharper You: A Guided Program. The book features a curated 12-week program to reduce your anxiety, sleep better, and keep your brain healthy.

Dr. Gupta is also a familiar face on TV and radio, having interviewed Big Bird and appeared on shows with hosts like Stephen Colbert.

Now for instance, if you’re launching a D2C health and fitness brand, you need credible people like Dr. Gupta to advocate for your product. Because if they approve your product in front of their audience, the audience knows it’s good because it’s coming from a certified expert.

KOLs are also highly active on professional platforms like LinkedIn.

Satya-Nadella-LinkedIn

And nobody’s a better example than Satya Nadella, the CEO of Microsoft. *(Fun fact: Microsoft owns LinkedIn!) *

He often highlights Microsoft's developments and innovations and addresses public issues directly with personal, honest updates. Just check out how he empathetically reacted to the OpenAI leadership debate in this post.

Satya Nadella LinkedIn post

Nadella’s personality and passion for his role are evident in his strategic and empathetic posts, making him a key figure in tech and digital transformation.

Imagine if the CEO of Microsoft talks about your product. Your brand credibility will soar!

Traditional Social Media Influencers

Traditional social media influencers are people who have gained a huge number of followers on social media by posting regularly and interacting with their audience.

They’re widely known for their style, life, or the content they create. Even though they're not exactly “experts,” influencers can still affect what their followers buy and think. People usually follow them for what they post, not because of their job.

Here are a few characteristics that set them apart from KOLs:

  • Influencers have a wide audience reach. Their popularity and the content they create help them connect with lots of people from different backgrounds.
  • Influencers create all sorts of content, from lifestyle and fashion to beauty and travel.
  • Traditional influencers aim for a broad audience, making them ideal for promoting different products or services to thousands of people.

Influencers primarily dominate popular social media platforms like Instagram, TikTok, YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter. They create content involving all kinds of industries like fashion, beauty, tech, entertainment, lifestyle, and more.

For example, Marques Brownlee is a tech influencer and YouTube personality with almost 5 million followers on Instagram alone! His content mainly focuses on detailed reviews and insights into the latest gadgets.

Marques Brownlee's Youtube Profile

His vast presence often attracts top brands like Apple and Microsoft, encouraging him to promote upcoming tech for maximum exposure.

TikTok is considered to be the most popular influencer marketing channel, according to the latest report from Influencer Marketing Hub.

Ever since its launch, TikTok has become a go-to space for creators to experiment with their content, granting fame to several of them.

Khabane Lame's TikTok

Khabane Lame, for instance, is an Italian creator who gained fame on TikTok with his funny videos.

Despite rarely speaking, his comedic edits and reaction videos have earned him 162.1 million followers! He has partnered with big brands like Pepsi and Hugo Boss and even made it to Forbes’s list of top creators of 2023.

Most influencers don’t just maintain one social media account. They have corresponding profiles on platforms like Facebook and Twitter as well.

Neymar Jr.'s FB page

Fans are well aware of Brazilian athlete Neymar Jr. (aka NJ), and how he dominates the soccer field. But when he’s not kicking around a ball, he’s an avid gaming content creator.

And he regularly posts his video game content content on two main channels: Facebook and Instagram. Both platforms boast millions of followers, serving a combined number of over 361.6 million with every post reaching over 59.1 million people in total!

Elon Musk's Twitter

Celebrities and influencers have been flocking to Twitter for a long time to share updates, discuss business, and dole out their wisdom to the ordinary folk of the internet.

From recruiting to business to music, Twitter has an influencer for every industry out there. Soccer? Cristiano Ronaldo. Crypto? Changpeng Zhao (better known as the founder of Binance). Music? Taylor Swift. Tech? Elon Musk.

And the list goes on and on.

Strategic advantages of leveraging KOLs in marketing

Depth of expertise and trust

Working with KOLs has a big advantage: they know their stuff and people trust them.

Unlike regular influencers who cover a lot of general topics, KOLs focus on one area. They've spent years learning and practicing in their field, so when they talk, people listen. Naturally, they are respected for their deep knowledge and authority on the subject.

When KOLs support a brand, their expertise builds trust that regular ads can't. They add weight to the message the brand is trying to convey, making people feel more confident about buying their products.

It's a win-win: the KOL gets to share something they believe in, and the brand gets a boost from their expertise.

Impact on brand credibility

A KOL's credibility doesn't come from their followers but from their expertise.

So, when a KOL supports your brand, it adds to your credibility. Think about it: whose opinion would you trust more, a random celebrity's or someone with certifications and years of experience under the belt?

When you work with a KOL, you're borrowing their credibility. By linking your brand with these influential figures, you can use the trust they've built up over time, making your brand look reliable and respected.

This is especially helpful in industries like healthcare, finance, or tech, where being seen as an expert is key.

When we asked HackerNoon CEO David Smooke about it, his brand was able to point out two niches that prefer KOLs.

“With HackerNoon Writing Contests, we've seen that software companies and blockchain companies specifically are the most interested in incentivizing content creation for key opinion leaders. I believe this is rooted in those industries’ unique commitment to an open internet.”

To put it simply, people are more likely to believe a brand's claims when they're backed by a respected KOL who knows their stuff.

And when an expert supports your brand, it’s like getting a stamp of approval from the best!

Case studies

1. Casey Neistat x Canon

Veteran YouTuber Casey Neistat has been around since the early days of the platform. He taught everyone how to be a video creator without fancy degrees or big production companies.

His skills were so impressive that the camera brand Canon began to use Casey to promote their cameras.

He made a video titled "The Best Camera Money Can Buy" for the Canon EO5 70D. The video got over 4.7 million views, 4.3K comments (many about the camera), and over 67,000 likes on YouTube.

Casey Neistat x Canon (Youtube) Image

2. Michael Jordan x Nike

Michael Jordan x Nike

NBA legend Michael Jordan has been partnering with Nike for over 20 years now!

With Jordan, Nike released the first Air Jordans—a line of premium sneakers designed by Peter Moore and released in 1984. And they were an instant hit.

Jordan's success and innovative design created a cultural phenomenon. Fans and collectors eagerly await each new release of Air Jordans, symbolizing style and performance beyond basketball.

When Nike launched the first Air Jordan, they had aimed for a sales goal of $3.1 million. The number shattered immediately, and Nike earned $126 million in that year alone!

The Air Jordans have made billions and helped Nike dominate the athletic shoe market. Even after Jordan retired, the brand is still popular, with new releases eagerly awaited by sneaker and basketball fans.

3. Keith Gill x GameStop and AMC

Keith Gill, better known as Roaring Kitty, is an American financial analyst and investor. And recently, he created waves in the stock market with just memes.

The Economic Times reported that shares of retail giants GameStop and AMC GameStop soared by 118% on 13th May 2024, reaching a two-year high and increasing its market cap by nearly $4 billion to $9.32 billion.

And all this happened right after Gill returned to Twitter and began posting for the first time in 3 years.

Matthew Tuttle, CEO of Tuttle Capital Management, is shocked and stunned at the same time.

According to him, “the fact that Roaring Kitty is back should be totally meaningless to the stock market (but) the fact that it isn't is fascinating.”

Comparison of KOLs and traditional influencers

Audience engagement

KOLs build strong connections with a smaller, expert audience by sharing detailed content in their field. They spark meaningful conversations and offer valuable insights that matter to their audience.

KOLs have open conversations and share their true thoughts and experiences. This honesty is quickly trusted by their audience, who appreciate their opinions and viewpoints.

As a result, these relationships often last a long time, creating strong trust and loyalty within their niche community.

Dr. Muneeb Shah IG post sample image

Take Dr. Muneeb Shah, for example.

A dermatologist and major influencer (think a million followers), Dr. Shah shares videos of himself reacting to skincare videos. He is a well-known KOL when it comes to scientifically accurate advice on handling various skin conditions and product recommendations.

In contrast, traditional influencers reach more people but might lack the in-depth knowledge KOLs have. They talk about lots of things but often don't go deep into any one topic.

Kylie cosmetics sample image

Kylie Jenner, for instance. With 400 million followers on Instagram, she is a true influencer who promotes her line of cosmetics to a huge (but generic) audience.

However, her posts often lack in-depth scientific research and focus more on making marketing campaigns fast through quick promotions. But sometimes, this fast engagement doesn't build as much trust as KOLs do.

Content authority vs. Content popularity

KOLs are certified experts in their fields, sharing detailed insights and professional knowledge. Their reliability and accuracy earn them the trust of their audience. They craft specialized content for specific professional groups, aiming to provide high-quality, influential, and educational information.

This content authority helps KOLs play a pivotal role in shaping opinions and industry trends, positioning brands as leaders. Regarded as experts, their content authority significantly impacts audience perspectives and decision-making processes.

On the flip side, influencers become popular by reaching many people and connecting with them in different ways.

They build their popularity by creating a personal brand that people can connect with on a personal level. So, their content focuses on entertaining, inspiring, and engaging their followers with topics like fashion, beauty, travel, and entertainment.

Because of this, influencers can affect what people buy and do. They have the power to change consumer behavior and start trends, reaching a large audience. Their content popularity impacts how much people see brands and what they prefer.

Pros and cons of working with KOLs vs. traditional influencers

Key Opinion Leaders (KOLs)

Pros

  • Enhanced trust: Partnering with KOLs boosts a brand's trust and credibility. KOLs are certified experts, and their recommendations mean a lot to their dedicated followers. Brands can use this credibility to become trusted leaders in their industries.
  • Niche targeting: KOLs have a focused audience interested in their expertise. This targeting is valuable for brands trying to reach specific groups of consumers from niche industries. Working with KOLs helps brands connect directly with their desired audience.
  • Deeper content engagement: KOLs create detailed content that really connects with their followers. Their audience actively seeks out their insights and recommendations, leading to meaningful interactions. This deeper engagement can improve brand recall, trust, and conversion rates for brands partnering with KOLs.

Cons

  • Potentially higher costs: Using KOLs might cost more than regular influencer marketing. These people charge higher fees because of their expertise and reputation. Brands must be ready to invest more in working with KOLs, as their services are usually pricier.
  • Limited audience size: KOLs usually have very focused and engaged audiences, which means their overall reach may be much smaller compared to broader influencers or traditional marketing. This could limit how many people see a brand's message, especially for campaigns targeting a large audience.
  • More complex collaboration terms: Working with KOLs usually means dealing with more complex negotiations and contracts compared to regular influencers. Experts like them might have specific requests about content, creativity, and rights. This complicates collaboration and may require more resources and legal oversight from brands.

Traditional influencers

Pros

  • Larger reach: Teaming up with traditional influencers is great for reaching a big audience. They have lots of followers on different platforms, giving brands a lot of exposure. It’s perfect for boosting brand recognition, launching new products, or reaching a wide range of people.
  • Potentially lower costs: Working with traditional social media influencers is usually cheaper than partnering with KOLs. Their prices are lower because they're not as specialized or well-known in their fields.
  • High content visibility: Social media influencers make content that grabs attention and gets lots of views. Their posts and videos are popular on social media, so there's a good chance their sponsored content will be seen and shared. This helps brands reach their target audiences effectively and could even create some social media buzz.

Cons

  • Less perceived authenticity: Influencers might not seem genuine to some. Because they promote many products, their endorsements might not feel as real as those from KOLs.
  • Risk of influencer fatigue: As influencer marketing becomes more popular, people might get tired of seeing influencers promote products. This could make influencer campaigns less effective over time because people might engage less with the content.
  • Possible lower trust among audiences: There’s a high chance that audiences might think influencers mainly promote products for money rather than giving honest advice as experts do.

Best practices for integrating KOLs into marketing strategies

1. Identifying the right KOLs

If you want your desired results, you must be careful about selecting your KOLs. Choose those who:

  • Matches your brand values and audience to boost product credibility
  • Are genuinely interested in your brand for effective messaging
  • Stay authentic by keeping their communication style
  • Can develop long-term partnerships through regular interaction

Plus, to check your progress, you can always assess KOL effectiveness using reach, engagement, and sentiment analysis for improvement.

2. Building effective partnerships

At this point, it’s obvious that KOLs are invaluable to your brand. So, if you want to cultivate long-term relationships with them, take note of the following tips:

  • Be mindful of how your energy impacts your relationship with the KOL
  • Pay close attention to what your KOL says to build trust
  • Be genuinely interested in your KOL to strengthen your bond
  • Do things together to create strong memories and deepen your connection
  • Support your KOL through thick and thin, staying connected

3. Measurement and analytics

The best way to measure your KOL campaign's effectiveness is to use both brand awareness and direct response metrics.

To track your brand awareness, use metrics like:

  • reach and impressions (how many people see the KOL's content)
  • engagement rate (likes, comments, shares, and saves)
  • brand mentions (see where your brand is discussed)
  • audience growth (new followers after the campaign)

Direct response metrics, on the other hand, include click-through rates, conversion rates, sales, and ROI. These numbers give you an idea of exactly how successful your campaign was with respect to profits.

Conclusion

There’s no doubt that key opinion leaders (KOLs) are becoming key players in influencer marketing. Their industry knowledge and credibility help brands connect with engaged, targeted audiences.

KOLs add trust and authenticity to brand messages, reaching specific groups with precision. This boosts brand perception and positions brands as industry leaders, influencing trends and staying relevant.

As consumers continue to look for more authentic messages, the demand for trustworthy KOLs will grow. Traditional influencers will still be important, especially in lifestyle and entertainment, but may also deepen their expertise.

In our opinion, the future of influencer marketing will mix KOLs and influencers, using their strengths to create strong brand stories. Brands that effectively use both will lead their industries and build lasting connections with their audiences.