What is a Key Opinion Leader in Social Media Marketing?

What is a Key Opinion Leader?

A Key Opinion Leader, or KOL, is an expert whose opinion is valued in a specific industry or area of knowledge, and who influences a broader audience.

If a person is already in the public eye, and particularly if they are associated with a particular area of knowledge, it is fairly easy to become a Key Opinion Leader. Actors, celebrities and political figures, for example, may become KOLs if they have an expert opinion on a hot topic.

This is not to say that people who aren’t already public figures cannot be Key Opinion Leaders. We are increasingly seeing people with the right kind of networking on social media, influencing sharing knowledge and opinions on brands, products, services and more.

A (Very) Brief History

A few years ago, KOL would have been most associated with pharmaceuticals, in which key opinion leaders are physicians who influence their peers’ medical behaviour. According to the Pharmaceutical Marketing Glossary, pharmaceutical companies hire KOLs early in the drug development process to provide key marketing feedback. The impact of a pharmaceutical key opinion leader is much the same as that of a social media KOL: they influence the movements of the market, and are hired for their knowledge and expertise in clinical trials and advocacy.

Pharmaceutical companies that can effectively build relationships with key opinion leading physicians are able to disseminate new product information and clinical trial results through trusted sources.

In recent years, however, ‘KOL’ has also become an important buzzword within the social media marketing community. As the revolution of marketing techniques has taken place, social media platforms, including Instagram and YouTube, have witnessed the rise of individuals with particular knowledge in a specific subject area.

What’s the difference between a Key Opinion Leader and an Influencer?

Contrary to what could be assumed, the term ‘Key Opinion Leader’ cannot actually be used interchangeably with the term ‘influencer’, as there are some subtle, but important, differences.

While influencers and KOLs share the power of influencer over a consumer’s opinion about a product or service, Key Opinion Leaders differ slightly from influencers. Whereas an influencer will predominantly have a strong presence on social media platforms such as Instagram, a KOL may have a presence on social media, but their influence is not predicated on this kind of channel of communication. This is because their credibility comes from direct experience in an industry, or from professional qualifications.

An influencer, on the other hand, will have built up an audience who relates to them personally, so when they make a recommendation it is perceived to be an authentic endorsement of something they love. We’ve covered this in our post on what defines an influencer.

Should I consider working with a Key Opinion Leader?

People turn to KOLs for opinions and knowledge, and while they are respected and looked up to, they do not have ‘fans’ as such. Instead, Key Opinion Leaders appeal to a specific demographic because of their expertised in a shared area of interest or industry. Because of this, if you are targeting a particular niche or demographic in the market, a KOL may be the way forward.

Influencers, on the other hand, often have an unspecified audience, though it will be more likely to contain the average consumer. An influencer appeals to their audience because their content matches a follower’s aesthetic tastes, interests and opinions.

Choosing to work with a KOL at certain stages of a marketing campaign may, therefore, be beneficial. If your product or service is primarily designed for a demographic who will require a level of prior knowledge in order to use it, a KOL may be a better way to convince them that your product is worth the investment. For example, a piece of computing software marketed by an influencer, otherwise known for their lifestyle and travel content, will not necessarily achieve the same level of penetration within the target market as a KOL. The opinion of someone perceived to have an enhanced knowledge of the product and the area in which it applies will be more readily accepted by consumers.

Other benefits of working with a KOL are largely the same as those of collaborating with an influencer. Like influencers, Key Opinion Leaders drive product and brand awareness quickly, and often reduce the hefty costs of traditional marketing and advertising tactics. They act as a valuable liaison between a company and an audience, meaning that their actions have a direct relation to the functioning of the advertising team. They can increase a brand’s audience outreach, which may, in turn, increase their credibility as a KOL.

It’s a win-win situation for all parties involved.

We can prove it…

China is arguably  the largest social media market in the world, with messaging app WeChat (an app combining many of the features of platforms such as Whatsapp, Skype and Facebook) having over one billion active users monthly. Chinese users spend an average of 70 minutes a day on the app, doing everything from booking flights and restaurants, talking to their friends and posting pictures on their feeds. In light of this, it is hardly surprising that China has KOLs active across a whole range of digital platforms, including WeChat, as well as Instagram and Weibo, to name a couple. KOLs in China post professional content and articles regularly, and the impact shows.

For example, in 2018, Layla, a travel and lifestyle KOL, participated in a #visitspain commercial campaign organised by the Spanish Tourism Bureau. Her reach extended to more than 4 million people in a five day period, with 1.1 million of these actively engaging with her content.


It is clear that key opinion leaders, like influencers, can play a vital role in social media marketing. However, brands must remain alert to the fact that KOLs, like influencers, have a specific demographic, namely the niche in which their expertise resides. As such, brands looking to work with KOLs must be knowledgeable on what exactly it is that a KOL can do for them. Ultimately, however, we believe that if key opinion leaders aren’t a part of your marketing plan yet, then it’s time to build them in!

Interested in working with full time, pre-vetted hotel influencers? Click here to find out how Swayy can help you. If you are an influencer interested in a collaboration, read up on what we can do for you.


Leave a Reply