What is KOL Marketing and How Can it Benefit You?

We’ve regularly written about influencer marketing here. With influencer marketing, brands work with influencers to promote their products. However, there are also similar types of marketing where firms work with specialist types of people to promote products on social media and encourage brand recognition. These include employee advocacy (firms partner with their staff for this purpose), and customer advocacy (where the people proving promotion are a firm’s existing customers).

Another specialist type of influencer is the Key Opinion Leader (KOL), and KOL marketing has become very popular in recent times. It has become a particularly notable form of marketing in China. 

What is KOL Marketing and How Can it Benefit You?:

What is KOL Marketing?

Key opinion leader (KOL) marketing involves brands working with people who have expert knowledge on a specific subject. This subject will usually in some way be connected to the brand’s products, or at least be of interest to the types of people who might take an interest in those products.

Most modern KOL marketing occurs online, often on social networks or social video sites. In some cases, the KOLs have built their names on popular niche blogs.

However, not all KOLs have gained their reputation through their online activity. KOL marketing predates the internet, and we can consider it a subset of celebrity marketing. Indeed, KOL marketing has existed virtually as long as there have been experts.

It’s essential to clarify the difference between most celebrity marketing and KOL marketing, however. Suppose a business chooses to work with a football star to promote their clothing lines. That is a common form of celebrity marketing. But it isn’t KOL marketing unless that footballer has expert knowledge and understanding of sports fashion. However, if that brand worked with that same footballer to promote a football coaching course or a new range of football boots that improved playing performance, then you could consider it KOL marketing.

You might notice brands often use academic professionals and scientists in their marketing. Assuming these people have qualifications and experience in a relevant field, you could consider that an example of KOL marketing, particularly if they have their own audience.

However, successful KOL marketing requires people to be more than just experts. They need to be able to influence the behavior of people. Academic boffins may be experts in their fields. But if they hide in a lab and don’t communicate with anybody, they can hardly exert an influence on anyone’s opinions or behavior. 

This makes KOL marketing a very pure form of influencer marketing. Influencers have the power to change the opinions of others. In theory, they should all be key opinion leaders. Unfortunately, in practice, not all influencers have sufficient expert knowledge on a subject to be key opinion leaders – they are just experts at communicating.

Benefits of KOL Marketing

Key opinion leaders have tremendous respect. They are the experts in their niches. Their followers take much regard for what they say, and they can easily influence the discussions in their field. This can have a considerable flow-on effect to the brands with whom they choose to work. 

If a KOL positively mentions your brand, or even merely uses it, many view this as a positive endorsement for your product. Many of the KOL’s followers will decide to give your product a go, and if they like it, they may become regular customers.

Imagine that you make sports cars. If a well-known motoring writer crafts a positive review of your flagship model, many people will read that article. A portion of this audience will actively opt to buy your model, thanks to the review by that motoring writer.

If you make a cheaper, more commonplace product, perhaps with multiple competitors, KOLs can have an even more significant comparative effect. Their endorsement can encourage thousands, possibly millions, of people to select your product over your competitors’. 

Working with KOLs can also create considerable buzz for you and your products. This is particularly so when KOLs use more innovative techniques, such as holding competitions or something like a TikTok Hashtag Challenge.

Like influencer marketing, KOL marketing can lead to a high ROI compared to more traditional channels. You just need to ensure that you set clear goals before you engage in any KOL campaigns. What are you specifically wanting to achieve with your campaign? This doesn’t necessarily have to be more sales. Many KOL campaigns focus on increasing brand awareness or click-throughs to a website.

If you select the correct KOL, you have the advantage of having an audience united by their interests. If you advertise on television, you know that many viewers will have little or no interest in your product, no matter how good it is. Likewise, many people will skip over your newspaper advertisement with little more than a casual glance. They wouldn’t even take up an offer for a free product. However, if you manage to work with a KOL who influences the type of people who will have an interest in your product, you will have an audience of like-minded followers and fewer irrelevant people.

You can easily determine the audience of a KOL by looking at his or her previous posts/videos. Depending on where they have built their name, you might be able to dig through the demographics and psychographics of their audience to ensure that they are appropriate for your brand. You want their follower base to match your target market.

Trust is at the Heart of KOL Marketing

The secret behind the success of KOL marketing is trust. KOL marketing only exists because many people trust key opinion leaders. KOLs make recommendations on their websites, video channels, or in their social statuses. These may be explicit, for example, when a KOL recommends a particular product or implicit, for instance, where people see a KOL using a product in action. People who respect the KOL trust them. They either believe their words when they make recommendations or their actions when they use a product.

This is very different from traditional advertising. If you examine an ad on television, radio, billboards, newspaper, or indeed any conventional source, you will either see a brand making claims about itself or alternatively, you will see paid actors making similar claims. Whether it be the brand or actors they employ makes no difference – people still see these ads as self-serving and artificial. They see brands clearly trying to exhort them to give up their hard-earned money to buy products that may or may meet their needs.

On the other hand, when consumers see people they trust, their key opinion leaders of choice, making the same claims (even merely using a product), they understand that the product must be worthwhile. They believe that it is worth taking a risk on trying the product themselves. 

Word-of-mouth advertising works similarly to KOL marketing; it’s just that most people don’t have enough people listening to their mouths to make word-of-mouth marketing viable. You need the vast audiences offered by KOLs to make it worthwhile.

KOL Marketing is Particularly Strong in China

KOL marketing is particularly prevalent in China. Perhaps it has taken on there more than “normal” influencer marketing because Chinese social media is different from that in the West. Fewer specialist influencers who have gained their fame online. You are more likely to find Chinese key opinion leaders who have already established a reputation for being subject experts.

You can find Chinese KOLs in virtually any field. They are particularly prevalent in topics encouraging instruction or guidance. Some popular KOLs in mass interest niches have millions of followers.

These KOLs have built their reputation for being subject experts and are effectively the Chinese influencers of choice. 

Many Chinese people are wary of information broadcast through traditional advertising mediums.  KOLs add a layer of trust.

The most common way firms engage in KOL marketing in China is to either encourage user-generated content or to pay a KOL to use some of your promotional material, perhaps sharing a post you have created. User-generated content here usually involves a KOL reviewing your product or creating some other form of content that promotes your brand.

KOL marketing in China used different channels to the West. Rather than using YouTube, Facebook, or Instagram, Chinese KOLs are more likely to share information on Weibo, WeChat, or Zhihu.

Communicate with KOLs for Advice

While it may not always be easy to communicate with KOLs one-to-one, as they are busy people, it is worth taking any opportunities you may have. They are the experts for their audience, so they can provide you with much information about how to pitch your products to such people. Sure, they will probably tell you if they don’t like our product, too, but that could be invaluable feedback in itself, and help you make necessary improvements.

KOLs understand the likes and dislikes of their audience and will often provide you with useful insights on how to carry out a campaign.

Considerations for Working with KOLs

When analyzing the suitability of KOLs for your business, you should look at a range of factors. These include:

1. How relevant the KOL is to your target market. There is little point in working with somebody famous if their followers don’t match the types of people to whom you are hoping to market. You need to work with KOls whose areas of expertise match the topics that interest your target market.

2. The reach of a KOL. Effectively, you are looking at how many people will see a KOL’s promotional content on your behalf. Reach is not the most essential factor alone, however. KOLs in a broad subject will always have a larger audience than those who operate in a narrow niche.

3. The KOL’s engagement rate is critical. This shows you how involved they are with their audience. It gives an indication of how many people like and comment on their posts, and how many consider their posts worth sharing. Many KOLs in narrow niches, who may have limited reach, make up for this with high engagement rates.

About the Author
With over 15 years in content marketing, Werner founded Influencer Marketing Hub in 2016. He successfully grew the platform to attract 5 million monthly visitors, making it a key site for brand marketers globally. His efforts led to the company's acquisition in 2020. Additionally, Werner's expertise has been recognized by major marketing and tech publications, including Forbes, TechCrunch, BBC and Wired.