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What are KOLs in Marketing? (And How to Work With Them)

Find out who KOLs are and how they can help your marketing efforts. Follow our tips to find the best key opinion leaders for your brand.

Alyssa Hirose August 10, 2022
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Unless you’re a plucky time-traveler from the 1800s, you probably already know what an influencer is. (If you do fall into that first category, welcome to 2022! Wait ‘till you hear about BeReal.) Influencing as a career has made a significant impact on social marketing, and on the media industry as a whole.

But not all influencers are equal, and there’s a new community of prominent folks using ring lights to make a difference. These industry leaders are called KOLs, and they’re a valuable part of any modern social media marketing strategy.

In this blog post, we’ll take you through all the ins and outs of KOLs: what they are, why they’re great for marketing and how to find the right KOL for your brand. Scroll for more (time traveler: not that kind of scroll).

Bonus: Get the influencer campaign template for brands to easily plan your next campaign and choose the best social media influencer to work with.

What are KOLs?

KOL stands for key opinion leader. A KOL is similar to an influencer in that they have influence: a KOL has a significant following made up of people who care about their values, and often, those people are willing to commit their own money towards things that the individual deems worthy.

The main difference between influencers and KOLs is that KOLs have a more niche audience, and are generally valued as experts within that niche. Also, influencers are a specifically online phenomenon, and KOLs don’t need to have an online presence (but, since we’re talking about social marketing in this blog post, we’ll just be focusing on the ones that do).

For example, fashion-forward canine influencer @jiffpom has over 9 million loyal followers, but he wouldn’t be considered a key opinion leader in a specific niche (sorry, Jiff—good thing you can’t read).

Also in the animal category is Dr. Lauren Thielen. She’s a veterinarian who specializes in exotic animals, and she’s regarded as a KOL: folks rely on her to share insight within her specific niche, and she’s considered a knowledgeable expert.

4 reasons to work with KOLs

So, why contact a KOL for a social marketing partnership? Let us count the ways:

1. Reach a wider (and more engaged) audience

Collaborating with other creators will always result in your brand showing up on more feeds—your business is shared with both your followers and the creator’s followers. That’s why influencer marketing is so popular.

So a wider audience is a given. But because KOLs have a more niche audience, their followers are generally more engaged: they’re more likely to like, comment on and share posts. That’s better for business.

Followers aren’t all about quantity (and besides, there’s a lot of follower bots on Instagram, and they’re not going to financially support you)—having a smaller community of quality followers is more important than hitting a certain number.

2. Make more sales

That’s the end goal of any marketing campaign, right?

Because of the factors mentioned above (reaching more, better-engaged social media users) it’s easier to convert your presence on social into sales when you partner with a KOL. They’re leaders in their field, so their endorsement of any product is likely to result in more sales.

In addition to monetary support, there’s a certain authentication that comes with a relationship with a KOL—but more on that in the next section.

3. Gain support from experts

It’s not just about money. Having public support from a respected expert in an industry related to your brand is invaluable in terms of your audience’s trust in your product.

In short: support from a KOL makes you seem more legit.

This helps with sales, but can also help grow your community and make you more appealing to potential future collaborators. That influencer you’ve been DMing with might be more likely to partner with you if you’ve got support from a KOL. Same with that company you want to do a giveaway with.

Expert support can differentiate good social marketing from great social marketing. It proves you’re not just talking the talk.

4. Naturally expand beyond social marketing

Here’s where a key difference between KOLs and influencers comes in handy: KOLs don’t need to have a social media presence. Stay with us.

KOLs usually don’t build their following through social media. They’re experts in their field, so they might gain their following through successful businesses, professional conferences, or even word of mouth. Generally, the social media following will come after already building this audience.

We mentioned earlier that we’re only focusing on KOLs who do have a social media following, and that’s true. But partnering with a KOL might lead to an audience beyond social media, as well.

For example, Dr. Sanjay Gupta is a neurosurgeon, writer, podcaster and respected key opinion leader in the medical field. He has a social presence (245k followers on Instagram, 2.5 million on Twitter) but he also has folks who follow his research, watch him on TV, listen to his podcast and read his work.

Having someone like Dr. Gupta publicly support your brand is good for business, beyond social. He’s not just on the ‘gram—he’s on television, doing interviews with Big Bird and podcasting.

How to find the right KOLs for your brand

If you’re just getting started with KOL marketing, finding the right leaders can be challenging. Here’s a few tips for nailing those perfect partnerships.

Look for KOLs in an industry that is related to your brand

Just because you admire a key opinion leader doesn’t mean they’re a good fit for partnerships. Make sure the KOLs you look to collaborate with are working in a field that is related to your own.

Thoroughly research a KOL before reaching out to them

We’ll touch on this more in the next section, but the quick and dirty truth is that you don’t want to align yourself with anyone who might give your brand a bad rep. Make sure you dive deep into their social media (and any other info you can get your hands on!) to ensure you aren’t accidentally partnering with a PR nightmare.

Look to other successful brands for guidance

The badass businesses you look up to likely have done KOL partnerships in the past. Take some inspo from them and reach out to similar leaders.

Only reach out to KOLs with experience in social media

As mentioned before, key opinion leaders don’t need a social presence in order to be considered KOLs—but since you’re collaborating with the end goal of growing your business via the internet, you’ll want to make sure that any KOL you partner with is social media-savvy.

Look for KOLs who have partnered with brands in the past

Many key opinion leaders will have already collaborated with a business, and experience is always good. A KOL who has a media kit or other collab-related info on their website likely has at least some basic knowledge of how a brand partnership works.

Put out a public call

This isn’t a particularly specific strategy, but it’s low-investment and potentially high-reward. Putting out a call on social (asking for key opinion leaders on a given subject) doesn’t take long, and it gives your audience the opportunity to recommend experts. It’s not a foolproof game plan, but you never know what a public call might yield.

4 tips for getting the most out of KOL marketing

Alright, now you know everything you need to know about key opinion leaders. Here’s how to make sure you’re using this marketing strategy to its fullest potential.

1. Do your research

You wouldn’t hire a new employee without an interview and reference check, right? While a partnership with a key opinion leader isn’t the same as them working for you, some of the same principles apply: the KOL is now an extension of your brand, and everything they do or say may impact your company. The last thing you want is to align yourself with someone who is #cancelled.

So, do your research. Don’t just check that the KOL has an engaged audience and effective social presence—you’ll also want to be sure that their values and ethics match up with your brand (and with fans of your brand).

There’s always risk involved when extending your brand to other people, but you can limit some of this risk by scouring the internet beforehand (“Is [KOL name here] racist” is a good Google search to start with, IMHO).

2. Know your goals — and communicate them well

Before reaching out to a KOL for a potential collab, make sure you know what you want out of the relationship. If you don’t communicate your needs clearly (or worse, if you don’t know what your needs are) it’s likely that the KOL won’t be able to deliver a successful result.

Being explicit about what your goals are is the best way to make sure they’re reached. A goal might look like hitting a certain follower count, getting a certain number of affiliate link uses or simply getting a certain number of likes or shares on the KOL’s content. Whatever your goal is, make it crystal clear.

Trust their advice

They’re called leaders for a reason. KOLs are the experts: they know what they’re talking about, and if they offer you insight or guidance, seriously consider it.

You’re not seeking out a partnership with a KOL just because of their social following. You (and your potential customers) genuinely value their opinions, so you should respect them—even if they’re contrary to your original plan. Collaborations should be, well, collaborative, and it’s important that the KOL you’re working with feels that their input is being valued—which brings us to our next point:

4. Invest time, effort and money into the partnership

Equality is important in any partnership, and the KOLs you collaborate with need to feel that sense of equality in your relationship. A key opinion leader (or any human, for that matter) doesn’t want to feel used.

So yes, listen to their advice, but also invest all the resources you’re able to in the partnership. Make sure you reply to their emails in a prompt manner, be friendly and welcoming, and compensate them well. Ideally, you’ll form a positive relationship with a KOL that can last for a long time and potentially lead to other partnerships in the future.

Not investing adequate resources into a collab like this can result in the KOL feeling uncomfortable, which is bad in general (we want everyone to have a good time) and very bad for business (when things get hairy, you want the experts on your side). This isn’t a last-minute, off-the-side-of-your-desk commitment. You’ll get out of it what you put into it.

And with that, we officially deem you ready to embark on your first KOL partnership. Go! Go! Go!

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By Alyssa Hirose

Alyssa Hirose is a magazine editor, playwright, comedian and comic artist based in Vancouver, B.C. She attributes her great sense of humour to 9 years of braces and good ol' elementary school bullying (unrelated, unfortunately).

Read more by Alyssa Hirose

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