What is a KOL?

KOL stands for Key Opinion Leader—Baidu defines these figures are people who have technical knowledge in a particular field, and leverages their knowledge to blog and subsequently promote certain brands or products[1].

If this sounds familiar to you, it’s probably because KOLs seem to play a very similar role to what the Western hemisphere would designate as “social media influencers”. However, whereas social media influencers operate on Instagram, and create content that is heavily image-based, KOLs usually post on WeChat or Weibo, which allows for text-based content as well.

How did they get so popular?

KOLs are attractive to consumers for several reasons—and the attractiveness seems to be tied to the decreasing effectiveness of ads that are generated directly from the company.

These public figures are ultimately third-party figures that have no apparent affiliation to the companies in which they advertise for. Many consumers are increasingly suspicious of information that originates from companies, viewing the claimed benefits as biased and exaggerated.

A KOL, on the other hand, is a person that is untethered by such limitations. Their information is viewed as unbiased and superior because they might have relevant expertise on the subject matter.

What, you may ask, is the difference between celebrity promoters and KOLs then? Perhaps some of them are appealing to consumers for the same reason—physical attractiveness. Yet, where celebrities fall short is their inability to resonate entirely with their viewers.

Celebrities are attractive, glamorous, and ultimately untouchable. The general public holds celebrities to a different set of expectations and accountability. Their support of a particular product might mean nothing to the public because they must, ostensibly, get paid to do the promotion.

KOLs are different. They are just attractive enough to garner public attention, but not quite famous enough to arouse suspicion. Their intents remain pure, because they are just similar enough to be like us—to be part of us humble and un-special people.

How does it work?

Perhaps the most important thing to getting it right is finding the right KOL to represent your company. It’s so difficult precisely because there is just so many of them. Not only are there just too many choices, never mind the possibility of being scammed by KOLs that don’t really have the amount of following that they claim to have.

So how do you choose?

Perhaps businesses would need to approach this matter differently in comparison to traditional celebrity spokespeople. It may be more important to ensure that the KOL candidate reflects the targeted market segment, instead of having the KOL reflect the company’s image. The key is perhaps reach.

The KOL needs to resonate with the public, to be friends with the target market, to be part of the target market. They’re not trying to persuade the consumer to consume; they’re sharing a product with a close-knit social circle so they can reap the benefits of the product together.

And that is, perhaps, the greatest beauty of KOLs.