KOLs or Key Opinion Leaders are making waves in every industry – and if you’re unsure of why that is, or even what they are, this post is for you. We’ll share examples of KOLs in action and how they can help brands win in a crowded market.
To that end, we’ll explore the conversation by diving into:
- Defining what makes a key opinion leader
- Understanding how KOLs are different from influencers
- Why key opinion leaders are valuable for brands
What a KOL has to say can cause a flurry of activity in the marketplace, depending on what they have to say. Before we get going, let’s take a look at a few stats around key opinion leaders:
- A strong KOL strategy propels brand awareness faster than traditional marketing, and a positive mention or endorsement from a key opinion leader strengthens a brand’s image.
- 92% of consumers trust earned media (KOLs) over paid advertising.
- 61% of marketers consider finding relevant key opinion leaders and influencers for a campaign challenging.
Since the numbers dictate that a solid understanding of KOLs is profitable yet challenging, let’s jump in to clear the air around the subject.
What Are Key Opinion Leaders?
Key opinion leaders are highly visible individuals broadly respected for their expertise in their given field. As such, when they speak, people listen. Their opinions on a matter are taken very seriously and routinely influence entire industries, financial markets and government activity.
Top-level KOLs are often household names such as Barack Obama, Elon Musk and Dr. Anthony Fauci. They don’t need to be known by the general public to exert heavy influence, however. There are KOLs for every industry and in academia and government, and these can fly under the radar of popular culture.
For example, not everyone may be familiar with Jerome Powell, but as Chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve, markets move based on what he has to say. You can see below the spike in mentions and negative sentiment in early March caused by his comments on inflation and high bond yields. And it caused investor uncertainty which was reflected in U.S. and European markets.
Regardless, as respected leaders in their category, KOLs are well-known throughout their industry. They’re known for their work and not necessarily their online presence. Their writings, publications, keynote addresses and interviews are followed closely as the leading representation of industry thought and innovation in their field.
KOLs are capable of exerting such extreme influence on popular opinion that brands must monitor them closely. That’s because their sway on your industry can lean positively or negatively. Additionally, it’s a good idea to pay attention to KOLs not only in your industry but in adjacent segments as well as financial and governmental circles.
Here’s a creative example of how closely some follow the words of key opinion leaders that influence their area of interest. As you probably know, Tesla made headlines earlier this year when it invested $1.5B in Bitcoin. Since Elon Musk is believed to influence cryptocurrency markets when he tweets about it, a Reddit user built and shared an open-source bot to buy Bitcoin whenever Musk tweets positively about it.
So, since key opinion leaders can shape action in the marketplace, are they just influencers on steroids? Let’s take a look.
How Are KOLs Different From Influencers?
While both groups exert influence online, differences between the two split off from there.
KOLs don’t work to build influence. It’s generally a by-product of the expertise they’ve built in a lifetime dedicated to their work. Additionally, if they are to promote a product or service, it’s usually based on providing a solution to an industry problem. Since their work is central to their status as a KOL, paid product promotions could affect their credibility.
A reputation as one of the top minds in their field is the currency of key opinion leaders and the main differentiator between high-level influencers. Depending on the industry, some KOLs are more approachable for marketing endeavors than others. High-level specialists in the field of medicine can help shape the adoption of new technologies, products and techniques based on the merit these tools make towards the advancement of the field.
Conversely, key opinion leaders in governmental positions or financial markets generally distance themselves from anything that could be seen as creating a conflict of interest. While many key opinion leaders will touch on a product or service publicly when necessary, being incentivized to do so by a sponsor is the exception, not the rule.
Nevertheless, their conversations’ magnetic pull can create significant traction – especially when they hit a nerve. Look at the spike in mentions when climate activist Greta Thunberg called out President Biden for ‘not doing enough’ on climate change earlier this month.
Influencers, on the other hand, have worked hard to brand themselves and build their reputation online. Follower count and views lend credibility to influencers as opposed to a KOL. As such, their reputation as a thought leader in their industry is generally built off of social traction.
In contrast to their KOL counterparts, influencers spend most of their energy engaging online. And they heavily promote brands, products and services that will resonate with their followers. And expertise in a particular field is not necessarily a prerequisite as long as the follower count can deliver an expected number of views. However, many do have a good bit of expertise in their niche – but at the end of the day, their job is to influence consumer behavior online.
While influencer marketing is an invaluable tool for brands, it’s critical to keep a watchful eye on the key opinion leaders that exert influence in your space. Let’s take a look.
Why KOLs Are Invaluable to Brands
The reason that brands need to pay sharp attention to KOLs is two-fold. First, since 92% of consumers trust earned media such as the opinion of major thought leaders over a brand’s internal messaging, you don’t want to find your brand on the wrong side of what they have to say. And while you can’t foresee what that’s going to be, awareness of their conversations as they happen is the next best thing.
This means consistent monitoring of your KOLs will alert you to potential threats or market opportunities based on their outlook. A quick understanding of their industry viewpoint allows you to shift your messaging to better steer your narrative in response. Speed is essential whether you are capitalizing on positive news or safeguarding your brand from negative news.
Second, while some KOLs will remain inaccessible to work directly with your brand, you should seek out opportunities to affiliate yourself with them whenever possible. Opportunities such as sponsoring research or inviting them to give a keynote address on your industry’s subject matter are some ways you can creatively involve your brand or institution with key opinion leaders.
One of the biggest mistakes that brands make is underestimating or ignoring KOLs as part of their market intelligence strategy. The intel they provide on the state of your industry is invaluable. If you’re not picking up everything they’re putting down, you’re taking a risk if they cause a significant shift in your market and it catches you off guard.
If finding your key opinion leaders is still a grey area for your brand, NetBase Quid makes it easy to get a handle on the conversation movers across any industry. For example, if your brand’s new product needs to navigate the environmental landscape unhindered, here’s a scatterplot of the prominent voices in the movement and the current amount of traction they’re getting.
Whether you can work with some of your KOLs directly or simply monitor their conversations to inform your strategic positioning, dedicating your market research to their influence is invaluable to your brand. Many brands still miss out on a lot of intel from niche KOLs, and there’s no reason to.
Do key opinion leaders remain a mystery for your industry? Yes, these conversations ebb and flow like emerging trends, but if you’re missing them, then your market intelligence has a hole in it. Reach out for a demo, and we’ll help you fill your sails with the winds of KOL influence.