Skip to content
An abstract illustration of a man thinking thoughts while surrounded by blank jigsaw puzzle pieces.

What Are Key Opinion Leaders?

Mark Jackson

Feb 28, 2024

Key opinion leaders, or KOLs, are individuals with significant voices in their respective industries. Learn more about KOLs and their role in influencer marketing.

Table of Contents

Ever wonder what makes an influencer influential? It’s not just about the niche or the size of their audience. Rather, consider how they earned those followers and why they chose that niche in the first place. The answers are what set apart influencers from Key Opinion Leaders.

Key Opinion Leaders, or KOLs, are a type of influencer that can influence an audience’s opinions and purchasing decisions. They’re experts in their fields and have extensive research, experience, and knowledge that make them a trusted resource for others.

Let’s define the differences and how to leverage KOLs in your influencer marketing strategy.

What Does KOL Stand For?

The KOL acronym stands for Key Opinion Leader. The plural form is KOLs. These are experts who are trusted by other experts and professionals within the same field.

Definition: What Is a Key Opinion Leader?

Key Opinion Leaders (KOLs) are influential professionals in their respective fields who have the ability to sway public opinion about matters, products, or services. They may be celebrities, authors, speakers, or influencers. You might also hear them called thought leaders or digital opinion leaders.

In marketing, brands seek KOLs as a way to get their products in front of relevant audiences and build credibility. KOLs typically have large social media followings, particularly on Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, and YouTube. Their extensive knowledge about a subject or industry helps to guide others through complex problems or decisions.

KOLs vs. Influencers

On the surface, key opinion leaders sound a lot like influencers. That’s because they are, but a few nuances separate them.

A KOL is a recognized expert or authority within a specific industry or field. They have established credibility through their experience and knowledge. These are the people you’re likely to see giving commentary on documentaries or being called into court as expert witnesses. You might see them speaking at conferences, promoting books, or showcasing their expertise on podcasts.

If that’s a KOL, then what is an influencer? By contrast, an influencer is someone with a large social media following who can influence their audience's opinions or behavior. They might not be “experts” in a specific niche. People might follow them based on the content they create rather than their professional background. 

Infographic Key Opinion Leaders (KOLs) vs. Influencers

In marketing, KOLs focus more on providing their audiences with insights, advice, and education. They lean on their expertise in a particular area. They may have fewer followers than influencers but they are highly respected in their fields. People (including other industry professionals) seek out their content and knowledge.

That’s a big difference compared to traditional influencers. Influencers have a sponsor-first mindset. They actively promote products they love. They gain followers by making good recommendations and creating attractive content that keeps them coming back. In this sense, they become go-to “experts,” but they don’t necessarily have a foundation of professionalism.

To put it another way, all KOLs are influencers, but not all influencers are KOLs.

Examples of Key Opinion Leaders (KOLs)

We can identify key opinion leaders in every industry. Influencers can be:

  • Business executives
  • Entertainers
  • Healthcare professionals
  • Politicians
  • Anyone who is well respected in their field and commands a large audience

Satya Nadella, the CEO of Microsoft, is a good example. Under his leadership, Microsoft has transformed into a cloud-first and mobile-first company, focusing on areas such as artificial intelligence, cloud computing, and productivity tools. Nadella is known for his strategic vision, empathy-driven leadership style, and his role in driving Microsoft's growth and innovation in recent years. He is considered a key figure in the tech industry and a thought leader in the field of digital transformation.

Oprah Winfrey is another famous example. She became a household name with her global talk show for 25 seasons. She created an influential empire that encompassed a magazine, a book club, and the beloved Oprah’s Favorite Things list she publishes each year. Other thought leaders like Dr. Oz and Dr. Phil got an early boost in their careers thanks to Oprah, a feat dubbed the Oprah Effect.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), is an example of a healthcare KOL. Politics aside, he became a leading voice in the fight against COVID-19 in the United States and provided guidance on preventing the spread of the virus.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta, a neurosurgeon and medical journalist, has become one of the most recognizable figures in health reporting. As the chief medical correspondent for CNN, Gupta's opinions on health issues have been cited by media outlets. His books have also become bestsellers. 

KOLs might be a household name, like the above examples. Or they might only be well-known in their own industry.

Benefits of KOLs in Influencer Marketing

In recent years, KOLs have become increasingly important in influencer marketing. Traditional advertising methods are losing effectiveness due to oversaturation and consumer skepticism.

An endorsement from a key opinion leader can lead to increased visibility, credibility, and sales for brands. Companies can collaborate with KOLs to create sponsored content that promotes their products in a way that feels authentic to their target audience.

Let’s explore a few benefits of working with KOLs.

Instant Brand Recognition

When someone with many social media followers and high credibility recommends your product, it immediately puts your brand on the map and increases brand awareness and brand recognition. Their audience pays attention to the brands and companies KOLs do business with, and you look good by association.

A High Level of Trust

Leaning on the years of knowledge and expertise of a KOL allows brands to infuse some of that trust into their own products or services. A high level of trust can help brands grow their following. Promotions may also be seen as more authentic than traditional ads or sponsored posts.

Entry Into Niche Markets

KOLs can help you tap into a niche audience or market that may be difficult to reach through traditional advertising. For instance, the competitive pharmaceutical industry relies heavily on KOLs to promote new drugs and treatments. Healthcare providers also take into account the opinions of KOLs prior to recommending treatment plans to patients.

Improved Decision-making

Recommendations from KOLs may improve decision-making for B2B or B2C audiences. Established credibility can shorten the discovery and research process. At the very least, it gives buyers a good starting point for learning more about potential solutions.

Increased Organizational Value

Identifying key opinion leaders may also prove beneficial in recruiting. Companies may be more keen to hire candidates who have influence over their peers while bringing awareness and credibility to the organization. This effect spills over into marketing, as a brand’s entire image may get a boost from having KOLs on board.

How to Use Key Opinion Leaders in Your Strategy

Knowing what KOL stands for is just the start — you also need to know how to leverage the right KOL in your marketing strategy. 

Follow these steps to turn our KOL meaning into social media success:

KOL Identification

Some KOLs are easy to find; they’re the household names most people know and trust (like Oprah or Elon Musk). Others are more niche and industry-specific, but these can also be easy to find.

Using influencer marketing platforms like Meltwater Influencer Marketing, you can input specific criteria to find influencers and the right KOL for your brand. Meltwater'sr’s database of millions of influencers and opinion leaders worldwide helps you find influencers who are leading conversations on certain topics. 

With Klear, you can narrow your search by:

  • Influencer type (nano-influencer, micro-influencer, macro-influencer, or mega-influencer)
  • Media channels
  • Geographic location
  • Engagement rates
  • Target audience
  • And more

You can also use Klear to gain more in-depth insights about who each KOL is, including audience sentiments and values. These factors can be even more important than audience size, as they allow you to connect in high-impact ways.

KOL Campaign

After choosing your opinion leaders, connect with them to collaborate on a marketing campaign. Thoroughly introduce your company and the goals on which you intend to connect. KOLs need to understand your company’s values, why you think they’re the right key opinion leader for your brand, and how you want them to influence their audience on your behalf.

Tip: Learn how to use Klear Connect to collaborate with influencers and KOLs.

KOL Management

Working with multiple opinion leaders, you’ll need an easy way to track each relationship, keep tabs on content, and monitor KPIs to see how they’re influencing your brand. Meltwater's management features centralize these and other efforts.

Meltwater Influencer Marketing allows you to see:

  • The influencers you have relationships with
  • The content they’re producing
  • How audiences are responding to that content
  • How the KOL is contributing to your brand

Tip: Learn more about influencer management.

Leveraging KOL Marketing with Meltwater

Whether you’re a pharma company launching clinical trials or a software company entering a crowded market, connecting with the right key opinion leader can make a difference in your journey.

Find, vet, connect with, and manage relationships with experts who have real influence over your prospective customers, all from a single platform.

Learn more in a live demo: