Key Opinion Leaders vs Social Influencers


In recent times, I find the confusion between Key Opinion Leaders (KOLs) and social influencers (SI) increasing. To me, KOLs are certainly social influencers; however, social influencers are not necessarily KOLs. Yet many equate the two as being one and the same (like how in the past people used to confuse Public Relations with Advertising).

KOLs are respected leaders in the field, or industry or the subject matter at hand. In many instances, their opinion cannot be bought — they support a brand, cause, activity or charity because they believe in it, not because they are paid to hawk it. Whenever they use their platform to advocate or debate, the intention is always to educate, raise awareness, clear confusion or shine a light on a matter that they are passionate about or things that they are experts at. For example, a KOL won’t advocate a particular brand of running shoes, but will advocate running and the importance of choosing the right shoes if running is your thing.

SIs on the other hand, are people with a captive audience (be it on social media or in real life). While not all SIs do this, most sell their opinions for a living so, typically, their glowing recommendation for a product or service or their presence at your events can be bought. They don’t necessarily have to be the subject matter expert or the leaders in the industry, but they certainly wield power over their audience’s opinion and purchase decisions. So, they may advocate running, and in addition to that they may also state that they use this brand or that brand (whether they are paid to do it or not) and reasons why these brands resonate with their lifestyles as that’s what social influencers do — they influence people to covet their lifestyle and aspire to be like them.

How do you differentiate the two and choose what’s right for you?

Consider these examples.

Through his ‘Not Our Watch’ campaign about the genocide in Sudan, George Clooney is a KOL and uses his position and infamy to bring attention and advocate and influcence his audience to contribute significant funds towards lifesaving, humanitarian, and emergency programs in the Darfur region.

In his work with Nespresso, George Clooney is an SI, promoting the product and becoming the global brand ambassador for its advertising campaigns. At the same time, he serves as a member of the Nespresso Sustainability Advisory Board, collaborating on ideas and solutions towards improving the lives and futures of coffee farmers. But whether he is a KOL in the board and can influence pricing policies and purchase decisions for Nespresso, I don’t know. What is certain is that when (and if) he speaks about sustainability pratices for coffee farmers, he could only speak on behalf of Nespresso, but cannot do so on behalf of fairtrade farmers in general. Well, he can, but will people listen?

There are merits for using both. But don’t confuse them as using the wrong one may not bring results, or worse, it may hurt your brand!

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