What Does KOL Mean? Unveiling KOLs: The Difference Between Internet Celebrities and Key Opinion Leaders

What Does KOL Mean? Unveiling KOLs: The Difference Between Internet Celebrities and Key Opinion Leaders

07 Nov 2023

What Does KOL Mean? Unveiling KOLs: The Difference Between Internet Celebrities and Key Opinion Leaders

In the era before the internet, information dissemination was very “one-way”. The information we were exposed to came mainly from mass media – news was received by reporters, digested, organized and reported, and finally conveyed to the public. But in today’s internet age, information dissemination has become “multi-directional”, like a spider web that interconnects. Individuals and groups can communicate freely. From the public’s perspective, Key Opinion Leaders (KOLs) play a particularly important role. Their evaluations published on social media not only attract a lot of fans’ eyeballs, but also influence many people’s consumption decisions. Therefore, it is not difficult to understand why many brand owners and advertisers are striving to find excellent KOLs to achieve advertising effects.

So what does KOL mean in Chinese?

KOL (Key Opinion Leader) literally translates to “key opinion leader”. It refers to influential people on the Internet. They usually open accounts on online social platforms like Youtube, Facebook, and Instagram, regularly post content on specific topics, and gradually accumulate a large number of followers. Some KOLs involving consumer goods attract companies to cooperate with them for advertising.

So what conditions should an excellent KOL have? Does high popularity necessarily mean influence? In fact not. Both popularity and influence are important indicators, but they are not necessarily proportional.

A KOL with high popularity may have a lot of fans or followers, but may not be able to influence their consumption decisions. On the contrary, an influential KOL may not be well-known, but his few fans will listen to him.

Evaluating KOL’s Quality and Quantity Indicators

Going further, what factors should marketing professionals consider when evaluating how to select the right KOLs? Based on our team’s accumulated experience, the factors to consider when selecting KOLs are as follows:

First, Qualitative indicators.

We often refer to 4 indicators to judge content affinity:

1. Relevancy

We first look at whether the KOL is a user of the product, whether he/she has relevant content, and whether his/her expertise is related to the industry/product.

2. Look & Style

In this regard, Hong Kong people are quite superficial, and this is very important for consumers. We look at whether the KOL’s appearance and taste on the Internet attract the audience, and whether his/her remarks are positive? Or more emotional and passive? This is critical because appearance and taste relate to whether it matches the brand.

3. Tone & Manner

We look at the KOL’s wording and whether it matches the brand’s needs, and whether the tone can attract the target customer group. Some KOLs online can be frivolous and extreme. If the brand’s target customers are more mature and stable, the match is questionable.

4. Experience & Voice

We look at the KOL’s knowledge about the product and industry, and whether the acceptance by the audience is sufficient. Especially in the field of electronic products, the audience pursues insightful comments from KOLs to save time, effort and money. Therefore, we also look at whether the KOL is an expert and thought leader, which certainly gives them extra points.

Second, Quantitative indicators.

We look at the KOL’s audience influence (Audience Base). The so-called audience influence obviously analyzes more data.

1. Reach

Refers to the potential number of audiences a KOL can reach. For Facebook, look at the number of followers; for Youtube number of subscribers; for personal blogs number of readers or click rate.

2. Engagement Rate

Simply put, can the KOL get closer to the audience. Even for a KOL with a wide reach, it is also necessary to see if the audience will read his information and further interact. Therefore, from the number of likes, comments, shares and other interactions, we can judge the level of interaction between the audience and the KOL.

3. Number of Re-Posts

The above two points focus on the KOL himself. In fact, a successful KOL is like a stone that stirs up thousands of waves – the direct audience exposed to the KOL is limited, but if these people spread the information to friends around them, it creates a ripple effect. Suppose 100 willing sharers each have 100 friends, and each friend is also willing to share, it can possibly reach 1 million people, so this exponential growth effect is significant.

Type 1: High Fit, Low Influence

For KOLs with high fit but low influence, we recommend selecting a few to accurately reach target audiences, but cannot rely on just one, otherwise the overall reach may be weak. Take “Tang Wei” as an example. She is indeed very famous, and her high content affinity is undoubted, but she barely interacts on social media and has few online followers, so her audience influence is very low, which is an exceptional case.

Type 2: Win by “Quantity”

So for KOLs with both low affinity and influence, should we not use them at all? Not necessarily. We can choose multiple KOLs of this type to win by “quantity” and create echo and momentum, so that the audience feels the product is ubiquitous. Usually select 10 to several tens. In addition, we also recommend stockpiling KOLs and inviting them to participate in corporate events and evaluate products when necessary, especially in times of crisis. Since these KOLs are relatively inexpensive, they can play a role.

Type 3: Low Fit, High Influence

For KOLs with low fit but high influence, just a few are sufficient. Their influence can help increase brand awareness. For example, McDonald’s once invited mega influencer “Winnie the Pooh” to promote its new product. Although the fit was not high, his Youtube subscription was over 5 million. Using his influence achieved promotional effect.

Type 4: High Fit, High Influence

Finally, KOLs with both high affinity and high influence are naturally the most suitable. But the number adopted does not need to be too large, as these KOLs generally involve higher costs.

Screening Principles

In addition, we need to employ 4 screening principles:

1. Is the KOL’s fee reasonable

The fees of many KOLs in the market fluctuate, and the increase can be astonishing when they are popular or busy. If the asking price is too high, we have to consider whether the price is reasonable or use other means.

2. KOL’s Cooperation

Whether the KOL is easy to cooperate with, whether he/she can promote the product on time, whether there are any concealments of self-interest or difficulties in cooperation, such as publishing product reviews without prior discussion, etc., should all be considered.

3. KOL’s Image

Avoid KOLs with negative news and scandals as much as possible.

4. KOL’s Commercialization

Finally, some KOLs may have a lot of followers and good fit, but are too commercialized, endorsing too many brands, and may even have endorsed competitors before. This may be slightly inferior in the word-of-mouth era.

Cultivate Brand KOLs

At the beginning, there is no need to hurry to find KOLs. We often suggest that companies compile their own KOL list. Those with low affinity can also be explored for potential to become brand spokespersons. We usually suggest letting KOLs access first-hand information from different industries, providing new product samples for trial use, in order to directly improve affinity. Some companies offer “Best User Awards” to encourage potential KOLs and help them learn about the products, which directly enhances affinity.

So how to increase the influence of KOLs with low influence? We can directly invite them to participate in corporate events to expose them to the company’s audience. We can also place targeted ads on Facebook to increase their influence.

For KOLs that are low in both aspects, we also suggest that companies continue to cultivate them. Because when a crisis occurs, companies can quickly find loyal users to speak for the brand from a third-party perspective, and neutralize and extinguish the fire.

For example, Leon Lai recently held a concert that was unable to start on schedule due to venue issues. But he quickly resolved the crisis within 24 hours. His PR skills, accountability and refunds to the audience are impeccable. But the main reason he was able to quickly defuse the crisis is thanks to his fan club. Although Leon Lai’s affinity and influence are not high, he has a responsive and populous fan club. So the storm was quickly subdued.

“Internet Celebrity” vs. “Key Opinion Leader”

Remember the “Primal Force”? overnight, it went from a news response to the talk of the town, even topping Weibo’s hot search list, turning athlete Fu Yuanhui into an “internet celebrity”. The “Primal Force” prompted netizens to follow suit, and companies wanted to invite Fu to endorse brands.

So what is the difference between “internet celebrity” and the “KOL” that Hong Kongers often mention?

An “internet celebrity” is someone with some fame in a certain field or suddenly became popular due to some event, such as the Japanese artist who recently became an internet celebrity with his “PPAP” song. The simple repetitive lyrics and moves easily went viral online, in addition to various versions, many celebrities also made cover versions. But the heat of this type of “internet celebrity” usually only lasts 1-2 months. Their audience has no commonality, people of all ages may pay attention. Speaking of becoming an “internet celebrity” with a song, you must think of PSY who went globally viral with Gangnam Style a few years ago. Although this catchy song spread like a virus and broke 100 million views in a short time, trends come and go quickly. His subsequent songs failed to attract attention again. Likewise, after the Olympics, Fu Yuanhui’s exposure, attention and discussion also gradually dropped.

KOLs are commonly referred to as “Big Vs” in mainland China, including celebrities and famous people in various fields. In terms of fame, “Big Vs” already have an established image in the public’s mind, while the impression of “internet celebrities” is usually just based on their behavior, expressions or catchphrases. Another focal point is the audience. The audience of “Big Vs” usually has certain age group, gender or interests. If you want to see information about travel and food in Japan, you would pay attention to KOLs who regularly share content in that area. For parenting, beauty, fashion, cooking, there are corresponding KOLs respectively, and one KOL usually focuses on only one field.

The difference between “internet celebrity” and “KOL” is very meaningful for brands investing advertising resources.

If Hong Kong companies want to leverage a trend in the mainland for promotion, they need to accurately invest different resources on “internet celebrities” and “Big Vs”. Sam took the “Primal Force” as an example. He suggested clients add tags in Weibo posts to increase exposure, while collaborating with “Big Vs” related to target audience for promotion. With this simple method, Sam can increase overall brand exposure and achieve widespread dissemination. Therefore, from a business perspective, every brand should carefully consider where to invest advertising resources, rather than blindly “fishing”, so as to resonate with the audience while further enhancing brand image.

Case Sharing: How KOLs are forged today

Today, the influence of internet celebrities is far reaching. When they promote products on their platforms with huge fanbases, it often achieves a multiplier effect, directly stimulating sales. Therefore, advertisers invest billions of dollars every year to sponsor certain Instagram KOLs and YouTube stars, giving rise to the internet celebrity economy.

Precisely because the internet celebrity industry is valuable, specialized courses on “how to become a KOL” have emerged. In recent years, Yiwu Industrial & Commercial College in China has offered an “Internet Celebrity” major focusing on cultivating KOLs. The curriculum covers a wide range, including performance, makeup, public relations etiquette, temperament and image, dance, runway catwalk, etc. The final exam even includes a section on “striking 15 poses in 30 seconds”.

Although such KOL training courses are on the rise, nurturing successful KOLs is not as easy as imagined, and often requires the perfect combination of timing, geography, people and resources.

Take Korean singer PSY for example. Although he skyrocketed to global fame with Gangnam Style in 2014, he actually went through more than a decade of hard work and trials. Coupled with the Korean wave and grasping mass psychology, he achieved his current success.

Although Hong Kong youth aspiring to be KOLs cannot fully replicate PSY’s playbook, it is not entirely uncharted territory if they want to become internet celebrities and earn attractive internet celebrity incomes. The key is to identify creative directions that are popular but not yet prevalent, and develop persistently to attract more and more netizens’ attention. Regularly analyze data and iterate. With this, becoming an outstanding internet celebrity is not out of reach.

The model below provides a set of assessment criteria and guidance for marketing professionals to formulate and measure promotion campaign metrics. Based on different metrics, competitive integrated digital strategies can be formulated. At the same time, this model can also act as a structural framework to help companies determine which digital marketing tools to use in order to achieve marketing objectives more effectively. It also helps decide which data and measurement tools to use to inspect results and make improvements.

(Here the digital engagement model is explained, citing examples to detail how to use this model for digital marketing. It emphasizes choosing an appropriate combination of digital marketing tools based on different target audiences, so as to leverage their respective advantages and produce synergistic effects.)


There are many digital marketing tools. Before selecting, you must identify the product’s target audience. Different tools have varying effects on different audiences. For example, if your audience is people aged 15-25, they may be more heavily influenced by KOLs than other age groups, because the topics they see daily are often KOL-related. So for them, KOLs are an effective digital marketing tool, while other digital marketing tools also have different key target audiences. Of course, digital marketing encourages using different tools to promote the same product or service. Each tool can play a different role, some sharing information directly, some building image, some helping spread your message. Therefore, properly using different tools in combination to promote the same product or service, enabling them to complement each other, is what marketing professionals should focus on.

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