Ambassadors, Influencers and KOLs – What’s the Difference? And How Should You Use Each in Your Influencer Marketing?
GRIN also recommends this free guide: How to Get ROI from Influencer Marketing.
Influencer marketing is not isolated to social media marketing strategies. The term influencer marketing acts as an umbrella category that is truly identified as marketing relationships and the strategy of using relationships for a value exchange. Whether a brand is using affiliate marketing, partner marketing or social media influencer marketing the underlying strategy stays the same. Create meaningful relationships and offer a value exchange that is mutually beneficial for both sides of the relationship.
The influencer partnerships that a marketer sets out to create are a set of key influencer categories. Brands can look for brand ambassadors, influencers, and key opinion leaders. Are these titles interchangeable? Each role varies, even though each function within the marketing strategy looks similar, and can all support different phases of your marketing funnel or serve different tactics within your marketing stack.
Can one entity or individual fill the roles of brand ambassador, influencer, and KOL? Yes, they can. The world of influencer marketing does allow overlap in the way marketers use these terms.
However, most choose to personify one of those three roles more intentionally. More importantly, an ambassador, influencer, and KOL can each deliver a different result within a single marketing campaign. Some brands incorporate them all into their influencer program, while other brands are more selective.
When you recruit and hire an ambassador, influencer, or KOL, you must know the difference and leverage that marketing relationship into your influencer program appropriately.
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The Marketing Relationship Mix
Ideally, your brand should partner with more than one influencer category. That said, you must build your marketing mix according to the objectives you’ve set for your brand.
Understanding the differences between ambassadors, influencers, and KOLs can help you cultivate the ideal marketing mix for maximum influencer ROI.
As your understanding of each marketing relationship broadens, consider your audience. Among your different customer segments, some will be more or less interested in your brand based upon who endorses you and why.
Campaigns that produced moderate results using social media influencers might achieve better results with the help of an ambassador or key opinion leader. Conversely, if you’ve only leaned upon one marketing relationship up to this point, creating variety among your team of influencers can generate better results for your program.
Either way, we encourage you to experiment with all three – ambassadors, influencers, and key opinion leaders – and to dial in your ideal mix for a more robust relationship marketing program.
The Importance of Managing Marketing Relationships Across the Board
Marketing relationships are just that: relationships. Influencer relationship management means understanding who your partners are and what they need to make you successful during an influencer campaign. Whether you have a small team of KOLs or a large network of social media influencers, the need to manage all activities and communications with these partners is key to the success of your influencer programs. Best practice is to manage all of your marketing relationships in one place to seamlessly integrate your relationships into all legs of your marketing strategies.
What are the Different Marketing Relationships?
Just because brand ambassadors, influencers, and key opinion leaders (KOLs) occasionally inhabit the same marketing space doesn’t mean that you should minimize their differences.
Why is it so important to distinguish between ambassadors and influencers, influencers and KOLs, and so on?
The distinction matters because whichever personality you choose to broadcast your message will have a particular effect upon your audience. As such, it’s vital to define each role within the marketing industry.
In addition to the effect your marketing relationship will have on your audience, the strategy for each of these entities can be very different and can produce very different results.
Ambassadors love your brand, whether or not you hire them. In fact, you might end up partnering with an ambassador after they gave your brand generous, unsolicited shoutouts via their social channels.
However, ambassadorships might also form after you’ve worked with a particular influencer on several successful campaigns. The influencer relationship just works, and the relationship between your band and ambassador is bound to last for the long haul.
The strength of working with ambassadors is that the affection between the ambassador and your brand runs deep. It would take a great deal more to ruin relationships with your ambassadors than it would your influencers. Ambassadors are working with you for deeper reasons than just financial gain.
Ambassadors are also more skilled in their ability to incorporate your brand into their digital conversations and posts. Their endorsements are more natural because ambassadors genuinely love your brand.
Ambassadors are focused on a community setting. The idea is that your ambassador team is an extensive of your brand, and they are a community that engages with one another and their audiences. Ambassadors may not always have huge followings, but the audience that they do have is dedicated.
A brand with an excellent example of a thriving ambassador program is Organifi. In a recent fireside chat between Organifi and GRIN, the brand’s marketing managers explained how they were able to find so much success with their ambassador program by fully investing in the idea of community. Their brand ambassadors were an extension of their brand, and interacted within a community, constantly in communication, receiving weekly newsletters and product updates, and fully immersing themselves in the Organifi way of life.
Influencers can behave like ambassadors or KOLs, and have the same passion for brands as ambassadors, and often they do. However, the primary qualification for an influencer is that they’ve curated a vibrant online following that is preexisting to the relationship with a brand.
Influencers can exist on a multitude of platforms: Instagram, Facebook, TikTok, YouTube, or they can be popular bloggers. There is no one place that an influencer can exist if it makes sense for your brand.
The reason that influencers succeed is because of their creativity, their reach, and the trust that they have gained from their followers. They know how to enamor audiences, and they know what makes their audiences tick. They have spent time building a relationship with their followers, engaging with them, interacting with them, bringing them into their life and therefore can be a powerful tool for any brand when the relationship is created correctly.
Influencers are versatile and often able to promote brands in surprising ways. Not only do they cultivate open minds in themselves, but influencers are also able to inspire open-mindedness among members of their audience.
Brands must consider when working with influencers, what their brand vision is, what the marketing objectives are, and what type of influencer would make the most sense for their brand. The idea is to find and recruit influencers that would otherwise use your product and service and would be a natural fit for your offering.
Lume Cube, a company that makes powerful and durable lights for photo and video devices has an incredible influencer program because they aligned their influencers with their brand from the start. Instead of focusing on an influencers follower count, the company sought out influencer people in their space, such as professional photographers.
In a recent fireside chat with Lume Cube and GRIN the company discussed how finding the right influencers that would naturally use their product they were able to primarily pay influencers with product, creating the ultimate value exchange.
KOLs (Key Opinion Leaders)
Key opinion leaders, or KOLs, are usually industry experts with a community of supporters for their vision or mission. Key Opinion Leaders can come in the form of individuals, coalitions, companies or groups. They lead ideas in their category and hold the trust of those that support them. KOLs can be celebrities, business professionals, or thought leaders. They speak to the masses, and their expertise is valued by many.
One challenge to consider when partnering with KOLs is that they aren’t as easy to connect with digitally and may come at a higher price for your brand. Many KOLs are famous authors and keynote speakers. In this case, partnering with KOLs can sometimes look like a traditional network marketing.
Often the value exchange needed to work with KOLs is higher. Your brand may sponsor an event in exchange for distribution of marketing material to a Key Opinion Leader’s audience. This is why working with this group does tend to look more like a traditional network marketing, however it’s the relationship, the management of that relationship, the value exchange, and the championing of the brand that falls under the influencer marketing umbrella.
Relationships with Key Opinion Leaders are meant to reach the masses. But like any marketing relationship, they need to be nurtured, and can have long-lasting results that supersede the original partnership.
Which Marketing Relationship is Best for My Brand?
At particular points in your marketing strategy, each relationship has something to offer your brand. The key is to know how to leverage the strengths of each role the right way within your marketing campaign.
How an Ambassador Works
Ambassadors already love your brand. They called you out on social media and have an existing affinity for your product or service.
For example, Lululemon ambassador Hannah Dingle is an accomplished personal trainer and Instagram influencer. She self-identifies as an ambassador for the clothing brand she loves most. Occasionally, Lululemon will send her clothing products to showcase in workouts, or they might be a sponsor for one of Hannah’s fitness events.
When are Ambassadors Effective?
If your brand is a favorite among social media personalities without any recruiting efforts, you should think seriously before turning down an ambassador opportunity.
Ambassador partnerships offer a more organic style of influencer marketing. Typically, ambassador promotion comes across as more genuine, and the effect upon an ambassador’s audience will be more positive than it will among other influencer types.
Use brand ambassadors when your focus is community, and you’ve built up brand love amongst it. Find your existing loyal customers with the right audience influence and they become your brand ambassadors.
How an Influencer Works
Compared to ambassadors and KOLs, the influencer is the broadest category of marketing relationships. The most effective influencers usually specialize in a certain kind of lifestyle, mood, or industry and have created a following and trust of their audience in that space.
Gilmer and Jayden Croes are TikTok influencers (and brothers) that can do anything, as long as it’s dramatic and funny. That’s why Chipotle partnered with them as part of their TikTok #chipotlelidflip challenge.
Though some brands have found success with more universal influencers, best practice is to identify influencers that are product or industry-specific. For example, Matt Karsten travels the world and has attracted brands looking for exotic content.
When are Influencers Effective?
Influencers are creative, ambitious, and authentic. Your best influencer partners are those that possess a significant amount of audience overlap with your brand.
In the example above, outdoor products are going to score better partnering with Matt Karsten than they might with the Croes brothers. However, The Croes – outspoken lovers of family time – have successfully promoted family-friendly activities and attractions in both North and South America.
Another way to approach influencer partnerships is to think about who members of your audience follow online. Which social media personalities will best cut through the noise and daily routine of your prospects? These social media personalities are often those influencers with whom you want to create campaigns.
Lastly, influencers frequently know how to collaborate with your brand for ingenious campaign ideas. If you struggle to come up with creative ideas, influencers can help you build a campaign that you can both be proud of.
How a KOL Works
Simon Sinek is a celebrity KOL famous among HR professionals, marketers, and entrepreneurs. He has authored books and is most famous for his TED Talk on the Golden Circle. He frequently engages his audience on LinkedIn and YouTube.
Steve Mitchell is a professional artist that began using YouTube to “return to my fine arts roots.” He created his YouTube channel for “watercolor enthusiasts” to “share tips and techniques in a quick, easy to digest fashion.”
Steve’s followers enjoy tutorials, product reviews, and more. His audience is specific to watercolor enthusiasts. Also, Mitchell qualifies as a key opinion leader because he is a credentialed expert in the commercial art industry.
When are KOLs Effective?
KOLs rarely offer a general appeal – their goal is to target a niche community of like-minded professionals or hobbyists. As such, KOLs can help you reach those niche audiences in ways that ambassadors and influencers can’t.
Key opinion leaders are also perfect for elevating your brand to an authoritative voice/position among other professionals. When a KOL endorses your brand through product testing or authentic praise, members of your niche market take immediate notice.
When and How to Decide Which Marketing Relationship to Use
While you should experiment with different kinds of influencers and marketing relationships to find the best mix, it’s not necessary to “roll the dice” and take any marketing relationship that comes along.
Whether you choose to partner with ambassadors, influencers, KOLs, or a combination of the three, specific influencer marketing standards still apply. Among those standards are identifying your goals and understanding your audience to help you find the right ambassador/influencer/KOL.
Identify Your Influencer Program Goals
What do you want your marketing relationships to achieve?
There are several different ways to measure campaign ROI. If you’re introducing a new product, you might want to raise awareness and achieve high, early sales. Other times, your goal might be to create user-generated content and web traffic to increase your search engine optimization and domain authority.
If you’re expanding into a new market, you need increased brand awareness to nurture excitement and curiosity among members of a new target audience. Or, your brand may have become a victim of some bad press, and you need the help of influencers to raise brand sentiment.
Whatever your goals, you need to define them and build a team of marketing relationships well-suited to help you achieve those goals.
Know Your Audience
Taking steps to understand the needs and desires of your audience will make it easier for you to partner with the right ambassador, influencer, or KOL. Assuming that you know how your customers think will lead you to build campaigns with the wrong influencers.
Exercises like market research, surveys, and buyer personas can grant you clarity about what your customers go through daily. This clarity will translate into helping you find the best marketing relationships before launching an influencer marketing campaign.
How to Find the Right Marketing Relationships
Whether you seek an ambassador, influencer, or KOL, you must be able to distinguish engagement from vanity metrics.
Just because an individual has thousands of followers and likes doesn’t mean that they are generating authentic engagement with your audience. Likes and follower counts are known as “vanity metrics,” and these numbers are easily obtained through questionable means.
Engagement metrics, however, allow you to see how well a social media personality connects with his/her audience. Post comments and shares are among the best ways to measure the impact of an ambassador, influencer, or KOL.
With an influencer tool like GRIN, you can search for different categories of ambassador, influencer, or KOL and prioritize them by engagement rate. GRIN automatically generates an individual’s engagement rate on leading social channels like Instagram, TikTok, Twitter, and YouTube.
Find, Gain, and Leverage All Marketing Relationships Together
As you partner with different categories of influencers, you’ll get more insight into your audience, and which kind of influencer will have the most significant impact. And as your program grows, you can trial-and-error your approach to achieve the best possible results.
Learning to incorporate varying amounts of ambassador, influencer, and KOL relationships into your relationship marketing mix will make your campaigns more potent. By investing in your top performers, you can leverage those quality relationships toward an unstoppable influencer marketing program.
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