What is a KOL?

Karina Ha shot by Brian HK Chan for Rhea Magazine

What is a Social Media KOL? To be completely honest, I was caught pretty off guard when someone threw this term at me a few weeks ago. It stands for Key Opinion Leader, and is a term that's used mainly in Hong Kong and the rest of Asia. It's broadly equivalent to the more common term 'Influencer'. But of course, to have a completely different term for something that appears the same must mean that there's at least a small difference to it, right? Hence, we asked Karina Ha (@hakarinian), a Branding Designer by day and KOL by night, to tell us a little bit about the term and what it takes to become a KOL.  

I was surprised to learn that most KOLs are actually like Karina and have a full-time job. Karina's 'day job' is running her own branding design company. On a daily basis, Karina will meet with her clients, usually luxury brands, and design a creative solution to meet each client’s individual needs. Design is clearly one of Karina's passions, and something that she's always loved affectionately since her childhood in New Zealand & London. You probably wouldn't be surprised to now learn that, like Karina, many KOLs are also employed full-time in creative industries.

Karina Ha shot by Brian HK Chan for Rhea Magazine

Karina's start in the media industry came in Shanghai where her design career started in 2010. She already had a strong online following, and was recruited by Nike China to do a campaign on Weibo. By the time she returned to Hong Kong to start her company, her mass of followers meant that her friends in the media industry were able to get her signed up with a KOL management agency. At that time, the KOL industry was still in its infancy, so the majority of her work was product placement in her social media posts. She enjoys the challenge and creativity of working with products. As an established KOL, Karina has the luxury to choose to only work with products she loved, and this allows her to take time to think about the bigger picture and the story she wants to tell her audience, before creating an image that does just that.

However, given the fast growth of the media industry and increasing numbers of KOLs, Karina has seen many changes in the last few years. Whilst product placement remains important, many brands now invite her to attend events and be photographed so that it becomes known she was there. In effect, you could say that she now is the product.

The KOL market has become more saturated, but Karina does not necessarily think this is a bad thing. Being a KOL has allowed her to meet many new people, and those contacts have led her towards new opportunities for her design career, helping her to become even more successful. Her 'night job' complements her 'day job', and despite it being a careful balancing act between the two careers, Karina's passion for what she does is evident. A successful business woman, it is clear that Karina will only continue to moonlight as a KOL while it is still fun, provides her with opportunities and allows her to unleash even more of her creativity.


PHOTOGRAPHY, STYLING AND WORDS: BRIAN HK CHAN
HAIR AND MAKEUP: CANDICE LI
MODEL: KARINA HA