The Trouble with Klout: Influence Isn't an Algorithm

Jun 20, 2012

Article ImageLet's face it, something isn't right with Klout. If you're a marketing, public relations, or social media pro, you've been conditioned to recognize influence much like Judge Potter Stuart famously recognized objectionable content: hard to define, but you know it when you see it. 

On the surface, Klout is ingenious; it's essentially developed a way to score influence by analyzing some of your online activity (and any related activity from your network) and assign a value from one to one hundred. If you play the Klout game correctly, you receive a high score and loads of freebies. If you choose to sit out the Klout game, your score usually sinks faster than a stone.

Take a moment to dig a little deeper into the Klout phenomenon, however, and you'll see what's missing from the equation. As a fifteen year veteran of internet marketing, social media and related disciplines, I cannot buy into the Klout hype. Our national obsession with our Klout scores is doomed to fade unless we take a more comprehensive approach to identifying true influence. Here's why:

  • The Intangible: Klout claims to monitor the intangibles - the influence of our overall network, our "reach" to other social media users and our amplification. We take it on good faith that these three criteria are the cornerstones of our influence and that retweets, Twitter mentions, Facebook "likes," Google "plus ones," and blog posts are the means by which we increase our influence.
  • The Unbelievable: I have a hard time believing that Justin Bieber is more influential than our current president. Yet, The Biebs consistently rates higher than the leader of the free world. Klout executives will argue that Bieber's higher score is a reflection of his ability to "use social media more effectively to drive more actions from his network," but what are those actions except retweets and mentions? I don't need to illustrate how the president's actions hold far more influence than a pop star's.
  • The Ephemeral: Did you ever notice how your Klout score takes a dip a few days after a vacation or, for that matter, any period where you were unable to engage via social media? A few days away from your computer can cause your high score to fade into mediocrity. Consider the people who directly influence you by their actions and words (that is to say, not via Klout). Their influence on you doesn't fade when they take a week off in Mexico.

In short, Klout has us chasing equations instead of influence. It's a masterful marketing plan; we excitedly engage each other so that Klout can sell packages of Perks to major brands like Red Bull and Chevy, but Klout doesn't bring us any closer towards identifying true influencers.

Influence isn't a number; it's a value that shifts according to audience and environment - a value that people recognize in their minds and often in their gut. This is where Klout falls short.

Nonetheless, I am a realist; this Pandora's Box has been opened and we are now occupied with measuring and identifying influence. For my team and I, this is how we do it:

  • Analyze Positive Coverage in the News Media: If you're seeking an industry authority, the news media does a good job of weeding out the leaders from the charlatans. Never underestimate the value of third party affirmation from credible news outlets. Read their news coverage and pay attention to the tone of the reportage.
  • Respect the Power of Grassroots: Whenever a client suggests that they spend their money on a celebrity tweet, I remind them that fifty satisfied customers speaking about their product or service will bring far better results than a Kardashian tweet. Seek out regular folks; examine their social media presence and find respectful ways to reach them.
  • Examine Follower Numbers: If you're using Twitter as a guide, a good rule of thumb for determining social media influence is the ratio of followers versus those a person follows. Most folks view Twitter as a quid pro quo - follow me and I will follow you. Seek out folks who add so much value to their discussions that other people are willing to forgo the usual arrangement in order to receive their updates.
  • Trust Your Gut: Remember Judge Stewart's observation, "I know it when I see it." Take the time to research every aspect of your campaign. You'll soon recognize who adds value to the discussion. It's this type of organically-recognized influence that algorithms can never identify.