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How much Klout is too much?

Vikki Chowney 27 Apr 2012

In terms of influence measurement, we’ve now hit ‘worst case scenario’.

The industry's popularity  has grown rapidly in just a few short years since the launch of Klout in late 2009. For those overwhelmed by the social space, and the ‘new way’ of approaching marketing as a result, it was a welcome addition to the toolkit. It used language and scoring that they understood, and very simply categorised people according to what they were influential about – and then ranked them accordingly.

Basically, it promised to make it easier to put this ‘social media’ thing in a nice box, with a number attached.

Marketing thought leaders, bloggers and such threw their hands up in protest. ‘But it can be gamed!’, ‘You can lie online!’, ‘This measures quality over quantity’, ‘It’s just a NUMBER!’. Business magazines started paying attention and, in doing so, legitimised it as a valid form of measurement - whether they wanted to or not. The very fact that they were writing about it meant that many PR people pricked up their ears and scurried off to investigate.

What they found was something quick, easy to use, and with almost no barrier to entry. It would do a lot of the hard work for them at a time when ‘online influence’ was becoming vital to understand – but nobody really had the right process or structure to do so.

It’s no good sticking your head in the sand and ignoring something that’s becoming adopted and accepted by an industry. But the notion of measuring influence online, whether put in the context of an individual’s network, or in relation to a particular topic, is flawed.

As naysayers have reminded us time and time again, you can game the systems, you can create a false persona – and though the theory of measuring influence can be very eloquently argued by many of the leaders in this space – academia doesn’t always translate to real-world practice.

That said, social influence measurement provides people with a starting point, a benchmark, from which to conduct deeper human analysis. But sadly that doesn’t often happen. Marketers and PR people will often take the easy road when the opportunity is presented, and a tool that allows you to create a list of influencers at the click of a button is appealing. Lazy, yes, less-than-accurate, of course. But that’s not to say it isn’t happening, by some of the biggest agencies out there.

Combine this with the fact that several credible, savvy brands have invested in the process. Reebok, The Telegraph, Spotify, Audi, Deezer, Microsoft, VH1, even Ed Sheeran, and we’re now seeing Klout scores crop up on CVs – used as a measurement of value, with more importance in some cases than real-life achievements.

Speaking of which, this week Wired’s Seth Stevenson put his tuppence in, writing something of a profile of Klout founder Joe Fernandez, who says that Klout is ‘empowerment for the little guy’. It’s a great sentiment, but sadly that’s not quite the case.

Stevenson’s piece includes a bit of advice from Klout product director Chris Makarsky on boosting his score. “His first suggestion was to improve the “cadence” of my tweets” - in other words, ‘tweet more’.

Further into the article, we hear about the lifestyle of uber-Klouter Calvin Lee, a graphic designer from LA. Alongside other impressive free treats, he was given an Audi A8 to test drive – which he ended up ‘roadtripping’ to Klout’s offices to meet Joe Fernandez.

Now, yes, for many brands, this kind of always-on brand evangelist is exactly the kind of person they want to reach. This is a person who is ever-connected, who doesn’t like being offline because his Klout score will drop – which the article points out “makes him feel uncomfortable” –and he won’t get any more free stuff.

But that’s where we see that the motivation is all wrong. Lee doesn’t know what free stuff he’s going to get next, he’s just fuelled by the desire to get it. And that’s exactly the kind of behavior that influence measurement creates.

‘Free stuff’ is one of the main things people want from brands when connecting with them in a social sense. Research from the CMO Council, from ExactTarget, shows this time and time again. That’s no secret, but there’s a difference between an individual gravitating towards a named brand, where they’ve been offered an incentive like behind-the-scenes content, money off, even a product trial, versus a person who is obsessing over their score because of the promise of potential giveaways. Sure, the latter type could end up becoming an advocate, but it’s still a stab in the dark - albeit a more informed one.

Stevenson hit the nail on the head in his conclusion, in which he starts looking at those within his networks with lower Klout scores.

“They talked about things nobody else was talking about. Sitcoms in Haiti. Quirky museum exhibits. Strange movie-theater lobby cards from the 1970s. The un-Kloutiest’s thoughts, jokes, and bubbles of honest emotion felt rawer, more authentic, and blissfully oblivious to the herd. Like unloved TV shows, these people had low Nielsen ratings—no brand would ever bother to advertise on their channels. And yet, these were the people I paid the most attention to. They were unique and genuine. That may not matter to marketers, and it may not win them much Klout. But it makes them a lot more interesting.”

Social influence scoring doesn’t measure influence, that’s far too complex a thing to be quickly calculated by plugging in your Twitter and Facebook profiles, but it does measure social capital (as outlined in Altimeter’s recent report).

It’s not entirely without merit, but as a marketer, it’s a dangerous thing to rely on – as you could end up creating an influencer relations campaign based purely on those who shout the loudest. And, as for using it directly as a brand to reward those with higher scores, this could end up making people feel like you’re only interested in those with ‘influence’ – and are shutting them out instead of including them in your community.

Vikki Chowney is head of community at TMW.

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