Klout, Influence And Other Urban Myths

Klout T-Shirt
Klout is a service that claims to be able to measure people’s online “influence.” Supposedly, Klout can analyse your social media activity and by assigning you a number (out of 100), show how “influential” you are in comparison to other social media devotees.

To say I’m skeptical about Klout’s accuracy and objectives is something of an understatement. I already said, back in November 2011, that I believed Klout (and other similar services) are just a ruse. In fact, you don’t have to look far to find many voices on the internet question both the scores and the methodology (one of my favourites is 5 Reasons Why Klout Is Total BS).

Methodology

I may not be an expert in social media (in fact, I don’t want to be an expert in social media), but I do know a thing or two about research. In my academic years I attended my fair share of seminars and workshops on research methodologies in sociology and cultural studies.

Although my memory of those times is a little hazy when it comes to detail, I do recall the important points. Namely, that when you want to do a piece of research (any kind of research), you start with a question (or set of questions), then you have to decide how to answer those questions and what are the best tools for doing so.

Klout is understandably vague about their tools. But, I’m not sure that matters too much. Even if we assume their tools are good (which many comentators doubt), there’s still reason to be suspicious when we ask ourselves; what question does a Klout score answer?

The Marketing Problem

In the world of marketing and advertising, there is a scramble to try and understand the online experience. Everyone knows that consumers are making purchase decisions based on what they see and read online. But, this is a new field that few understand well.

The web has challenged two key insights into consumer behaviour; word of mouth (we make purchase decisions based on what friends and family say) and opinion leadership (we make purchase decisions based on the views of respected professionals).

For example, if you wanted to market a new brand of golf ball, you might hold an event for local golfers, hand out some free balls, let people try them out and maybe offer a discount at the local store. Even if some golfers miss the event and sale, they’ll hear about from their friends and see the ball in action at local courses. And, of course, you would also sponsor top level players and well known teachers to talk about the ball and recommend it in ads, interviews and workshops.

Etymology And Ideology

Klout tries to bring these two cornerstones of marketing together in one concept – influence. It would be nice (for the marketers) if consumer conversations would be measured in this way. I have no doubt that services like Klout see this as their commercial goal; identifying people with “influence,” then selling databases of influential people (and their habits) to marketers or market research companies.

But, can we really collapse word of mouth and key opinion leadership in this way? The reason why marketers liked both word or mouth and opinion leadership is because we listen to different people in our lives in different ways. Depending on the product, we don’t always trust big name endorsements. And, even amongst our friends, opinions don’t all carry the same weight.

Influence itself is something of a vague concept. One of the current problems with Klout (and similar ranking services) is that they don’t seem to be able to separate popularity from influence, which is another way of saying they can’t filter out noise.

My own basic look at people’s Klout scores (among Twitter users I most interact with) showed some glaring disparities. There were users with high scores whose views seldom sway me, while others with low scores whose opinions could easily influence major purchasing decisions.

Conclusion

That’s not to say we can’t measure and analyse how social media users influence each other. I believe we can. But, real human social systems are complex, because we are complex. So it follows that the tools needed to actually tell us something meaningful will also need to be sophisticated – both in the way they sample and measure and the results they give us.

That’s why I deleted myself off the Klout system. Increasingly I’m finding that many of the people I respect have done the same. You can spot them because instead of a Klout score, their number shows up as “- -” when seen on platforms like Hootsuite. If you want to opt out of Klout, here’s some instructions.

So, I made up the T-Shirt design you see above in honour of this little band of brothers, fighting in our own quiet way, for a more human understanding of online social interaction.

Comments

  1. says

    Klout exists for the same reason that most awards shows exist: validation.

    There would be no Oscars if Hollywood didn’t need to pat itself on the back every year. By nature, actors are needy people, so it makes sense.

    Klout feeds the same need. In the words of Sutart Smalley: “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggonit, people like me!”

    Oh, and I’m rockin’ a 49. Ain’t I cool?

  2. says

    Mike – here’s a question for you. A lot of these services turn normal human interactions into games and, as you say, feed the need to be validated. What is the consequence of that, in terms of the development of our character?

  3. says

    Fern, I think humans are, by nature, competitive, so I see the attraction to adding the “game” aspect to a lot of things. We get points for “checking in” to places we would go anyway, we get stickers for watching certain shows, etc… Like any competitive exercise, it depends how far we take it. When the goal becomes something that detracts from other (more important) things, there is a problem.

    Ultimately, how any social media affects our character development is a function of how we (as individuals) use it. We can build genuine, valuable relationships online; we can truly help inform and educate others; we can try and be a healthy contributor to the world at large – or we can game the system and try and sell books, or services, or pamphlets or whatever.

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