"It's not perfect. It's in the silent movie stage," says marketing consultant Mark W. Schaefer, author of the new book Return on Influence: The Revolutionary Power of Klout, Social Scoring, and Influence Marketing. "But this is very important. We've never been able to quantify influence on a mass scale." (His Klout score, by the way, is a whopping 70.)
Big-name companies have taken notice. Disney, Microsoft, Chevy, and HBO, among hundreds of others, have partnered with Klout to offer "perks" such as free samples, test drives, and resort vacations to the crème de la crème of its millions of registered users. It's a clever way to monetize online influence, both for the common Joe and Klout — even as some observers of the phenomenon raise concerns over an emerging caste system.
Social scoring creates a hierarchy "determined by how and when you tweet, connect, share, and comment," writes Schaefer, also an adjunct professor of marketing at Rutgers University. "The haves may score better jobs, higher social status, even better luck on the dating scene." Tawkify, a dating service that matches people over the phone, will use a Klout score as one way to evaluate compatibility.
About 700,000 perks have been delivered to users, according to Lynn Fox, head of communications for the San Francisco-based company. "Then maybe you'll tweet about it or do Facebook updates to your followers."
For the record, Klout tells perk recipients they are under no obligation to talk up products, in accordance with FTC regulations. But, of course, many do.
Anne Buchanan, 52 and president of Buchanan Public Relations in Ardmore, has a Klout score of 53, which places her in at least the 95th percentile. (The worldwide average is 20, according to Fox.)
Last year, she tweeted plenty about her interest in triathlons and long-distance swimmer Diana Nyad, who was stroking her way from Cuba to Florida under the sponsorship of Secret deodorant. "I got in the mail a package of Secret clinical-strength antiperspirant," she says. "I absolutely marveled." Turns out parent company Procter & Gamble offered a few sticks to 2,500 women considered influential, by Klout's standards, on fitness and entrepreneurship.
Buchanan soon posted a picture of the perk package on Facebook and tweeted rave reviews of the deodorant and its sponsorship of Nyad. The campaign, according to an AdAge report, generated 5,918 tweets and 15.7 million impressions, or the potential audience who saw the tweets.
That's Klout at its best. But over the years, many have criticized privacy missteps, the algorithm's hush-hushness, and the perks to its elite.
You don't have to register on Klout to be measured (although you must sign up for perks). The way Klout works, you're automatically rated if you have a Twitter account with public tweets. That has rubbed some the wrong way. "People are suspicious of the black box," says Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Research Center's Internet and American Life Project. "They don't know how things are being scored. It just makes them nervous."
You can opt out, but it can be difficult to completely remove your Klout profile, according to Schaefer. Earlier on, Klout also flubbed — and lost some respect — when users gave permission for the company to access their Facebook posts and it also got access to their friends' information, including minors. (The glitch has since been resolved.)
Klout already has spawned various sociological impacts.
"Networks matter," Rainie says. "It's technologically doing what people do in their heads all the time. We observe conversations and assign scores in our head. Certain institutions and people carry more weight than others."
Klout's goal is to shape that influence. Chief executive officer Joe Fernandez got his brainstorm when his jaw was wired shut after surgery and his only means of communication was through social networks. He realized his posts swayed friends and vice versa. A numbers geek, he started to fill out an Excel spreadsheet with data — and soon Klout was scoring the Twitterati.
"Social media has really democratized influence," Fox says. In other words, it's not just celebrities who hog the limelight. It's Everyman — or as Schaefer refers to them in his book, Citizen Influencers.
Take Calvin Lee, an L.A. graphic designer who tweets at least 200 times a day and has 80,000 followers, many actively engaged in his content, as detailed in Return on Influence. With a 76 score, he has rock-star social network status and the perks to prove it. "Anybody," Schaefer writes, "has a chance to experience life on the other side of the velvet rope."
At the same time, K scores, like any popularity contest, can lead to resentment and questionable behavior. "The idea that all influence can be roped into a 1 to 100 scale, implying that you can be a ‘perfect' or A-plus influencer, could fuel an unhealthy obsession with how one is perceived," points out Jordi Comas, an assistant professor of management at Bucknell University.
Could Klout-ers Anonymous be far behind?
Already, resumés include scores, and employers are asking for the number — and then turning down candidates on the lower end.
Money Crashers Personal Finance in Piscataway, N.J., often uses Klout data when looking to hire new contributors to its financial website, says Andrew Schrage, co-owner of the business. "We've found that writers with higher Klout scores are generally more savvy when it comes to social media," he says, "and use this to their advantage when coming up with interesting topics and cultivating an audience."
All of this assumes that influence can, in fact, be measured. Critics contend the score is more baloney than science. Fernandez's oft-repeated response? "It's only B.S. when people's score drops."
The fact that the algorithm is guarded as closely as the recipe for Coca-Cola hasn't helped. "People have been rightfully concerned about our level of transparency because they want to know how we arrive at their score," allowed Fox, while not giving away any details. "It's very complex. It's very dynamic."
And not always on target. Michael Scolnic, 23, a Citigroup analyst and Wynnewood transplant who lives in Manhattan, has a Klout score in the 40s. His top five topics of expertise — gleaned from the frequency of certain words in his public online content — are listed as Arsenal F.C., Gym, Queens, Torah, Moms, Lisbon.
He'll give Klout a nod for capturing his soccer and exercise passions. He figures Queens, where he works, came from his Foursquare check-ins, though he's no expert on the borough. And he did travel to Lisbon once. But Torah (OK, he is Jewish) and, the real head-scratcher, Moms? Go figure.
"That's an aberration in the algorithm," he says. He's not too worried, though. "If it said I was influential about socialism or something way out, then I would be a little more concerned."
Scolnic also had mixed feelings about the perks system when he failed to nab a deal on Purina dog food. "I felt I was more than qualified for it," he says, noting his many posts about his dog that seemed to meet the criteria posted for the perk publicized on the website. But Klout wouldn't acknowledge his dog-worthiness. A free third-season DVD of 30 Rock, though, improved his spirits.
Joshua March, founder and chief executive officer of the customer service software company Conversocial, is one of those not sold on Klout's clout. "I think it's overblown," he says. Overall, he says influence marketing is a lot of effort for little return, echoing research from Duncan Watts, a network-theory expert well known for skepticism about the power of influence.
"It's all about numbers," says March, a 44. "Let's say you want to reach 1 million people. You don't have massive groups of real friends. You influence four or five people. To reach 1 million, you need to influence 200,000 people."
He also frowns on the use of Klout scores to prioritize attention to customer service complaints — a service that Genesys, a major customer service management and software company, has made available to its long list of clients. "If you have real paying customers, and they need your help, you should be doing your best to help all of them as quickly as possible," he says.
But perhaps the biggest chink in Klout's armor, by some estimates, is this: Only one person has a perfect 100 score — Justin Bieber. That makes him more influential than the Leader of the Free World (score: 94) or Oprah (score: 85).
Of course, the teen heartthrob is not all that by any other standard. Only in the small but growing sliver of online influence is no one more powerful.
Lini S. Kadaba's score is 44. Contact her at Lkadaba@gmail.com. Visit Klout, here.