What is Klout worth to you?

klouttweetWhat a kerfuffle Klout has stirred up! The US company that offers a service to “measure influence onlinemade changes last week in the technology it uses to calculate an individual’s influence rank known as a Klout Score.

One of the results of the changes – all to do with improving the algorithms that calculate an individual’s Klout Score – is that “a majority of users will see their Scores stay the same or go up but some users will see a drop,” the company said.

My bold emphasis in that quote highlights what rapidly escalated into howls of protest by users as people’s Klout scores tumbled showing lower numbers – dramatically lower in some cases – which the formal posts on Klout’s blog did little to help people clearly understand why.

I’m a Klout user and, like many people I know, one who spent a lot of time trying to figure out how it works and whether it has any measurable value. As a user, I still don’t know for sure (give me a marketer’s hat, though, and it is clearer). But it doesn’t matter: I came to a conclusion a while ago that the value of services like Klout is more in the eye of the beholder, as it were, than in the subject’s eye.

It’s what others believe to be the value of a particular Klout Score to them. That requires a considerable amount of earned trust – and that, it seems to me, is where Klout has now got itself into some serious hot water.

The foundation of Klout’s business is the scoring system and some clever technology that runs it. But closely linked to that is a pure-play marketing programme that offers perks to users if they meet specific criteria connected to their score and their activity in the social spaces that Klout tracks, notably Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Google Plus, Foursquare, YouTube, Instagram, Tumblr, Blogger, WordPress, Last.fm and Flickr.

The Klout Perks programme has attracted some big-name brands in the US such as Audi USA, Red Bull, Axe, Chiquita, and more.

And that’s where the cosy informal social-ness of a ranking or score hits the hard reality of marketing in a company that is attracting interest from investors that could give it a valuation of at least $200 million. And it looks as though the marketing is very hard nosed indeed as Ike Pigott’s experience clearly suggests.

Pigott writes about how he was pitched for a perk for which it turned out he was ineligible in spite of his receiving confirmation from Klout that his perk – a Windows Phone – was on its way to him even though there was some ambiguity in Klout’s communication over what Piggott still had to do as part of receiving the perk.

[…] boy, the whole process seemed rather poorly-worded. They took all of my information, only to then determine that I was not eligible? […] I do have a problem, though, with the way it was pitched to Joe. My friend Joe got a notice on his [Facebook] wall that said I had earned the Perk – they used my name and my reputation to make a pitch to a friend of mine. […] I certainly hope Klout learns its lessons – the notion of Online Influence is an important one as traditional advertising models assumptions continue their implosion. If Klout doesn’t get it right, someone else will. Klout’s first-mover advantage in the space can be spoiled if people get the idea that they aren’t people anymore, but instead are just an arbitrary computation of tweets, retweets and engagements.

That’s pretty bad, giving me pause in how I think about Klout. Can it really be “just a marketing scheme for the perks? Cynically presented as influence measurement?” as I mused in a tweet on Saturday. That tweet produced some quick responses, none of which offered any clear view that contradicted my musing question.

But it gets worse, with Klout’s behaviours crossing the line relating to privacy and use of personal information as Tonia Ries recounted:

[…] When I logged into my Klout page this morning, I was very surprised to see that Klout now lists my son as one of the people I influence.  Anyone who is a parent of a young adult will know that nothing is more unlikely.  And, knowing that my son is not on Twitter, and has always been very careful about managing his privacy on the Internet, how did Klout get the information to create a profile on my son???

[…] UPDATE:  I just heard from another social media professional that she has found a Klout profile for her son, who is 13 years old.  In other words, Klout is creating profiles and assigning scores to minors.

Whoa, this is now getting serious. What does Klout say on the matter? Nothing as far I can tell.

I posted Ries’ account on Google Plus. That post received quite a bit of comment including this one from Ries:

[…] I’m really tired of finding out about how random changes to platforms affects how I manage my digital boundaries after the boundaries have been crossed. Especially with a platform like Klout, which doesn’t let you delete or deactivate a profile.

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The more I think about negative experiences like these two examples, the more my feelings of confidence in Klout as a place to trust are diminished. I’m speaking both as a user and as someone who might want to use or recommend Klout as a good place to track influencers.

Azeem Azhar, founder and CEO of UK-based Klout competitor PeerIndex – which also offers a perks programme – has a sanguine view on Klout’s changes and the attention users give to their individual ranking or score.

[…] As another player in a similar space, we can speak from some experience when we say to consumers: ‘Don’t worry too much’.

Why?

Social media metrics are in their infancy. Social media has only been mainstream for a few years. It took us to more 20 years to go from the first digital text stores to Google. It took 21 years to go from the first Motorola handset to the iPhone and Android ecosystems.

So during this period of development expect to see competing approaches, different paradigms, wrong turns and frequent readjustments.

Which leads me to another question – what is an “influencer”? And how do you actually define “influence” in the context of people’s behaviours online?

I like Azhar’s take on such questions:

[…] No one agrees on a single definition of influence. Because there isn’t a single definition. As best as I can tell, social influence is as generic as the ‘physical property’ of an apple. An apple has different attributes: weight, color, density, volume, length of stalk.

The guy measuring weight may will come up with a different ‘number’ from the guy measuring volume – and they will disagree. It’s no surprise. They are measuring different things. And each thing that is measured is valuable, but they are different.

While I can conclude from this that the headline of Azhar’s post is pretty good – “Don’t worry. Be circumspect (and happy)” – I do worry that Tonia Ries’ experience, in the absence of any comforting clarification from Klout, is the tip of a very dirty iceberg.

As Ike Pigott notes in his post, If Klout doesn’t get it right, someone else will.

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