Tom Webster, writing and speaking

Understanding Klout

Added on by Tom Webster.

Readers of this blog know that I am "ambivalent" about online influence calculators. Setting aside questions about how they are calculated, I think there are even greater questions about why they are calculated. I ask a lot of questions about these things not because I am cynical, but because I am a relentless questioner, as my friends will attest. Questions make things better. So far, my questions about these services have yet to be satisfactorily answered, but I think a little Darwin will sort all of this out soon enough, with the indefensible measures disappearing and the more promising measures gaining some traction and improving in the process. I had a short but lively exchange with Jason Keath and Jason Falls about this exact subject on Twitter last night. Jason Keath has seen some things he likes about Klout, and he tells me that they are putting a lot of smart thinking behind their bid to become the measure of online influence.

What I like about Klout is their focus on topics - there's no such thing, really, as a generic "influence" - one can only be influential about something to someone. Still, there is that reductive Klout score, which I believe undermines their credibility with serious marketers as much as it enhances it with the badge-happy classes.

In the well-documented spirit of this blog, however, I am not a doubter - I am a questioner. I think my biggest question is this: is it even possible to measure online influence, divorced from offline influence? If a Klout score is truly focused solely upon online behavior, then Oprah's Klout score should be far less than 65, since she has only 134 Tweets and follows just 19 people. Clearly her offline influence, not her online behavior, is solely responsible for her higher Klout score. Yes, she has well over four million followers, but certainly not by dint of her Twitter ability!

If offline influence plays a role here, then surely someone so influential as Malcolm Gladwell should pull better than a Klout score of 25? Jason Keath correctly noted that Gladwell doesn't really have "online" influence, and from a strictly are-you-good-at-Twitter perspective, that is certainly true. Yet, we were all talking about his recent "the revolution will not be Tweeted" piece online just over a week ago, and I would argue that his thinking is extraordinarily and demonstrably influential online. If Klout is working towards capturing that kind of influence - including citations, searches, trackbacks, etc - then they are building something very impressive indeed. SkyNet should be nervous. Jason Keath is right, however - Malcolm Gladwell is not good at Twitter. But is Oprah?

Chris Brogan is good at Twitter, and his Klout score reflects this. In fact, at an 85, he's 20 points higher than Oprah, despite a significantly smaller platform. Seth Godin is bad at Twitter, and his two, non-interactive accounts (SethGodin and ThisIsSethsBlog) score 33 and 47, respectively. I would argue that the set of individuals more influential to online thinking than Seth Godin would not require ten fingers to count, but again - he is bad at Twitter.

Maybe my issues here are more to do with nomenclature - Klout refers to the Klout score as a "measurement of your overall online influence" and their product as "the standard for Influence." They may very well be the closest to cracking that nut, but there are a lot of offline confounding variables. The Twitter universe is just too small to serve as the basis for those conclusions, and the whole process strikes me as inductive (rather than deductive) reasoning. After all, if Seth Godin and Malcolm Gladwell have chosen not to interact on Twitter, then perhaps it is Twitter, and not those gentlemen, that is unimportant.

I am not sure what to think about my Klout score. Today, my score is a 53, which is twice Gladwell's score and six points higher than Godin's. I'm just 12 away from Oprah. Klout does a very good job characterizing the nature of my behavior (I'm a "Specialist,") and the topics for which I hold some measure of influence (research, social media, marketing). I think these are bang on, and indicative of the smart things about Klout.

However, though I have a moderately healthy self-regard, I am under no illusions that I slot in somewhere between Godin and Oprah in online influence. If the ThisIsSethsBlog Twitter account tweets that Godin has a new book for sale, he sells a jillion books. If I do, I get a nice call from my mother. If we are interested in the realm of influence beyond the easy, immediate measures (like the confounding variable of the retweet) then the amount of data mining required presents what may currently be an intractable problem.

Another question I have about my Klout score is the nature of its volatility. When I wrote about this topic a few weeks ago, my Klout score was 34. Today it is higher by nearly 20 points. I have been on Twitter since February 6, 2007, so I've left a significant, longitudinal trail of data on Twitter. If my influence could really change so quickly, then this suggests two things: one, that the system is probably easily game-able, since I certainly didn't do anything to consciously goose my score, and two: that "influence" as measured by Klout is an exceedingly ephemeral concept. What is the half-life of influence?

Ultimately, my question is this - are online influence measures such as Klout art or science? The undisciplined answer is that it is both, but that's like being a little pregnant. One of my favorite definitions of science is this: if you can formulate a hypothesis and then test it, it is science. If you cannot test it, it is faith. How does one test an influence score? How do you know, in other words, if you got it right?

Having said all of that, I remain, as ever, in search of information, not evidence. I am not drawing a conclusion about Klout, because I do not have all of the information. Consider this my plea to be informed. If, as some have suggested, Klout scores are being used by HR departments to vet job candidates, then I think it behooves us all to understand it a little better. There is certainly precedent for measures such as Klout - witness the famous "Q Score" for consumer appeal - so cracking this nut certainly has utility for marketers. Consider this a genuine, open invitation to enlighten me in the comments, which are of course always welcome.