Klout and the business of vanity analytics

The Tennessean newspaper ran a front-page piece this weekend called Klout measures online influence. It examines the role of Klout, an online influence measurement service, in social media usage and cites a number of Nashville-area social media heavy users (including myself and my good friends Dave DelaneyRex HammockCourtenay Rogers, and Steve Chandler) and their relatively high Klout scores.

Whenever the subject of Klout comes up, some folks get a wee bit snarky, feeling that to measure anything about social media is tantamount to a popularity contest. (And hey, I’ve tweeted my share of Klout jokes. It’s easy material: at one point, the topics about which Klout claimed I had influence were cowboys, babies, and Shark Week.) So as you might imagine, right away, there was backlash. The very first comment on the story called Klout the most meaningless metric in online marketing. Blog posts linking to the story took issue with treating the topic as front-page-worthy news.

For the record, I don’t think either criticism is wrong, per se. But they both fall a little short of a full look at the situation.

It happens to be my business to traffic in meaningful metrics. But the funny thing about what’s “meaningful” is that it’s both subjective and relative to the quality and type of data available. Data about influence in social media is soft and subjective. It’s squishy. You can’t measure a person’s influence directly, but you can develop hypotheses about what types of activities might correlate with people who are highly influential. For example, someone who has a great deal of influence on Twitter probably has a greater chance of having his or her tweets retweeted than does someone without much influence. When you measure those activities, you create a sort of leading indicator of influence. Klout has attempted to do that. Is it a vanity metric? Sure. Any publicly-visible metric can be a vanity metric. Especially if you check it compulsively. But even that doesn’t necessarily make it meaningless.

One of the other vanity metrics we encounter when working with clients on marketing measurement strategy is Alexa ranking. Alexa does a pretty decent job of gauging relative volume of website traffic using a method that could be compared with Nielsen ratings for TV shows. (The Nielsen ratings are vanity metrics too, but they’re a data point that TV industry folks use as directional data.) Should you base your marketing strategy on monitoring your Alexa ranking? Of course not, but if you’re looking for a top-level measure of your website’s traffic relative to others’, you can certainly include the rank’s variance as a gauge on your dashboard, and you can feel good when it’s holding steady or showing gains. If it shows a big drop and you have no idea why, even if your own website’s traffic didn’t really change, it’s possible that something is going on in your competitive landscape that you need to know about.

Klout isn’t really any different. Although it’s still in the benchmarking stage of developing integrity as a metric, it may ultimately be useful as a directional indicator of social media engagement and effectiveness. That doesn’t mean you need to babysit your score or contrive to inflate it artificially, but it does mean that if your score falls, it may be an indicator that you’re not connecting with your audience. And there isn’t a much more meaningful pursuit in marketing than connecting with an audience: it’s what has to happen before you can make money. So if you’re concerned about ROI in social media and you’re not thinking about measuring earlier-stage metrics like engagement and influence? You’re missing the point, my friend.

Klout’s efforts to quantify influence may seem frivolous, but it isn’t unusual for forward-looking work in analysis to seem frivolous. Being ahead of the curve inherently means that most people don’t get what you’re doing or why you’re doing it.

And this is where the newsworthiness comes into play. Whether you think Klout as a company and a concept is ahead of the curve or not, most of the people blogging about social media in 2011 have spent a good amount of time discussing the idea of “influence,” and that concept isn’t going away in 2012. Rather than dismiss it, it might be worth spending a little time as 2011 winds down planning how you will develop your influence and cultivate your online audience for a more profitable 2012. I’ll be right here cheering you on and retweeting you, as long as it doesn’t involve cowboys, babies, or Shark Week. I can’t go screwing up my Klout.

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  1. Posted December 19, 2011 at 8:52 pm | Permalink

    Good analysis, Kate. I’ve sorta dreaded the day when Klout gains awareness in the real world as the nuance of what it does means it’s not always going to translate to information that is actually helpful to the marketer. All it’s done for me is generate a lot more pitches for blog posts I should write on topics I don’t cover. That said, it does provide a metric for something that is helpful: If a person proclaims themself a social media guru, it will be difficult for them to explain why they don’t have a high Klout score. This may hasten the end of the “guru” era.

  2. Posted December 20, 2011 at 7:35 am | Permalink

    Great analysis Kate. I agree with you and Rex.
    I would hardly call Klout useless, but I think may people have no use for it in their day to day lives. Where it becomes useful is in measuring influence of gurus, like Rex points out.

    I have heard of an ad agency recently trying to get their friends to boost their Klout score. This was because a client was deciding between several agencies and basing (in part, I hope) their decision on their Klout scores.

    It’s unfortunate, but consumers should perhaps consider (not obsess about) their Klout scores rather than opt out. There are cases of HR departments and services like Salesforce using Klout now. Food for thought.

  3. Posted December 20, 2011 at 8:26 am | Permalink


    Really liked what you had to say. I have always looked at Klout and Alexa as more of a heuristic for gauging my digital marketing success. Services like Klout and Alexa, though useful, do not produce the complete picture. In all fairness there really is no one service out there that really gives a complete picture, so cheers to Klout and Alexa for trying.

  4. Posted December 20, 2011 at 10:07 am | Permalink

    Hey Dave, The whole notion of “boosting a Klout score” is what I’m talking about. The only overt “boosting thing” Klout encourages is the “K+” thing where you say someone has clout on a particular topic. Is that what you’re talking about? I doubt that easily manipulated meteoric is even part of the actual Klout scoring algorithm. Yes, it may get you in a category, but it’s going to make you look low in that category if you don’t do all the other things that can’t be so easily manipulated.

  5. Posted December 20, 2011 at 10:25 am | Permalink

    Agreed on all points, and I think it’s important to understand the dangers of either side of the fence – whether that be indifference or zeal.

    I fully admit that I don’t pay much attention to Klout. Does that mean it doesn’t have applications? Probably not for me, at the moment, but in the age of information overload and noise, it’s often easy to ignore measurement in social – it’s not that you shouldn’t measure, just that you should have a clear benchmark for the “what” and “why.”

    Context makes a world of difference.

    At the end of the day, the metric “I” care most about is value. Just haven’t figured out how to measure that one yet ;)

  6. Posted December 20, 2011 at 10:50 am | Permalink

    Yes Rex, I believe it was the K+ that they were referring too. Although I’m not totally clear on that. I expect that was the case. However, gaining Twitter followers and re-tweets, probably helps too.

  7. Posted January 11, 2012 at 10:53 pm | Permalink

    I’m posting a comment on this post to see if my Klout score is effected. – Great post Kate. Maybe I can get MetaMarketer in the Nashville Symphony web budget in the next season. I sure would like that.