The Questionable Ethics of Klout Perks

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On the social web, it is important to look at the details, including content publishing rights, communication “best practices,” influence theory, or a “Perks” package. For the past two weeks, many online personalities updated their Facebook and Twitter statuses declaring they had received their Klout Perks package. It has brought up the question of ethics. Will these influencers always reference the Perks program when touting their Klout?

In addition to becoming the preeminent influencer package of choice for businesses, it’s clear that Klout has a second agenda: Disseminate products into the marketplace via volunteer online influencers for their marketing clients. The sponsorship program is called Klout Perks. Certainly, at face value this seems like a reasonable way to monetize a database, and also cement influencer loyalty. Of course, given the questions that have arisen about the integrity of Klout’s algorithm, advertisers may not get the ideal result.

While Klout had a code of ethics around its Perks package and how participating will impact and individuals’ score, the larger question of ethics for the actual influencers still remains. How can an influencer who counsels others about online communications maintain their integrity and take the Klout Perks package?

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At a bare minimum, according to the Federal Trade Commission, disclose needs to happen. Providing disclosure that one is a Klout Perks recipient every single time Klout came up in conversation would be a bit of an odious task. And even at that, one would then still have to question any statements made about Klout or other influence measurement packages.

From an ethical standpoint, perhaps the journalism profession can lend a hand. According the Society of Professional Journalists, “writers should ‘refuse gifts, favors, fees, free travel and special treatment…,’ so as not to ‘compromise journalistic integrity.’

Marketing, PR and social media folks don’t have the same kind of rigorous code of ethics, unfortunately. In this case, it would clearly provide guidance and enable a less inflated view of Klout on the public interwebs. Instead, clients, readers and friends are left to discern the truth in unclear waters.

Special thanks to Susan Murphy, Mike Ashworth and Calvin Lee for weighing in on Facebook.

Related Content: Klout versus Reality

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  • http://www.whatspinksthinks.com David Spinks

    Klout is the middle man. They’re creating a path for businesses to give perks to people. Those people should absolutely disclose the arrangement when discussing the product, but I don’t see why they’d have to disclose it when they mention klout.

    Say a business goes to a PR or marketing agency, that agency reaches out to people they view as influencers and offers them a perk from the business. Those influencers will be required to disclose that they received the product for free. Will they have to add a disclosure every time they mention the marketing or PR firm? If so, then there are a lot of bloggers who should be fined because I rarely see this happen.

    I know that journalism professionals are very restricted in what they can accept…but bloggers and tweeters aren’t journalists. Whether or not they should be held to the same standards is a different conversation.

    In the end, it’s not really the ethics klout perks that you’re calling out…it’s the ethics of those who receive those perks. For me, that’s a case by case discussion.

  • http://www.oneforty.com/barbchamberlain Barb Chamberlain

    Actually, PR *does* have a code of ethics as promulgated by PRSA: http://www.prsa.org/AboutPRSA/Ethics/ (I’m not a member right now but have been in the past and look to them for professional standards.)

    The code calls for PR professionals to reveal sponsors for represented causes and interests and to avoid conflicts between personal and professional interests, among other things. They’ve also written advisories on issues such as pay-for-play journalism.

    This piece is thought-provoking and I hadn’t even been thinking about Klout despite having received one of the Perks invites.

    While I’m not in the business of selling social media consulting, I do speak on the subject occasionally as a practitioner (mostly for free so far but hey, let’s talk :D). This is a good reminder to anyone thinking of building a consulting practice that we should consider the implications of the many freebies that float around the Web.

    What about all those free e-books and what-not–if I download those and then cite that person’s work in a presentation, would you consider that an ethical issue? Those things are given away as promotions too; in fact, half the posts about how to make money with your blog seem to recommend writing a giveaway e-book as a starter item.

    I was surprised to receive a Klout Perks invitation; I’m pretty active on Twitter but have just under 2,300 followers. Since I pay no attention to my Klout score I have no idea what it is but will have to go check it out now.

    I’m not sure how they picked me but it was OK demographic targeting: The offer relates to an animated kids’ movie and I have a 10-year-old stepdaughter so I said yes because she’ll enjoy whatever they’ll send. I also tweet occasionally about the movies I watch, but that movie is on my “wait for the DVD & only watch it if the kids ask for it–for sure don’t suggest it” list so it’s not going to score big marketing points to send me anything.

    I agree with David that the disclosure is tied to the product, not to Klout. The manufacturer/promoter is who’s paying for the access Klout provides, just as the same manufacturer could pay for a print ad in a newspaper offering a free item. Would I then have to say, “Free Item brought to me by Manufacturer courtesy of Newspaper?” The newspaper provides demographic information just as any online seller of access to my eyeballs does.

    I’ll ponder more on this for sure before I say anything at all about whatever that thingie was they said they would send. It’s been a couple of weeks and I’ve forgotten.

    @BarbChamberlain

  • http://geofflivingston.com Geoff Livingston

    @David and @Barb Thank you for coming by the blog and delivering some thought provoking comments. @Barb You are correct. PRSA and IABC both have codes of ethics, I wish they were more widely adopted…

    As friends have made it clear to me tonight, these waters are not clear as much is yet to be defined online. So, take this comment in return as one from past experience, not necessarily relevant to the current situation, but likely so.

    When I was a kid I bought tons of punk rock gear from a place called Zipperhead on 4th and South. I bought Doc Martens, and Misfits and Dead Kennedys Tees, but my loyalty was always with Zipperhead, not the brands. I personally cannot discount the role of and loyalty towards the middle person. Applied in this case, thus I could not participate in Klout Perks.

  • Jennifer Leggio

    I find the entire idea of Klout questionable, at least in regard to it’s perks. I will admit to signing up for the “Lone Star” perk a couple of months back out of sheer curiosity. A few things struck me:

    1. As a former journalist, it made me feel dirty. I didn’t like that I had accepted a perk and, while I did, I did not allow it to sway my view on the show (which was terrible).

    2. It does appear the Klout perks are disseminated to a very low bar of influencers, which really means that the perks are little more than glorified schwag. This creates even more of a “mine is bigger” conversation platform amongs the wannabe social elite, further creating a mockery of the social industry as a whole. I’ve always questions Klout’s ability to truly pinpoint influencers and Perks solidifies that opinion. If I qualify, then there is absolutely a low bar.

    3. I thought social marketing enabled us to be more progressive with our engagement and was to help us outgrow the whole “throw free products out to market” approach? This might work with bona Fidel celebrities, but I think it backfires with Klout influencers. Mostly due to the fact that the majority of the is inhale seen are more focused on the “influencers” touting his or her qualifications rather than the product itself. It’s vomit marketing all o er again. How do Klout’s clients event gauge success? I mean, wasn’t “Lone Star” canceled due to low ratings? Clearly not a rally for the influencers who participated in that perk.

    Thanks for speaking your mind, as always, Geoff. I think there are more people questioning this than not. But the desire for free stuff might be winning for some. ;)

    • http://geofflivingston.com Geoff Livingston

      Thanks, Jennifer. You bring up three great points. On #2, it’s the return of bloggola! Only now it’s influencola. OK, let’s just call it influencer schwag. I think as former journalists we are more uncomfortable with this than the average blogger. But I think the average blogger loses credibility points when they take schwag, disclosed or not. Everyone has to do what they feel is right, I suppose.

  • http://www.prsa.org/ Keith Trivitt

    Fantastic discussion taking place around this post, and kudos to you, Geoff, for getting the conversation started (or at least fleshing out the finer point of potential ethical issues arising from Klout and its “Perks” package).

    Coming from the perspective of PRSA, as both you and Barb Chamberlain mentioned, PRSA does have a Code of Ethics, which can be found here: http://bit.ly/ggOGTs The Code advises both members and the broader public relations profession on ethical standards and best practices. It is frequently updated via Professional Standards Advisories (http://bit.ly/g5hbp1) as a means to adjust to new practices, strategies and technologies and the impact those have on our profession and relevant ethical issues that need to be addressed.

    My apologies for all of the links, but a couple of recent PSA’s that hit upon this issue include PS-9: Play for Play (http://bit.ly/dF4HNG) and PS-6: Disclosure by Expert Commentators and Professional Spokespersons of Payments or Financial Interests (http://bit.ly/hfDnme), both of which address ethical concerns over public relations professionals accepting or soliciting payments for editorial coverage without disclosing any payments (monetary or otherwise) that have been issued to promote a cause, product, service, etc.

    In the case of Klout, the issue ultimately comes down to the level of disclosure. Geoff, you hit it right on the head that while it might be cumbersome for a blogger to disclose every time Klout is mentioned in a post or tweet, that is the ethical thing to do.

    Keith Trivitt
    Associate Director of Public Relations
    Public Relations Society of America (PRSA)

    • http://geofflivingston.com Geoff Livingston

      Keith:

      Thank you so much for visiting the blog and adding PRSA’s insights and code of ethics to the discussion. It’s very useful and helpful.

      Geoff

  • Sandra Parrotto

    Thank you so much for lending an “integrity angle” to the Klout perks program. Being new to this world, I find myself often wondering how to determine if someone is authentic, genuinely motivated & substantive in what they share/offer to followers. A bit confusing – plus I’ve seen lots of tweets/posts about promoting others’ product in “schmarmy” ways – trying to figure out how a company would get it’s product sampled and still keep the “sampler” in integrity with their followers. Even Scott Stratten talked about his coffee maker and how the company that makes them enrolled him in trying it. So much here… would also love it if you’d apply your “unique sniff test” to Klout and twittalyzer as basic metric tools, too!

    • http://geofflivingston.com Geoff Livingston

      Thanks, Sam. I appreciate the feedback on future stories. I think Kami is really the metrics leader of the Zoetica group, as is KD Paine (@kdpaine). You should follow up with them on twittalyzer, Klout…

  • http://mizzinformation.com Maggie McGary

    I think you’re right on with this. I personally am not worthy of Klout perks but I can’t imagine how it’s ethical for people who are in the business of recommending Klout to clients to accept swag from Klout–even with disclosure. Take, say, the Audi Klout perk. A weekend getaway to test drive a luxury car? How would that NOT influence a person’s feelings for the sponsor of such a “perk”? Say every vendor offered similar perks–how would that look in the context of a PR pro or consultant’s day?

    I just don’t get the whole Klout thing–their whole “we’ll notify when you’re worthy” (http://twitter.com/#!/KloutPerks/status/8978320439902208) attitude just drives me crazy–and the fact that nobody (except you and a few others) seems to be questioning it just makes me scratch my head.

    • http://geofflivingston.com Geoff Livingston

      Seeing as Klout has commented, I am sure they have seen your feedback. Like all systems I am sure they have their own issues with volumes of requests. Worthiness is not really determined by an algorithm though, so don’t take it personally! You matter much to those in your life, I am sure.

  • http://www.klout.com Megan Berry

    Hey Geoff,

    Thanks for the post. As you mentioned, we have a code of ethics that we apply to all Perks (see below). We believe if we give the Perks to the right influencers, these Perks will be a positive experience for the influencer and their audience. I.e. if you are a basketball influencer and get tickets to meet the players of your favorite team through Klout Perks, your audience will be interested in you sharing what this experience is like.

    Code of Ethics:

    * Klout will never sell or give away your contact info.

    * Participating (or not participating) will not change your Klout Score.

    * If you accept the offer you are not required to do anything. We do not want to “buy” your tweets. You are receiving the product because you are influential and have authority on topics related to the product. This is a more targeted form of receiving a sample while shopping at the grocery store. You are welcome to tell the world you love the product, you hate the product or say nothing at all.

    * If you decide to talk about the product we will ask you to disclose that you received a sample (http://cmp.ly/2/va). We will send you more information about this when we ship the product.

    Feel free to reach out with further comments/questions. We take feedback very seriously and are constantly working to improve our program. Thanks!

    -Megan
    Marketing Manager, Klout
    @meganberry
    megan@klout.com

    • http://geofflivingston.com Geoff Livingston

      Megan:

      Thanks for coming by and providing the Klout perspective. Between your feedback and Keith’s I love that we have both sides of the equation.

      One of my favorite methods of contest screening online (giveaways, surveys, etc.) is when ESPN or another property asks your profession BEFORE you are included in the project. They automatically bar folks in communications and advertising from participating. I would love to see Klout adopt this stance, specifically towards communicators and social media pros.

      And that’s my $.02. ;)

      Best wishes,

      Geoff

  • http://www.sectorpublic.com Mark Drapeau

    It’s unbelievable what lengths companies Bing are going to in order to do product Windows placement on the Web. It’s getting harder and harder Xbox to tell what is journalism, what is blogging Office, and what is PR. And people just have no ethics Hotmail anymore, either, which is really disappointing to me as an independent communications professional.

    • http://geofflivingston.com Geoff Livingston

      Schmendrick :P

  • http://www.fredmcclimans.com Fred McClimans

    Geoff: Sometimes the best way to get the attention of a crowd is to toss a hornet’s nest into the middle of the room. With that in mind, job well done.

    Ethics, and to an extent morals, have always been in a steady state of flux. In some cases this fluidity has been bad, case-in-point the flexing of ethics in the world of finance and Wall Street. In other cases, change has been for the best, such as the creation and adoption of “codes” that have been adopted by the journalistic, public relations and (to a lesser extent) the analytical community.

    From my perspective, I have always advised my clients and employees to err on the side of caution when it comes to disclosure of personal (or corporate) relationships “with benefits”. One of the keys in my mind is have you earned the perk (an example being doing work for a client and then attending their holiday party – not a big deal, or spending enough money on my Amex to earn awards points – something that is available to all Amex users). On the flip-side, if you are getting something special that has not been either earned or made available to a massively large group of people, then you should decline the perk.

    That said, there are plenty of fuzzy areas, and if you choose to participate in an exclusive or special program (or have any type of financial interest/benefit in a firm) full disclosure is always required. If you aren’t willing to make that disclosure, regardless of how often it is required, then you shouldn’t put yourself in a position where disclosure is required.

    Again, an excellent post. Definitely some interesting points to consider.

    Fred

    • http://geofflivingston.com Geoff Livingston

      Ha! Hornet’s nest. Man, this ain’t nothing (thank God!).

      In all seriousness, though, the when in doubt principle is a good one to follow. I think with online we’ve had such a tear down the walls attitude that we’ve forgone common sense… And now are paying the price for it. Thanks for the feedback!

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