Thoughts from Conversation with Klout CEO Joe Fernandez

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SethsKlout.jpg
Ace Blogger Seth Godin doesn’t participate on Twitter, but has a Klout score of 70 in large part due to retweets and mentions. This phenomena typifies what Klout calls the Warren Buffet problem.

Yesterday, Read Write Web published the larger findings from the open interview with Klout CEO Joe Fernandez responding to criticisms published here. Publishing the larger post separately seemed important, a way to provide a larger portion of the industry information about the most pressing Klout questions. In addition to the discussion about evolving the algorithm and the ethics of Klout Perks in the Read Write Web piece, Mr. Fernandez covered several other points raised by critics.

One of the more interesting aspects was a discussion about gaming theory, which has been considered in the design of Klout. The interface, badges, classifications and the way it looks is important to encourage people with lower scores to develop more influence. In that vein, Klout sees its system as a way to encourage people to develop their online networking skills and become more influential.

Social games as a community activity have become a huge web activity online, and is drawing more attention in the marketing space. This is a topic worth further consideration.

Generally, the whole Peter Shankman party issue arose as a result of this rather troublesome press release. While Klout has an informal relationship with Shankman, Mr. Fernandez did say the release was not vetted by Klout, and could have been toned differently with less elitism.

The party itself was an experiment to see what the algorithm could put together, and by accounts of attendees, it wasn’t the usual group of folks in the rooms. Attendee David Spinks said it was an enjoyable affair, and Mr. Fernandez said the experiment may or may not be repeated.

Also, by simply participating in the open call, Mr. Fernandez resolved the point about Klout not responding to criticism. Further, he took some tough questions, and should be commended for openly facing criticism with a kind attitude.

General Perceptions of Klout Moving Forward

Klout certainly has its hands full. That became crystal clear. Perhaps Mr. Fernandez said it best when he said the very word influence is a lightening rod, and Klout’s algorithmic approach to determining it will always attract debate.

As to the algorithm itself, it will clearly evolve. Klout is actively weighing the strengths and weaknesses of its system. It’s well marketed at this point, and as a result, has an opportunity to become the top influencer measurement.

Why? Because no matter what, businesses and nonprofits will seek an easy way to determine influence, and as Klout evolves it may have the best answer. Klout still has flaws that admittedly need to be overcome, but that’s the truth.

Klout’s definition of measuring actions differs greatly from industry definitions of actions (donations, sales, etc.). Because data about these types of actions are not readily available to the industry by companies and nonprofits, participation data is what’s left.

It’s hard to sign off on quantitative metrics that focus on participation. The current output of this participation data still produces questionable results. But the commitment to diversify and scale to meet 20 disparate sources of social data (see Read Write Web piece) is more compelling than a simple solution like Twitter Grader or a blog solution like PostRank.

And so, if Klout successfully evolves per Mr. Fernandez’s remarks, it would be foolhardy for a professional not to give Klout the respect it deserves. For better or for worse, it looks like the leader at this point. And the business and nonprofit marketplaces want a solution to at least begin cultivating “influencers.” Whether that’s the right approach is another matter altogether.

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  • http://dceventjunkie.com Lisa Byrne

    Well, well, well…the writings of a torn man ;)

    • http://geofflivingston.com Geoff Livingston

      Indeed.

  • http://www.richardrbecker.com Richard Becker

    The thing is, Geoff, that while Joe Fernandez may have the best intentions it does not ensure where exactly this road is being paved.

    With micro-networks being formed each day by an increasing amount of people (with networks of no more than 50 people), one might wonder whether certain social media participants are predisposed to fly headfirst into flytraps of vice but not the greater public who has no interest in pursuing this so-called definition of influence.

    In the end, unless the greater public might embrace this as an activity of merit to collect more and more people willing to click through on an empty action (because of a headline, linkbait, or fan of the subject matter but not the author), I suspect it will become an increasingly small pool of individuals who have a vested need to improve their scores.

    All my best,
    Rich

    • http://geofflivingston.com Geoff Livingston

      It’s interesting to see Klout as the lightening rod for these issues, which as a self described influence measurement would naturally occur. As we have seen from our own PVSM conversations influence can be compact to a small group of people a la Dunbar’s law. And thus your argument about mico-networks is true.

      Then there is the argument that more is better, embodied by Christopher Penn’s timely piece on Metcalfe’s Law – http://www.christopherspenn.com/2010/12/metcalfes-law-and-social-media-size-does-matter/. We both saw that yesterday in PVSM. This is true because marketers can’t get access to micro network data. Thus they are FUBARed. However because they have money, solutions like Klout are needed to get them as close to the answer as possible. And thus, we have our conundrum.

      As to society and mindlessness and understanding their actions and digital literacy, don’t get me going on a rant! It’s Christmas.

      • http://www.richardrbecker.com Richard Becker

        You, a rant? I would never believe it.

        I don’t always see this a either/or situation. Couldn’t a company achieve the same goals by establishing it’s own influence instead of others and nurturing influencers with a group? I know this to be true.

        Think in terms of snow balls. A company can build one or it can be a small sliver of a larger one. In such terms, the volume of snow in the latter is better than the former and won’t melt as fast.

        Regardless, you’ve inspired to write something next week even though I was thinking I might take the week off. I cannot thank you enough for that, numbers or not. ;)

        Best,
        Rich

  • http://thebrandbuilder.wordpress.com Olivier Blanchard

    The problem isn’t in Klout’s algorithms. It’s in the worth we assign to the notion of “influencers” – these magical people who can get thousands, even millions of people to click a button, buy a pair of shoes, or go see a movie.

    Klout isn’t the problem. I like Klout, actually. It’s the digital marketing religion that Klout is being woven into that is flawed.

    • http://geofflivingston.com Geoff Livingston

      Well stated, Olivier. Before these interviews I differed, but now agree full heartedly with this assessment. Klout is but a tool to measure participation analytics. In that sense, it is flawed, but probably the most compelling metric so far to measure “influence.” Its roadmap indicates that there’s a high probability it will become better…

      Now the marketers who tout it as a world saving solution are dangerous. And in reality they may be doing Klout a disservice, too.

    • http://thesocialjoint.com Lucretia Pruitt

      Here’s a question for you Olivier: if the magical influencers haven’t proven a valid model at some point, would we still have ‘celebrity endorsements’ or ‘spokesmen’? Surely there is some merit to the ad model… or wouldn’t have it been ditched decades ago?

      I do rather think that the “influencer” model is still viable with some regard. But I’d be inclined to argue that it has to adapt to the new media. If Sarah Jessica Parker is one of the only people talking on television about hair color, that gives her 30 second spots a bit more impact. If Sarah Jessica Parker blogged about a hair color one time – well, let’s just say her SEO would need to rock for that to stand out in the ocean of online posts about not only that hair color, but the manufacturer, the problems, the customer service issues, and a myriad thousand other posts that will drown it out. No matter how many people read her blog? It’s still a drop in a bucket. But the same woman, same product, why not same level of influence?

      I have my own theory that arises from the past few months of watching all of this. But I’m going to do something unheard of and post it on my own blog instead of in Geoff’s comments! ;)

  • http://marketingpartners.ca Jon Aston

    Echoing Olivier’s comments, Klout isn’t really the problem. It’s just a catalyst.

    I find it disheartening to see people whoring themselves to try to be (or to be perceived to be) one of those “magical people”. When I see tweets from a friend about driving around in a Klout-powered Audi, it doesn’t bring me any closer to buying one myself. It makes me lose respect for that friend (So much for “influence”, eh?). And it makes me think the people behind the campaign are asshats. They’re probably high-fiving each other about getting a couple of hundred “mentions” to a few thousand people. How many cars did they sell, as a direct result? How many future purchases did they influence? Sorry. No real clout here. Move along.

    • http://geofflivingston.com Geoff Livingston

      In addition to agreeing with Olivier (as do I), the theme of real action versus participatory action is noteworthy. It will always be the Achilles Heel of such influence metrics. That’s why I am increasingly looking at this is a method to measure participation volume as opposed to influence.

  • http://www.klout.com Joe Fernandez

    Hey Geoff,

    Wanted to really thank you for taking the time to talk and for writing these thoughtful pieces about what we are working on and the challenges we face. I am excited about what we have coming and look forward to continuing this discussion as we evolve over time.

    One thing I would like to take the opportunity to be clear on is the Peter Shankman party. I think all sides would probably want a redo on that press release but I want to make sure we aren’t putting the blame fully on Peter here. I didn’t personally vet the messages going out but our team and PR people were involved in some capacity. It was definitely a learning experience. The intention of having an event full of people who were really passionate about social media and the party itself were great though.

    Thanks again Geoff!

    • http://geofflivingston.com Geoff Livingston

      Joe: Thank you for that clarification. And thank you for taking the time to reach out to me and my community to discuss this important issue. Looking forward to Klout’s developments in 2011!

  • http://www.justincaseyouwerewondering.x.iabc.com Justin Goldsborough

    This “influence” conversation is one we need to keep having. So thanks for shedding new light and continuing it.

    First, props to Joe and team for trying to tackle this issue and give us a metric that can serve as ONE PART of our evaluation of “influencers” in different situations. Klout isn’t and will never be an influence silver bullet because there is no such thing as universal influence. But I think Joe gets that and Geoff, Olivier and Jon, you are right. The scary part in all this is us. Or at least our peers. We (PR and marketing) have been a lazy industry for the most part (hate to generalize) when it comes to analytics and measurement and a tool like Klout makes it easy to be lazy again.

    As a PR or marketing pro, we have a responsibility. It’s to discus these issues, provide a holistic POV of the measurement puzzle and to never let our clients, peers or colleagues call a tool like Klout the end-all, be-all of influence measurement. Not to exaggerate, but PR and marketing pros who choose to be lazy and tout a Klout-only philosophy on influence are probably the same ones who are still only talking about hits or impressions without telling the rest of the story. That behavior is dangerous and irresponsible and we have to be better than that as an industry.

    We do a myriad of blogger outreach campaigns at Fleishman, and we often use Technorati as a data point to gauge influence. But it is one of several data points we consider, including one a good friend and colleague reminded me last night is one we will never stop using no matter what tool comes along — RESEARCH.

    Cheers for continuing this conversation. The more we talk about it, the better chance we as an industry have to get it right. Going to be talking influence on Jan. 4 #measurePR chat (12 EST) with Shonali Burke and it would be great if you all could join and provide an informed POV if you have the time. Thanks.

    • http://geofflivingston.com Geoff Livingston

      I couldn’t have said it any better myself, Justin.

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

    I really can’t get enough of this debate. Thanks for keeping it going Geoff.

    I’ve been a big supporter of klout for a while. I think what they’re working on is going to have a big impact on the way we do business.

    What Olivier said is right on. Most people don’t hate klout, they hate the way it’s being implemented by businesses. So often, people can’t tell the difference.

    The question of klout’s path doesn’t seem like a “will it hit mainstream?” thing. In essence, it really seems like a media outreach tool to me. The same way you’d look at the google page rank, the compete scores, the number of comments, etc… of a media publication, now you’d look at the klout score of an individual.

    Will people game the system? Of course… look at “SEO”, the system of optimizing your site so that your site will appear more influential on search engines. Yet, we seem to be okay with that. Is it really so different for individuals to optimize themselves?

    There is undoubtedly this trend of individuals (bloggers, tweeters, etc…) becoming trusted sources of news, information, and opinion, where traditional media was before. There really is no way for businesses to tell who’s actually worth reaching out to though. Klout can solve that problem.

    I think what gets to people is that this number is assigned to a person…but we fail to connect it to this trend that people are becoming brands.

    Going to have to take this comment to my blog before I write more than your actual post!

    • http://www.justincaseyouwerewondering.x.iabc.com Justin Goldsborough

      Great POV, David. You make a lot of valid points, especially the SEO one. Speaking for myself, what gets me is that PR and marketing have historically been very lazy when explaining impact, analytics and results. There are a lot of people trying to change that culture of laziness. And a tool like Klout makes it easier for those who have cut corners before to do so again. That being said, Klout is a factor. No doubt about it.

    • http://geofflivingston.com Geoff Livingston

      I have to differ with you, Dave. Klout may be a starting point, but it can’t tell a business who’s worth reaching out to. They have to do their homework sooner or later and do the subjective analysis to learn who matters in their community, not pick names off a list.

      Often the highest ranked names are the most inaccessible, and this is where the magic middle comes in. This gets back to influencer theory and history, which has been well debated in the past. If you’d like to learn more about influencer theory, here’s a post ont he topic:

      http://geofflivingston.com/2010/07/06/the-history-of-influencer-theory-on-the-social-web/

  • http://thesocialjoint.com Lucretia Pruitt

    Eventually, we have to figure out what we mean when we say “influential” and then how we measure it. Glad that Klout doesn’t think it has “the” answer – but is trying to work toward it nonetheless. I can’t blame anyone who continues to try. :)

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