Clout v. Klout: Why They Aren’t the Same Thing, And Never Will Be

“Leadership is influence.”  – John C. Maxwell

There’s been a lot of noise lately over a company called Klout, which just raised another $30 million in funding from several big-name venture capital firms. Klout, for those who don’t know it, attempts to put a single numerical value on your online influence across major social-media sites such as Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn.

This seems to piss off a lot of people, who rightly point to a variety of shortcomings in a service that aspires to be the metric of choice for companies that want to reach social-media influencers, in much the manner that Google’s PageRank system helps people understand the reach and reputation of websites.

The Klout complaints are many, even as the company rapidly signs thousands of corporate partners who use its evaluations to dish out “Klout Perks,” such as free entry to parties and events, early peeks at hot products and more. The issues include:

  •  The algorithm for determining one’s Klout score is opaque. You know, kind of like Google’s PageRank system.
  •  The system can be gamed. One tech-savvy skeptic showed how Twitter bots could be used to create a very strong Klout score in just a couple of months of “work.” You know, kind of like Google’s PageRank syste
  •   The system doesn’t measure off-line influence (such as books and conference appearances), or even some kinds of on-line influence (such as most blog services). As one thoughtful piece put it, there’s no way for the system to goose up Marc Andreessen’s mediocre Klout score just because the dude helped found the modern Internet and now helps fund it. To put it succinctly, Andreessen’s Clout far outweighs his Klout. But again, the inability to measure offline influence is hardly unique to Klout. In fact, it’s kind of similar to Google’s PageRank system in this regard

So, in some ways at least, Klout has already attained its goal: it is like Google’s PageRank system, at least in some key ways, the only difference being that no one complains about these things when it comes to Google. They’d probably get consigned to Eternal Search Result Limbo if they did, but that’s another stor

“You can never really live anyone else’s life, not even your child’s. The influence you exert is through your own life, and what you’ve become yourself.” - Eleanor Roosevelt

Actually, the point of this piece really isn’t to slag Klout, though I personally much prefer PeerIndex, one of its competitors. And to his credit, Klout CEO Joe Fernandez freely acknowledges the many criticisms and says the company is constantly trying to improve its product so it can more comprehensively measure online influence. Presumably, the extra $30 million now in Klout’s bank account will help.

“I find Klout fascinating because it is a giant step forward in the dream of the West: pantometry, the measure of everything,” Alex Lightman, one of my favorite technology thinkers, told me. Given the long lead times that typically obtain when a new measurement system evolves into second nature for those who would use it, “Klout should be given time to morph into what it will become.

Some people are outraged about Klout in ways they never would be about Nielsen, comScore or other media ratings that also have had their share of criticism, and outsized influence, over the years

Rob Tercek, former head of digital for Oprah.com and current host of THIS WEEK IN SOCIAL MEDIA “Klout is game disguised as a social rating system.   Klout’s most avid users suffer from an acute type of anxiety that is peculiar to those addicted to social networking.  Their concept of “friend” is so debased by promiscuous over-connection that they now require an external means of validating their worth.     That’s where Klout fits in.   Like most so-called social games, Klout can best be described as anti-social software because it generates a network of ever-increasing social obligations from all participants without providing anything valuable in exchange.   The best that can be said for Klout is that it permits its users to sound like Sally Field at the Academy Awards as they bleat pathetically to the herd “You like me, you really like me!” ”

Why? Because, in this new universe of self-created and -generated media/social networks, what Klout is measuring is not the flawed work product of some distant and massive media corporation. Rather, Klout is measuring the flawed work product of, well, you. There aren’t many things more annoying than feeling judged for your worthiness by a seemingly arbitrary number derived in ways you don’t quite understand.

 “Not only is reputation and influence opaque, but it perhaps is even unfathomable to the average user,” Daniel W. Rasmus, author of books such as “Management by Design” and “Listening to the Future,” told me.“I don’t think anyone understands their credit scores, and I don’t think anyone will be able to understand their social influence score or online reputation either. This reminds me more than a little of the Land of Toys (or Pleasure Island in the 1940 movie) section of Pinocchio.”

“Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society.” - Mark Twain

 

Recent research (admittedly also criticized) suggests that social media postings about our likes and dislikes barely affect the opinion of even our friends when it comes to brands, products and experiences. For all those companies now handing out Klout Perks and studiously trying to enchant alleged online influencers, this finding is both really important and a little bit deflating.

When it comes down to it, Klout and competitors such as PeerIndex, PeopleBrowsr, ProScore, Twitalyzer and Kred are really trying to measure the same thing: someone’s intent to buy.

But why are we online tweeting and posting and sharing and all the rest? Like a good actor might ask, what’s our motivation? Are we trying to influence others when we post about what’s happening in our life, or what products we like, or what stuff we find interesting? Are we intentionally shilling for someone? Why are we doing this stuff?

“There is no power on earth that can neutralize the influence of a high, simple and useful life.”  - Booker T. Washington

It’s a little like, in a different context, spending $25,000 to buy a table’s worth of tickets at the United Jewish Fund annual banquet, then advertising it to all our friends and enemies. Why did you give that $25,000? To help the needy recipients who benefit from the UJF’s programs? Or to show your hyper-competitive fellow rich schmoes what a noble rich schmo you are?

Personally, I don’t think it should count as philanthropy if the donation comes with self-promotion and personal rivalry, but that sentiment, adopted widely, would empty the coffers of American charities.

Or, to put it yet another way, is the most influential and powerful person in any room the one with the most keys, or the one who can get the most doors opened for him/her?

“I didn’t do it because of the underlying greed that’s prevailing, but it is about greed, doing the right thing at the right time using your clout when you have it and what for and what reason.” – Danny DeVito

 At the heart of these rather cosmic questions is a really important basic truth, one that actually inverts the way many people may understand it: Power and influence are granted to you by others, not proclaimed by yourself. You only have influence when someone else gives it to you.

For instance, Gartner is a well-known research company that makes money by publishing and selling lots of moderately priced white papers and research briefs on various industries to lots of people. Accordingly, a great number of people, in tech at least, know about Gartner’s work.

My companies, RampRate Sourcing Advisors and DeepStrat Digital Strategy, do tech research too, but we don’t publish any of it. Compared to Gartner’s big bullhorn in tech research, we might as well be mute.

Instead, we work for tightly focused audiences, tailoring our research to the specific needs of a specific client.  Basically, we don’t ask what a pair of jeans costs; we ask how well does this pair fit your body? Our work often helps focus and forms the decisions of very big clients whose products and services shape entire industries.

So, which research company is more “influential?” The big one that’s well known to lots of people in an industry? Or the little one that’s well paid but not well known? Sometimes, silence truly can be golden

“I have thought a sufficient measure of civilization is the influence of good women.” - Ralph Waldo Emerson

On the side, I write a lot of blog pieces for various outlets. Occasionally, they’re about the industries my companies follow. But the blog-driven bullhorn I use online (which generates an extremely modest Klout score of 13) is seldom used to shout about my companies or even about me, their glorious and brilliant leader.

Yes, I know this is hard to believe for those of you who have come within shouting range of my hyperventilating, shamelessly self-promoting alter ego, Super Tony. But it’s true.

Instead, many of my pieces are motivated by a Ralph Nader impulse, when I’m frustrated by the anti-consumer misdeeds of power utilities, car dealerships, computer stores and others. Other times, I want to highlight the lifestyle and moral choices that we all can make that may improve our own lives or the general condition of the planet.

“Writers write to influence their readers, their preachers, their auditors, but always, at bottom, to be more themselves.” – Aldous Huxley

 Am I trying to influence you? Yes. Do I make money off this writing? In nearly all cases, no. But based on the responses I get to my blog pieces, I know lots of people are listening, and that is its own significant reward.

And because they’re listening to me, they’re granting me influence as they think about what airline or car dealer or computer store they want to do business with or how they want to live their lives and try to preserve this wobbly little blue marble we live on.

And measuring that influence, which isn’t really about selling anything but changing the way we think about the world around us, will never be something Klout and its competitors can measure, no matter how much Clout I might have.  

“It takes tremendous discipline to control the influence, the power you have over other people’s lives.” -  Clint Eastwood

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