Klout: the Popularity Contest that Misrepresents Itself as a Metric

By Chris Bucholtz

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been seeing a bunch of stuff about Klout come across my desk. For those of you who are unaware of what Klout is, you can visit the website try to figure it out on your own, or you can go with this brief synopsis: It’s a measure of your social media reach.

The website says that reach is measured on “True Reach,” or the number of people who respond or re-send your content; on “Amplification,” or how many people respond or re-send your content; and on “Network,” or how often people respond or re-send your content. I hope to heaven there’s more to it than that, because it sounds like they’re measuring the same basic thing three times. (These are their words – check here.) In the company’s blog yesterday, Scott Kleinberg (an influencer, not a Klout internal guy) summarized it much more effectively by describing it as a measure of how many people you influence, how much you influence them and how influential they are. Still a bit murky, but at least it goes from volcanic mud-clear to Colorado River water-clear.

Anyway, I’ve long been dubious about Klout, but, as I said, I’ve been pelted with stuff about them. First, a friend gave me a K+ for my CRM knowledge (why, thanks!). Then, my boss Jan Sysmans got a little Klout crazy and K+’ed me and several other related accounts via those other accounts in a kind of influence daisy chain.

Jan’s actions show one of the failures of this kind of metric: when people have an incentive to change a metric, and you give them an opportunity to do so, they will. But by doing that, you contaminate the metric, thus rendering it useless. Gamifying a measurement system is a really dumb, dumb, dumb move.

I also find that Klout fails at doing what it’s supposed to do, primarily because it tries to automate the idea of “influence,” which is a supremely human thing. It’s not just the volume of re-Tweets that indicates influence – it’s the impact they have on those that receive them, the timing of their reception, and ultimately whether or not the cause someone to behave differently. (Want more – much more – on this? Read Michael Wu’s blog.)

Without those admittedly hard to measure factors involved, Klout becomes a popularity contest. For instance, the very influential analyst Ray Wang of Constellation Research has a score of 60. Paul Greenberg, the most influential voice in CRM, has a 54. Comedian Norm MacDonald has a 64. Snooki from “Jersey Shore” has an 86. The squirrel that ran on the field during the National League playoffs has a 27, perhaps being chased by the Cobra that escaped from the Bronx Zoo in 2010. That reptile has a score of 57. So, according to Klout, a venomous serpent has more influence than the author of CRM at the Speed of Light.

The worst part of this is that some folks are taking this measurement seriously. Some writers I know are reporting that publishers are questioning their social media bona fides based on their Klout scores. So, because it’s the only game in town, this fictitious, Cosmo-quiz-level metric is now being used to make decisions that involve real money and real people.

And really, they ought not to. Paradoxically, those with high scores often know better than anyone the absurdity of the number attached to their influence As noted freelance technology journalist Joe “Zonker” Brockmeier (Klout score: 60) said, “I blame my high score on the fact that I spend a lot of time chattering on social networks and I don’t have housemates or co-workers to jabber with – and my cat hasn’t started talking back. Yet.”

So while comparing Klout scores is a nifty little social-era parlor game, making decisions based solely on a Klout score is a terrible idea. The door is still open for a legitimate, widely-available measurement of reach and influence, and maybe that will eventually be the Klout of tomorrow. The Klout of today is a long way from being that metric.

(And I’m not just saying that because my Klout score is 37. Just 37? Really? Come on…)

ADDENDA: David Strom threw up this nifty post just today, “17 Alternatives to Klout.” None of them are a one-stop solution, but the points he makes are great.


7 thoughts on “Klout: the Popularity Contest that Misrepresents Itself as a Metric

  1. Chris,

    Fun post and there are so many issues here (Klout, not you) I am not sure where to begin. The basics are that Klout is actually gamifying the sharing of data, daring us all to share more – give them more data – so they are then more valuable to the advertisers. Facebook has a similar strategy, it is all about my data. The difference is that Facebook gives me something back, a platform to share stuff with friends and family, so I accept the exchange.

    What exactly do I get from Klout? I am not sure, but until I figure it out, can you give me some points, I am running low this week.


    • No problem, Mitch. I just put some extra Klout points in the mail for you. Also, I gave you a K+ for Maple Syrup. 🙂

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  3. Mitch,

    I see the Klout score as the ultimate social show off, ideal for all of us who have a big social ego that needs pleasing. Klout Perks plays into that. If I see that you got invited to enjoy a perk but I’m not, that makes me a bit envious. On the other hand, Klout Perks are great for advertisers because they can get their hands on people who are very specific influencers (or at least look like it). Heck, if I got the Chevy Volt to drive it around for the weekend, I’d be all over facebook and twitter with pictures of it. I would even write a blog about it and use it in some of my presentations as a example of how social media changes the conversations. The new rules of social crm. So I agree totally with you; Klout is gamifying the sharing of data, daring us all to share more – give them more data – so they are then more valuable to the advertisers.

    But since I have a (relatively big) ego, I really want my Klout score up a bit more. I gave you a +K. Can you give me one? And can you retweet or mention @jsysmans from time to time? I’ll do the same. 🙂

  4. Hi Chris – What a timely post, at least for me. I’ve been hearing more and more about Klout recently and I was wondering if it was just me thinking “What? How is this seriously considered a useful metric?”.

    Thanks for sharing! – Aly

    • Aly – no problem! Here’s a funny story: this week, I was trying to explain Klout and its shortcomings to a friend with my smartphone as the computing device. Apparently, thanks to a glitch, it came back with my score as a 1! I couldn’t stop laughing – I thought maybe my column had killed my influence! Boy was I ready to write another blog post! Alas, the next day, it was up to 38 again. I can’t begrudge them a bit of a technical hiccup once in a while…!

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