The rise and fall of influence metrics

The Klout backlash was inevitable - and, if I'm being honest, enjoyable.

The Klout backlash was inevitable – and, if I'm being honest, enjoyable. But perhaps that's because “Klouchebag,” the recently launched website that promises to tell you “how much of an asshat you are on Twitter” has deemed my handle, @lesliecampisi, “mostly alright.”

The creator of Klouchebag, Tom Scott, has tapped into a gut feeling many PR practitioners – whether builders of their own personal brands or the brands of others – have likely encountered as they ponder what role this, and other influence rating systems, should play when setting social media strategy.

I can't deny that, on the surface, Klout offers a tidy solution to the “who?” question communications consultants face when tasked with identifying people to engage online. It's deceptively easy to trot out Klout scores when a client presses for proof that the agency is putting social media engagement resources toward the right target audience. Klout's (and Kred's, and PeerIndex's) metrics provide an instant rejoinder to difficult questions: “See! Everyone we picked has a score of ‘X' and above!” And we all know that difficult questions are best answered with numbers.

Unfortunately, these aren't the right numbers. If you find yourself caught in such a conversation, you've got to rewind and ask yourself how you got into the situation in the first place. Take back the wheel by reminding your team – and your clients – why Klout isn't the magic metric it purports to be.

There is no “right” way to do social media – on a single platform, let alone on all platforms.
Part of what chafes about Klout is that its algorithm is designed to measure the individual's influence not only on a single social media platform but also on all related presences as a whole. I'm sure that Klout's product team would argue that Klout takes into account the nuances of each site's functionality, such as the difference between a “like” and a “+1.” (Then again, so does anyone who has followed Google+'s continued struggle with irrelevance). But Klout can never suggest its algorithm understands the complex, human relationships that exist within the multitude of small, fractured communities that exist inside and across such sites.

And that's where smart PR and social media lives: helping companies find their people, wherever they're hanging out, and figuring out how to engage with them in a meaningful way – not desperately seeking a retweet from Shaq in order to boost a Klout score for its own sake. My teams and I have crafted social media programs where lead generation – and, in some cases, sales conversions – were part of our KPIs. Where's Klout in that equation?

Simply put, whether you are using Klout alone to identify influencers at the start of a campaign, or using a boosted Klout score as a KPI to measure success at the end of a campaign, you're missing out on the tough work that all communications programs require – thinking long and hard about target audience and coming up with a bespoke strategy for identifying and cultivating those relationships online.

How influence is measured should be the domain of the PR pro, not a tech startup.
Are you willing to cede your authority to offer guidance to clients on whom their most influential customers, prospects, analysts, and journalists are to a bunch of engineers in California? By offering Klout as your primary metric for social influence, you diminish your own credibility as a communications consultant.

I am reminded of conversations I've had with clients where they were adamant that they only wanted to host an online contest on Facebook. Really? What if Facebook goes down? What if Facebook's brand rules change? Or Facebook releases a redesign in the middle of our program? Klout's intention is almost certainly to become the Google Page Rank of social media and, in doing so, keep us incessantly dodging and weaving in order to keep our scores up. Do they deserve that much power?

It's easy to agree to Klout and to Facebook – they have been designed for us to say “yes” to them – but doing so comes with a price. It's always better to have a more in-depth conversation about social media goals and objectives and determine how and where to create those relationships.

Why? Well, here's a hypothetical: if you've agreed on Klout as a screening tool for a social media campaign, what happens if, two weeks in, your client's influencers just can't be found on Twitter? You'll be forced to scrape the bottom of the Klout barrel for low-score influencers and – if you're an honest PR person – forced to return sheepishly to your client to have the conversation you should have had to begin with: The one where you explain that Klout isn't the definitive social media influence metric of our time.

Turning social media into a game diminishes its potential – and might lead to a backlash.

I can imagine a scenario, in several months' time, where Klout's gamification of social media turns against the PR world. If you've been in this industry long enough, you can recall the long march it took to convince brands (b-to-c and particularly b-to-b) that social media wasn't the domain of interns and 13-year-olds.

Having now turned that corner, I cringe to imagine the conversation that might happen next:

“Social media? That's just a bunch of weirdos pumping up their Klout scores for coupons. Oh sure, our last agency boosted our entire sales team's Klout scores to X. Thought leadership and so on. That's in the Klout magic quadrant, you know. But it didn't mean a damn thing. We didn't meet our sales goals, and in fact I laid them all off. And the influencers we ended up ‘engaging' with? Yeah, turns out they were more interested in freebies than actually becoming, you know, actual customers. So no, I don't think we'll be doing any Twitter campaigns anytime soon.”

“Now, when did you say that article on WSJ.com was appearing again?”

Leslie Campisi is US managing director of Hotwire and is based in New York City. For more of Hotwire's take on the issues that impact marketing and public relations professionals, check out Hotwire's 2012 Digital Trends Report.

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