We’re more than numbers

One of the topics on Monday’s Radio Roundtable was Klout scores, and how far the tool has come in trying to assess and build a more fully rounded picture of a person’s online influence. Klout has come far, and yet problems remain.

The problems are less about Klout then they are about our desire to reduce people to a score. While this is a perfectly understandable development, and it wouldn’t be happening if there weren’t a perceived need to somehow quantify people’s online influence, where this is heading is problematic. It’s long been a philosophy of mine that I don’t particularly care for any system that is set up that provides an incentive for people to lie or game the system–for example, punitive return policies at stores leads people to provide some very creative reasoning for a return. The same is happening with Klout, and as it gains in popularity and usage, the compulsion for people to game the system will grow ever stronger.

Which will eventually render a useful tool useless.

On the #MeasurePR chat yesterday, Shonali’s guest was Megan Berry of Klout, who made the following comment: “yes I actually agree. People are more than score whether that be SAT, credit or Klout — but they are useful shorthands.” True. But the difference is that you have to work to improve your SAT score or your credit score. With very little exception (such as the SAT wisdom of “if you’re really stumped the correct answer is usually C”) you can’t game the SAT or your credit score. You can game online numbers, and people do.

Klout is trying to address what is clearly a problem. On the #MeasurePR chat, Berry said that the company is working on ways to counter spam and bots, which will discount that content from influence scores. Hopefully this will alleviate problems like the one that Mark Schaefer wrote about a few months ago. (Actually, go read Mark’s stuff on Klout, including this piece and this piece. Good critique.)

My concern is that with Klout’s increased use and attention, people are as usual fixating on numbers and scores, and not in a good way. When HR managers are using Klout scores as part of the hiring process, the pressure for a good score ratchets up. And when there’s pressure for a good score, some people will diligently do their homework to improve their scores. And others will find ways to game the system.

When you want a better SAT score, you prep for it, use the study books, take a class. Sure, some people will try and do something nefarious like pay someone to take the test for them, but that’s very clearly cheating the system, and the penalties are high–as they should be. If you want to improve your credit score, it will take the work of getting your finances in order, paying down debt, etc. But need an improved Klout score? There is the hard work route, which some will take. But there are others who will try and find the quick and easy way to game the system, just like all of the programs that sprang up promising Twitter followers for a price, or Facebook likes for a fee.

I also continue to be bothered by the suggestion that Klout measures influence. Any communications professional or PR pro worth his or her salt recognizes that influence is entirely contextual. There is no such thing as universal influence, so any system that purports measure such immediately sends up a red flag for me. I don’t really know how else I’d describe what Klout measures, but it seems to me to be more Share of Social Voice, or Amplification Potential or something along those lines. Justin Bieber’s perfect Klout score of 100 means absolutely nothing to me. I don’t follow him, he’s not influential to me at all, and I don’t think I’m alone. So how is his influence score “perfect”?

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4 Comments

  1. jasonmkey@hotmail.com'
    Jason mKey

    Thanks for voicing this Jen. 
    My $.02 is that measuring influence is only going to get more difficult. With the “big” Klout news today, I won’t be surprised if more people start trying to game the system. This can’t end well

    1. jzingsheim@customscoop.com'
      Jzingsheim

      Agreed–I’m guessing you are talking about the Facebook pages being personalized based on Klout score? That’s the sort of ratcheting up I was getting at. Yes, it’s a perk, and makes things exclusive, which drives demand. But, it’s also the sort of thing that will cause people to try and game the tool (by identifying influencers that they really have no interest in following other than to engage to drive their score up, etc.). 

  2. Brad Bogus

    People will always try to game the system, even systems in place for many years; look at taxes for instance. That doesn’t devalue the thing they’re trying to game. Taxes are necessary. For the same reason, Klout is a powerful and useful tool, regardless of gaming. Anyone who thinks the almighty Klout score is the only measurement of online influence and value is trying to make all questions have one answer and is completely missing the point. As a social media marketing company, I use Klout to, as Megan said, shorthand evaluate hundreds and thousands of users to a list of “most likely to share widely” users that interact, but that’s not the only group of users we respond to. Everyone is important. And just because someone has a Klout score of 15 doesn’t mean they won’t benefit the brand or have a strong voice offline. Klout helps to organize them and understand their social engagement.

    Also, as you mentioned, influence means many different things. Klout made a funny April Fool’s joke that they were going to start monitoring texting on cell phones to help widen their view of influence. And if they were to do so, it would be hella useful to knowing a fuller influential score because communication and influence can be done through texting and not through social, so it’s a missed metric.

    And Justin Bieber has a 100 Klout score because anything he puts onto the social sphere literally explodes and changes minds (it doesn’t matter how small or changeable those minds are, just that they are there). People like us will never ever ever be interested in a Justin Bieber tweet, but his tweets are and will continue to be powerful. So will Obama’s, even though he’ll rarely to never engage conservatives through social. He will engage and sway the thoughts of millions though, and that’s why his influence is so strong.

    1. jzingsheim@customscoop.com'
      Jzingsheim

      Brad, thank you for the excellent and thoughtful reply. I agree that what Klout is trying to do is useful–and there’s clearly a demand for it. The tax example is a good one, which I’ll take one step further: gaming that system causes problems. When I hear of people using Klout (or any tool) as a shortcut for work is where I pause. The HR example is by far the more troubling to me, as it moves from a social fascination to a real issue. I know people who are looking for work–should a low Klout score trump years of work? That’s the sort of thing that gives me pause.

      My point is not that Klout isn’t useful–it is. It’s simply that neither it–nor any other tool–should be a substitute for the sort of research you mention in your comment.

      Thanks for dropping by!
      Jen

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