Klout’s Role in the Weaponization of Influence

For some, it’s considered to be the punch line to a joke, or just a vanity metric. For others, it’s a badge of honor — the dispensation of the “+K” that for years, bolstered their designation as being what has become an overplayed term: influencer. With such a polarizing service, it’s not surprising that the recent announcement of Klout’s shuttering has resulted in multiple opinions. Truth be told, whether you loved it or hated it, there’s a high likelihood that you used it, or perhaps were impacted by the numeric representation of influence.

And perhaps The New York Times put it succinctly in an opinion piece: we’re living in Klout’s world. As a practice, discovering influencers is nothing new to the world — politicians are using it when on the campaign trail, using surrogates to speak to the media and public about specific talking points. Businesses have also been doing it for many years, but until a decade ago, entrepreneurs Joe Fernandez and Binh Tran found a way to capitalize on the data and conversations we put into our social media accounts to ascertain which is the most…influential.

I don’t have a disagreement with finding out influencers, but as I’ve written previously, looking at a single numeric score doesn’t really determine just how and in which areas someone can sway other people’s decisions. Many were up in arms over the metric, whether someone that had a score of 82 was really more influential than someone else with a 65. Perhaps it’s this issue — the public aspect of Klout — that made the company so polarizing to the masses.

Klout played a big part in how influence was measured, resulting in brands stepping over each other trying to find the right personality to go after, and even having people find ways to game the system. As the service goes away later this month, its impact has resulted in companies looking at quantifiable ways to amass an army of evangelists without necessarily doing all the manual legwork of parsing through one’s account. A score was all that seemed to be needed, but a lot more work definitely needed to be done.

The company did try to make it more impactful, establishing the +K metric that would allow people to really understand what areas did others legitimately see them as influencers. Below is an interview I conducted with Megan Berry, then-Klout’s marketing manager, on what this really meant for the social media world. But in hindsight, what the company might want to have focused on is the analysis of social media data and providing that directly to brands through third-party software integrations, such as Hootsuite, Salesforce, Zendesk, and other enterprise tools focused around customer service. In short, it should have put less emphasis on the consumer pitch and just offered it to businesses.

Of course, we all know what they say about hindsight. But look at the statement Lithium issued around Klout’s shuttering, particularly this paragraph which is telling (emphasis mine):

Lithium is committed to providing you with the technology and services that will enable you to differentiate your customer experience. Our recent launch of Lithium Messaging is evidence of our focus on this mission. The Klout acquisition provided Lithium with valuable artificial intelligence (AI) and machinelearning capabilities but Klout as a standalone service is not aligned with our long-term strategy.

Lithium acquired Klout four years ago with a reported $200 million price tag. And a lot has changed since then. Tech trends have changed where now artificial intelligence and machine learning are even more highly regarded in the industry, so anything that amasses a lot of data can be viewed favorably. Klout’s ability to siphon data from the biggest social networks allows anyone to really understand the individual, their conversations, and how they could possibly be used to evangelize goods and services, or who might be someone customer service should watch out for in case things go bad. It’s possible that following the acquisition, Lithium sought to better utilize this treasure trove of data to help brands improve relations with their communities.

In the decade since Klout’s arrival, and soon-to-be departure, others have come on the scene to try and measure influence, such as PeerIndex, Kred, and Empire Avenue, but none have really stuck. But that hasn’t stopped others from trying. In fact, Facebook is reportedly working on a search engine that could connect marketers with “creators”.

Some personalities have found ways to really capitalize on this concept, such as Jake and Logan Paul and the Kardashians. There are others that, once they’ve received such notoriety, they wind up squandering it because of bad decisions. It’s this vanity metric that we, as consumers, get caught up on that has played perhaps a big part of the rise of these internet celebrities and influencers. We’re now stuck in a new world, one complete with a vast internet where determining one’s true influence can be easier said than done — everyone is a “creator” on a platform, be it Twitter via Periscope; Facebook, Instagram, and Facebook Live; YouTube; Snapchat; Musical.ly; Google+; Pinterest; EyeEm; Flickr; LinkedIn; blogs; and more.

Klout was definitely polarizing, but its place in influencing influencers and how brands view them is certainly something that’ll remain for a long while.