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Imagining a Klout with Clout

What will it take to accurately measure social influence online?

By Estefania Duran 17 Jul 2014 |

Estefania Duran moved to Vancouver seven years ago and recently graduated from the London School of Journalism.

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While a high Klout score may indicate popularity, the web tool doesn't measure who is influencing public opinion online. Illustration via Shutterstock.

Year over year, online platforms are multiplying. As our businesses, news outlets and social interactions shift to the web, the rules of societal influence are also taking a digital turn.

A new generation of web tools is attempting to turn this new reality into a numbers game. Sites like Klout and Kred try to boil social influence down to a trademarked algorithm.

This year marks the sixth anniversary of Klout, the most prominent social influence measure today. Launched in 2008, Klout uses Twitter, Facebook, Wordpress and other web analytics to give its users a numerical score between one and 100 based on their social media presence.

Self-declared as "the standard of influence," Klout has already impacted the way people perceive social presence. Unfortunately, what a Klout score means and what it represents is largely misunderstood.

Everyday more and more people are adding their scores to their resumes or LinkedIn profiles to show prospective employers how "influential" they are. But while a high Klout score may indicate output volume or popularity, the measure as it stands does little to indicate who is truly influencing public opinion online.

Should people with years of experience be losing jobs to those with higher Klout scores? If this is a reality we may soon face, how will social influence algorithms differentiate trustworthy experts from click-baiting spammers?

Today: rank without context

"The problem with social media is a lack of understanding of the complexities," explained Alfred Hermida, a digital media scholar at UBC and an online news pioneer.

Klout is designed to measure influence in very broad terms. Instead of focusing on a specific topic and following a person's online influence based on their field of expertise, it takes into consideration activity across all social media, making it a poor reflection of a person's actual influence.

"We are still measuring [influence] very broadly across the network, it's like a mass market measure, as opposed to saying well, at this particular time, at this particular conversation, on this particular topic, who are people listening to?" said Hermida.

Hermida explained the definition of influential needs to account for context -- otherwise people will misinterpret what Klout is measuring.

Klout also doesn't take into account that people who are influential in particularly difficult or unpopular topics will have a harder time demonstrating their engagement. Visnja Milidragovic, who specializes in social and influence marketing, added, "A Klout score may not be an accurate measure of influence in particular topics that are more difficult to penetrate because their audiences are more discerning or more difficult to engage."

It is vital for Klout to study the context and conversations people are engaging in. If, for example, a celebrity tweeted about the Canadian government's decision on the Northern Gateway pipeline project, that tweet would reach a greater number of people than an energy expert who has more value to add to the conversation.

"You have these mechanisms where people who don't necessarily have any influence in a broad context, become important within very specific conversations on social media," added Hermida.

Tomorrow: measured trust and engagement

This is why context is vital, and so are levels of engagement. John Frieda, the famous hair products company, asked Lauren Conrad -- fashion designer and television personality with a score of 84 -- to send a sponsored tweet about one of their products based on her influence with that specific audience. However, despite Conrad's popularity, the website barely had a five per cent increase in traffic after her message.

Popularity does not equal influence, which is why differentiating the two is vital for Klout to better serve its purpose. If a celebrity's selfie on Instagram creates more than 5,000 "reactions," that represents the person's popularity but not necessarily their influence on a topic.

A value-added Klout wouldn't count these reactions the same as when an influencer has a direct impact on their audience.

Moving beyond the 'Stone Age'

Klout is the first social media website to attempt a task of such magnitude, so it is understandable that the algorithm is rudimentary. The score, while a first step in the right direction, is still years away from being an accurate measure of influence.

"Klout reflects the level of the technology that we are at, and as a response to trying to make sense to what is happening in social media," said Hermida. "So it's a Stone Age technology appropriate for the Stone Age."

Media companies and consumers need to question what these emerging technologies represent as online platforms become more complex. If we demand more from them, then innovations like Klout will have no choice but to step up their game.

So, Klout, are you up for the challenge?  [Tyee]

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