I spend my time analyzing the world of social media influence and helping clients use it effectively to achieve their marketing and communications goals. I've noticed that a hotly-debated topic in the digital world is online influence. A huge myth is forming which says that online popularity equals online influence. Based on this myth, tools which purport to measure online influence are popping up like mushrooms on a rainy day. The paradox is that these inferential tools can be just as damaging as they can be helpful when marketers and brands buy into this nonsense idea of online influence, and waste time and money using these tools to build marketing strategies for their brands.
As incredible as it seems none of the so-called experts or services like Klout, Kred, PeerIndex, and Traackr bother to answer the fundamental question, "What is Online Influence?" Klout says influence is the ability to drive action even though they don't even measure actions which are measurements and indicators of behavior. What they try to measure is personal power, which is another paradox because they are trying to get marketers to make decisions based on their measurement of something which is in fact not possible to measure. Nobody questions their definition of influence because Klout tells us we matter (or don't matter) and that we have personal power (or don't have personal power), a manifestation of the top of Maslow's hierarchy of needs, that for self-actualization.
Even worse, Klout actually measures what we are willing to do for them! Not only do they purposely assign you a lower Klout score (no power) at the beginning and guilt you into doing what they want you to do to increase your score, they make you believe that you don't matter if you don't have a high Klout score. Their ad asks, "Would you date someone with a lower Klout score?" Why does a Klout score matter when it comes to dating, and where is this leading us when it comes to measuring social influence?
Many brands and experts believe Klout's tag line, "We are the standard for influence," and build entire marketing plans on this very weak foundation. To me, the definition of a standard is something that is tested and verifiable; it is based on a number of parameters, and arrived at by a group, not just an individual entity seeking to fulfill a hidden agenda. The definition of influence is simple... influence is changing behavior. The dictionary defines influence as "the power to sway." The "influencer" has the "power" to win people over to his point of view or reinforce group mores, i.e. to change their behavior. Influence is not just getting people to take a passive action such as a "like" or a retweet, but making them think about what is being presented and doing something they might not otherwise do.
Do Klout, Kred, or PeerIndex measure the ability to change behavior? Quite simply, they do not. Instead of calling it what it is, brand awareness, they use the word "influence" in metrics and results that have nothing to do with the real meaning of influence. Some variables they use in their scoring system include Unique Retweets, Total Retweets, Mutual Follows, Number of Followers, Number of Friends, Unique Likers, Unique Commenters, and Likes Per Post, but none of these indicate how we are changing behavior in others.
According to award-winning innovation expert Debra Kaye, "The forms of influence are charismatic, authoritative, and bureaucratic. Klout's definition of influence falls mostly into the charismatic category. You picture yourself as a person on the go, and it is manifested in the recommendations and the authority you are trying to build with your followers. But where is the feedback? How do you know that you have changed their behavior?"
Until now, the only way we knew we were important was in an academic sense -- the number of citations, or general fame. Klout attempts to put a number on your fame or power, but how credible is their formula? They recently announced yet another change in their algorithm, which only makes me wonder why "the standard for influence" need to change its algorithm and scoring system so many times. They measure activity on three networks -- Facebook, Twitter and Google+ -- but where are the rest of 200+ social media networks if they really want to be a standard?
The main issue when it comes to measuring online influence is that all of their "eggs" are in on one basket -- the size of your network and your ability to spread a message through shares, retweets, likes and comments. Klout, Kred or PeerIndex do not give any vital indications like a positive or negative message, any signal or indication if a message has increased purchasing (a good indication of behavior change), or any other changes in behavior. This only shows us that they measure brand awareness minus sentiment, which is essential when it comes to brand recognition.
The so-called standard for online influence has been misused and wrongly interpreted. For example, last year fashion designer Kenneth Cole unleashed a flurry of anger over his insensitive and poorly timed tweet that read, "Millions are in uproar in #Cairo. Rumor is they heard our new spring collection is now available online." Even though this caused a huge public relations crisis, Klout still rewarded the brand with a rise of 30 points in its Klout score overnight. How can they speak about influence, when the message itself was deemed to be offensive and resulted in a major backlash? This tweet did not change behavior in a positive way, and the brand did not become more influential.
Commenting further Debra Kaye concluded, "In my opinion, Klout is so hyped because of its personal delivery of Maslow's highest state of self-actualization -- building YOURSELF. This raises the question of, 'Am I just finding and gathering people who already think like me?' Is Klout helping you gather others to yourself as part of a larger tribe who already think like you do, or are you really changing behaviors and bringing in new and different people? That would really be breaking the barriers of what social media has done so far."
One essential element that is missing when using these tools is anthropological data and knowledge. We need a clear understanding of the market based on its underlying culture, consumer reactions, and history. When we have that, we will have the ability to measure online influence and not just some superficial metric. Marketers should collect data on how people seek to change behavior among their social group, how they attempt to direct them to new trends, places, political, religious philosophies, and how social media is used in this process. This would truly be tracking influence and behavior change by looking at ideas of creativity, insight and attractiveness.
So, therein lies the paradox -- in social media, popularity means influence and is being used to make marketing decisions, yet those with the most influence might not necessarily be the most popular. The time has come to stop relying on the tired definitions of influence, and develop new ways to find those in the social media atmosphere who really have influence and the power to change behavior.