Inside The World of Klout

By Michael J. Lockhart

A profile of the world's most valuable directory of online influencers and the man behind it all.

If you’ve been involved anywhere in the social media sphere over the last few years, the name Klout might ring a bell. To the rest of you, Klout (the preferred stylization of clout) is a social media aggregator that ranks users’ participation across their various platforms (Twitter, Facebook, etc.) and assigns them a central score between 1 and 100.

While the most influential online user consists of the likes of Justin Bieber (who currently stands at 100), the average Klout score is actually only around 20. So even if you are the leader of the most powerful country on earth (Barack Obama’s score: 94), you’re still not going to be able to take down a legion of female fans who retweet, share, like and create discourse from every single word.

But how did all of this come to fruition? After oral surgery in 2007, founder and chief executive Joe Fernandez’s jaw was wired shut for three months, leaving him with only social media to communicate with the outside world. “I got really obsessed with understanding the influence of every person, and that is how Klout started.”

We sat down for a discussion with Fernandez to better understand his vision for the company as well as his personal tips to increase your Klout. Since the founding of Klout, has your vision for the company changed dramatically?

Fernandez: By that time it was early 2008. When I unwired I started telling my friends about what I was doing and trying to get them to join me. But nobody would; everyone thought this was kind of a stupid idea. “Who cares who is influential [on] Facebook and Twitter?” was basically the conversation. Maybe it was all the pain relievers, but I still loved the idea and wanted to build it. Over the four years, the system has definitely evolved. The algorithm has changed literally from something I was working on in Microsoft Excel to having a team of scientists that are way smarter than me working on this every day. But the core vision of wanting to help every person understand their influence and wanting them to be recognized has always remained the same. But the productization has evolved. How did Klout Perks come about?

Fernandez: I was always telling my friends where the best restaurant is, and I was easily recognized for that. So it was something I had hoped would happen with Klout, but I thought it would be much further down the road than it ended up being. Pretty quickly after we launched, major brands were asking us if we would give them the list of influencers for major topics. We never wanted to give anybody the list, but the idea of helping those influencers get access to these special experiences was exciting to us. Is that primarily how the monetization of the site operates?

Fernandez: I see Klout Perks as version 1.0 of how we eventually monetize, but right now we’re really focused on the user value. Helping every person understand their influence and keeping the score accurate and transparent. Broadly speaking, we’re in an interesting position in terms of understanding the people who are having the biggest impact.

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Playboy: Tell us how the algorithm to calculate your score has evolved over the years?

Fernandez: The score has evolved from a spreadsheet on my computer to a constantly updated algorithm that factors 50 different variables. There are a couple key things we care about. When you create content, how does your network respond? And how influential are those people responding? We don’t really pay much attention to how many friends and followers you have; if you say something, how do people act and who are those people? For example, if you write something about politics on Facebook and Barack Obama likes it, you’re going to be very influential on politics. Have you seen trends that users will go into a posting frenzy in order to boost their scores?

Fernandez: One thing we see over and over is that people come to Klout and see that their score may have dropped and say, “Oh, I need to get busy on Twitter or Facebook. I haven’t been creating content this past week.” So it acts as a reminder for consistently creating content. Would you say quality versus quantity is the mainstay?

Fernandez: Quality always over quantity. Let’s say if each of us got 1,000 retweets or likes, but I did it off 10,000 messages and you did it off 10. Then obviously your quality is much better — I’m just being noisy. [laughs] There was some backlash from members when you updated the algorithm last fall. As social media continues to change, we’d expect this won’t be the last revision of the formula. How do you plan to prepare members for future changes, which have the potential to decrease their scores and cause another negative reaction?

Fernandez: We learned a great deal from the experience and plan to incorporate [that] in any future changes we make. The experience definitely taught us that we have a very passionate, vocal community that cares a great deal about their Klout score. Is there a plan to integrate someone’s offline influence? For example, Justin Beiber has a higher Klout score than the President.

Fernandez: Just as Google seeks to understand the world’s information, we seek to understand the world’s influence. Our vision is to include real-world influence at some point, but that is a ways off. Have trends indicated any interesting conclusions about the styles of social media on this site (Celebrity, Feeder, Pundit, etc.)?

Fernandez: Something we have seen is that some people are content creators on Facebook while being content consumers on Twitter. That is actually pretty common. Is there a perfect score formula other than becoming a celebrity, politician or media personality? Or is the road to a perfect Klout score a path where the user morphs into one of the above as they gain influence?

Fernandez: Klout defines influence as the ability to drive action. We find that a steady frequency of high-quality content helps increase your Klout score. So many people I talk to are like, “I don’t share a lot of content because I don’t have anything to say,” or “I don’t think people would be interested.” It’s great to be humble, but I believe that every person that creates content has influence; somebody in your network cares about what you’re saying, what you’re experiencing. It’s about getting comfortable with sharing that and building upon that — that is the key. What new features can we expect from Klout in the future?

Fernandez: We will continue to fine-tune the scoring system, and we are hard at work on refining our mobile apps. More to come!

For the past month, I’ve test-driven Fernandez’s advice to see whether a consistent stream of original content would yield a higher score, as well as the opposite: leaving it for periods of time to see the degradation rate. Prior to our sit-down, my personal Klout score was at a steady 42-44 points: above the average of 20 but realistic Since I was already posting on my primary networks of Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook 2 to 4 times per day combined, I increased my participation to about 4 to 6 original posts with 4 to 6 additional retweets, comments or likes. The result was a steady score rise, passing 45 after about a week, give or take a few heated exchanges which contributed to my total.

As I continued, a few of the actresses I interviewed followed or retweeted my posting of their feature, causing incremental jumps in my score that culminated in a top score of 47.14 on June 21st. Not only does this confirm that those with a large number of followers raise a score, but those with verified status seemed to give the system an extra nudge.

Once I was at the top, I had to see what it took to head back down to the bottom of the barrel. Watching my Klout score descend over the past three weeks was painful; decreasing my posting to a mere one or two items a day dropped my score far faster than it had gone up. By July 6, just two weeks after its peak, my score had settled back to a meager 45.91. Clearly, the system places a higher value on the lack of input on the way down.

While the merits of Klout can be questionable, some may just not be seeing the big picture. The ability to influence a large group of people doesn’t end as soon as Biebs flips off his Twitter for the night (as if that happens anyway). Instead, it gifts the user with brand power over a network which adores, trusts, or at least respects him enough to be constantly feeding that individual’s online net worth.

Follow Joe on Twitter @JoeFernandez



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