The influence misconception: Whose fault is it anyway?

June 23, 2011


Lazy communicators, not tools like Klout, are the problem when it comes to influence.













I’ve been hard on Klout. Maybe too hard. But as a communications professional, I’m worried about our industry. And I think I have reason to be.

As my friend Gini Dietrich calls out in the title of her award-winning blog – Spin Sucks. It’s an issue PR pros and communicators have been dealing with for a long time. It’s shaped our reputation. But the issue goes much deeper than spin, IMO.

We have a credibility issue. A big one. And we’ve got to keep taking steps to fix it. Do you want to be seen as a communicator or a strategic counselor? Do you want to try getting executives attention by talking about impressions or business objectives? Do see yourself as a publicist or a relationship builder?

This is why I’ve had a problem with Klout. And it’s not just Klout. It’s any tool out there that tries to provide a quick fix when it comes to targeted relationship building – Technorati, Cision, etc. Word of mouth is the most trusted form of marketing and communications. Research backs it up. But word of mouth does not grow on trees. You can’t buy some word of mouth plants at the local nursery and plant them around your city. You can’t ask for some word of mouth seeds from the same guy who gave Jack his beanstalk beans.

But maybe I’ve been looking at this whole thing the wrong way. Sure, Klout markets itself as the standard for online influence, which bothers me because there is no such thing as universal influence. Plus Klout currently only measures Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn. And Klout Perks are absolutely an attempt to buy positive word of mouth from people the tools’ creators see as influential.

But this is not a marketing strategy unique to Klout. Look at the majority of consumer goods in our country or a sampling of online solutions providers and you’ll see white lie marketing happening all over the place. In fact, some would call it strategic marketing. And they would have a point. Klout is gaining steam fast and furious online and is doing a solid job of positioning itself as the standout company when it comes to measuring influence – the Foursquare of influence if we were to make an LBS comparison.

So I think I may start to ease up on Klout a bit. Not because I buy what they’re selling. But because I realize they have a right to sell it. We as communicators all have brains, right? We can all think for ourselves, can’t we? So let’s make sure we do that. Because really, the more and more I think about, lazy communicators are the real problem. Not Klout. Or Technorati. Or Cision.

Lazy communicators are the ones who try and convince executives that a large impressions number is bad ass and don’t bother to go any deeper. Lazy communicators are the ones who try to position Klout score as a rationale for identifying influencers and forget to explain why influencers are important to the brand in the first place.

Lazy communicators focus on generating big numbers just to generate big numbers, and fail to explore  the insights those numbers provide, the actions the business should consider taking as a result or the customer stories that lie within those numbers. That’s why so many executives have given communicatiors the polite head nod, smile and condescending pat on the back. Because we haven’t given them enough of a reason to take us more seriously.

But that’s not Klout’s fault. It’s a company trying to be innovative and market itself in a way that stands out to its customers. We, the potential customers, are at fault when we misuse and misrepresent the numbers the tool is providing. Because that’s what Klout is providing. A score. It’s a piece of a much larger puzzle we have to put together to research influencers for our clients. It’s not a holy grail of influence. There is no such thing. There never will be. And as an industry, we need to recognize tools like Klout for what they are, what they aren’t and work to educate each other on these issues.

I’m tired of blaming Klout. From now on, when I see or hear a misrepresentation of what it or other influence tools provide, I blame us. And I worry about us as communicators. We’ve got to do better.

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donbart 8 pts

Nice post, Justin, with many good points. While we can't blame Klout for creating the single number, lazy man approach to influencer identification, it has been fun to bash them a bit, no? Traackr is interesting but limited in other ways. As you suggest, there really is not a one-tool, easy way to identify those with the potential to influence others. And unless blog platforms are considered prominently, I always discount the approach. Blogs provide an ability to create influence that simply is not possible 140 characters at a time. There is also this thing called Google that is tremendously important to influence potential. If people want information and opinion on a subject, most times they are going to Google first, not Twitter or Facebook. Google also has no problems with contextual relevance. Justin Bieber and his 100 Klout score will never come up in an organic Google search for social media metrics, ROI and AVEs. Keep fighting the good fight. And thanks for the shout-out, bro.

jenzings 98 pts

Right on, Justin--and, FYI, I featured this post on the spot I did for the FIR podcast today.

I don't have a problem with using Klout as a filtering tool. But research on influence should *start*, not stop, there. Lazy communicators are the root of a number of problems people have with PR, from sloppy pitches, to ill-targeted/mass email pitches, to fake numbers like AVE, and now contending with using online scoring as a shortcut to real research. This is a real problem for PR as a whole.

What is the solution? It must be top-down, from those in leadership at firms. Why isn't it being done? (I know from working at FH that they do, but there are clearly others who don't.)

JGoldsborough 221 pts

jenzings Thanks for the kind words and FIR mention. Big fan of shelholtz 's and Neville's podcast. Agree on importance of leadership at those firms teaching the right way to do things, but think we have to keep beating the drum in public forums to protect our industry as well. Some great stuff on AVEs last week in WSJ and on @donbart's blog ( Cheers.

Shonali 938 pts

Klout absolutely has a right to sell its product, and yes, there are a lot of lazy pros who want a quick solution. But Klout's tag line of "the standard for influence" does bother me (they don't even say "online," btw). There is no such thing as universal influence, as you point out. With all the talk about authenticity, etc., where does that leave them?

I think Megan did a good job on #measurepr the other day, and I'm glad she was on, because I feel bad beating up on Klout all the time - she's coming back too, in a couple of weeks. But that doesn't excuse how Klout is marketing itself. I also don't find it impressive that they are so far behind in integrating more networks, blogs, etc., when Traackr is way ahead of the game on that front. Why is it taking Klout so long? Because Traackr doesn't give you a number, not to mention it's not cheap, it doesn't get the same kind of publicity. And I know you know this, but for anyone else who might be wondering, I have no vested interest in Traackr; they let me use their dashboard for free for 3 months so that I could test it.

When I have to pull lists for clients, Klout is one of the tools I have to look at because they've heard so much about it. But of course I look at others as well and do my own - gasp! - research. However, the very fact that a client wants to know what someone's Klout score is drives me nuts, because 99% of the time, it's completely irrelevant.

JGoldsborough 221 pts

Shonali Yes, yes, yes to all of the above. But my biggest worry about klout remains the fact that it is another tool that promotes focusing on numbers and only numbers for an industry that really needs to work on digging deeper than the numbers. If someone has a certain Klout score, why do they have it? Where are the insights and recommendations based on the research?

And same thing for our clients. Numbers mean jack without insights and recommendations based on those insights. My friends chuckhemann , donbart and you, among others, taught me that. Asking someone to just trust numbers, like a Klout score, with nothing else to go on is what got us communicators in this whole spin mess in the first place -- see impressions and other exposure-only metrics.

MediaFiche 5 pts

Agreed. Just like you can't blame McDonald's for people gaining weight, you can't blame the tools for those who leverage it to their supposed advantage.

JGoldsborough 221 pts

MediaFiche LOL, McDonald's was actually one of the examples I thought of when I wrote this post. However, some people have tried to blame McDonald's. Ever seen SuperSize Me?

MediaFiche 5 pts

I have seen that documentary. And now people are after Ronald McDonald, too. While using a social media tool to draw conclusions is different than eating at a fast food restaurant, the premise of laziness is still there. People can look past just a Klout score just as people can find other cheap options for food that are healthier. JGoldsborough MediaFiche

dave_link 5 pts

Right on, Justin. I use Klout and PeerIndex all the time when researching the reach of individuals and bloggers for our outreach programs, but it's just a portion of the metrics we use to decide whether or not each person is right for our brand. Interaction with readers, frequency/relevance of posts, target audience and numerous other things come into play when deciding how influential someone may be for YOUR brand or company compared to how influential they may be for company X, Y or Z.

JGoldsborough 221 pts

dave_link Glad to hear you say that, Dave. Good examples above. We look at reach, relevancy and tone and still use Technorati more often than Klout. But as you say, it is one of several factors that we consider. And there is never a case where we say just because this blogger makes sense for X she works for Y without doing the research.

What we are still working on, and can always improve on, is explaining the value of influence to our clients. Why going after the right people makes more sense sometimes than going after the most people. And how we ID the right people.