Matthew Ferrara, Philosopher

What’s Your Mother’s Klout Score?

Why influence has nothing to do with numbers, volume and algorithms.

Would you decide not to meet a new client because their Kred score was low? Would you stop talking to your best friend because their Empire Avenue stock price was tanking? With so many potential positive outcomes of bringing people together, does ranking them make any sense?

Do you care what your mom’s Klout score is?

Of course not. But make no mistake about it: These ranking systems aren’t simply silly; I think they are potentially harmful. I can already see some people giving up before even trying: They’ll never have a big score, so they’re nobody online, right?


Adding things up isn’t any way to determine someone’s influence on others. That’s how you got the absurdity of Justin Bieber outranking President Obama (all politics aside) in Klout. Influence isn’t a popularity game, any more than saying Fifty Shades of Grey has radically changed anyone’s life, even though it tops the New York Times best seller list. 

Influence simply isn’t like sports stats; and any attempt to turn personal profiles into baseball cards is simply wrongheaded. As recent Learning Network guest Teri Conrad pointed out (min. 9:55) You’d never ask what the return on having lunch with a good friend was, would you? Susan Rochwarg later (min. 22) reminded viewers that it’s often a single, inspired relationship that is most meaningful to us. It’s the one comment out of dozens that stops us short, brings a tear to our eye or creates an aha! moment.

That’s why the premise of counting up our social media actions and calling that influence is simply counterintuitive. It’s a kind of syntax error of social media, because we’re not programming, we’re people. We’re more than digital Pavlov’s dogs whose reactions can be quantified. In fact, anyone can do volume online: just post something gross, with a cat in it, or a crying baby.

But doing influence – well, that’s hard.

We know who influences us, not because we see their name in lights over and over and over again. In fact, true influence often works when the influencer isn’t present, as we noted recently about regarding truly influential brands.

If influence can be measured, it’s by those few Tweets that people occasionally tell us we’ve helped them in a special way. The private message in Facebook that says, thanks, you helped me make big changes to my life, business, whatever. Yet computer algorithms really can’t measure those qualitative moments, so they don’t have a chance to measure human influence, even when communicated digitally.

As Aflac knows, many people recognize the duck,  but far fewer take the action the duck recommends.

Does it really matter? Isn’t it just a kind of social media “fun”? Not when we read about using these digital amalgams to make decisions about people’s lives, like whether to hire them. Wired covered this recently and we were horrified to hear a candidate’s Klout score was being used in a job interview. Remember, Klout didn’t even exist before 2009, but some people’s influence has lasted centuries. 
At the end of the day, I think of it like this: My mom is on Facebook. She has a few dozen friends and a few hundred posts. Recently, she posted a comment on my wall that made me stop short and think: I love her wisdom! But that wasn’t the extent of her influence. Her comment encouraged one of my friends to write to her privately, saying how much I’d influenced my friend’s career over the years. It was the ultimate thank you note, not recognizing my influence so much, as recognizing my mom’s.

Of course, my mom doesn’t even know what Klout is, thought I can certainly say she has it. And you probably do too, regardless of who’s counting up your hits, bits and bleeps.

Influence isn’t a scorecard. To paraphrase an old saying:
Nobody cares how influential you are, until they know how much you care.

  • Philippa Gamse

    Hi Matthew, The problem is that, like it or not, marketers are taking note of Klout scores.

    There have been reports of airlines and hotels giving upgrades based on Klout score (because they expect recipients to tweet about the great service). And in the digital marketing MBA class that I just taught, one of my students was receiving frequent offers of free weekend rentals of hybrid cars because of her Klout score – and yet she said that she’d never expressed a public interest in this!

  • Very interesting examples. I think some people are experimenting with these scores, which is to be expected. But frankly I hope they wane. I’d rather a company target its actual superfans based upon actual support of their brand in social media, as often happens to me after I check in on Foursquare or comment via twitter. It will be interesting to see how this actually shakes out.
    Thanks for your comments!
    – Matthew

    Matthew Ferrara & Co.
    (t) 978-291-1250
    (cell) 508-878-6223

  • There is an interesting blog post on this at that puts this concept into a more academic context.

    I’ll mention here what I mentioned there and something that Philippa points to: that Klout may be more of a benign marketing ploy. The higher your Klout score, the more “perks” you have access to and, if you like the perks, you may sing their praises all throughout social media…for free. What a deal.

    I agree that using Klout scores for employment purposes is wrongheaded. Using it to decide whether or not to engage with Person A or Company B is wrongheaded. I, personally, don’t see the value of Klout. I often forget about any perks I may have access to and, in the past, the perks have been sub-par, at best.

    I really don’t understand Klout and I run hot and cold on it. I play along sometimes while most of the time I forget about it. I haven’t come across anyone whose asked about my Kluot score but I also don’t know how many people may have passed me by because I have a relatively low/medium score.

  • You know from a marketing standpoint I think this ends up backfiring on companies who take this short sighted approach. Just because someone tweets about your brand today – mostly just to get a free goodie – doesn’t make them a loyal fan. Loyal fans will weather the storm with you but freebie searchers will abandon you in the dust. And then tweet about it!

  • Josette:

    That’s a good perspective, too. Smart companies should have a plan to reward valuable activities, not react to every little blip. Most super fans don’t even want “stuff” but just want you to be successful. All it often takes is a simple thank you for a supportive tweet.
    Thanks for commenting!