Photo: kris krüg/Flickr
Born way back in 2008, Klout promised to measure your influence based on your social media activity, assigning users a “Klout score” from 1 to 100 based on their social pull. Aside from just the numerical score, Klout also gave individual users details on their social media engagement, like what categories they’re most “influential” in.
People with high Klout would soon "board planes earlier, get free access to VIP airport lounges, stay in better hotel rooms, and receive deep discounts from retail stores and flash-sale outlets," one executive told Wired in 2012.
But as seriously as Klout seemed to take itself, it was largely derided by the technorati as shallow and cynical. Author John Scalzi wrote an op-ed titled “Why Klout Scores Are Possibly Evil.” Alexia Tsotsis, writing for TechCrunch, published “Nobody Gives a Damn About Your Klout Score.” Popular webcomic XKCD ran a strip mocking the pomposity of the social media tool.
Klout came to somewhat dubious conclusions, ranking blogger Robert Scoble above Barack Obama and assigning users "expertise" in seemingly random topics. But for a hot, brief moment, it looked like Klout was actually going to be used as a way to evaluate people. To be a community manager at Salesforce.com in 2012, you would ideally have a Klout score of 35 or higher. The Las Vegas Palms Hotel threatened to take scores into account when booking reservations. When Spotify first launched in the US, invites were passed out as Klout Perks.
Then, Klout sort of just fizzled out, possibly because most people have the sense to dislike something that reduces their social impact to a number. That didn't stop it from being bought in 2014 for a staggering $200 million. Since then, it's more or less dropped off the radar. Klout Perks, which rewarded power uses with free stuff, were discontinued.
When I checked in with the company, I was surprised to learn it’s still alive, though somewhat different after being bought and scrapped for parts.
“Adblockers are blocking ads, and people don’t know what to do to spend money to promote their product.”
Klout was acquired by Lithium in 2014, which is one of those digital marketing companies that has a frustratingly inexplicit About page. According to Lithium, it provides a software platform that “helps the world’s best brands build trusted relationships with their customers.” It has clients like Comcast, Sephora, and Lenovo. Klout’s algorithm is now part of the package Lithium offers brands looking for “consumer insight.” In other words, it build software to help brands manage their forums and online communities and social media profiles. It also provides moderators for online communities.
To get a clearer picture about what Lithium actually does, and how it's using Klout, I spoke to Tyler Mahan Coe, who works in digital marketing and is the founder of DrunkMall.
Lithium's "interest in Klout is in acquiring the Klout system for determining the worth of someone’s online presence," Coe told me.
Coe explained that this was particularly valuable in the new era of “influencer marketing”—a hot new trend in advertising. “Adblockers are blocking ads, and people don’t know what to do to spend money to promote their product.” So brands are turning more and more frequently to sponsored content from real people—paid Instagram posts and the like.
“There are other services for influencers who want to find brands, and brands who want to find influencers, like a dating site but for influence marketing where it’s matchmaking from both angles,” Coe continued. “With Lithium it’s more about the brand approaching them, and then Lithium helping get them set up with an influencer.”
Using Klout’s analytics, a client of Lithium can see which everyday humans are supposedly the most influential in their business’s industry—sports, cosmetics, cooking. By seeing who the most influential tweeters and Instagrammers are in a company’s market, the brand using Lithium’s platform can identify good candidates to reach out to for collaboration and sponsored content.
But Coe pointed out that Klout’s algorithms don’t give the perfect picture of who’s most influential. “Their algorithm has no way of measuring some of the most influential platforms. Someone like DJ Khaled...his biggest thing is Snapchat, and Klout has no way to measure [Snapchat data] in the algorithm.” I suggested they might be working on it, but Coe told me Snapchat’s API is “notoriously difficult” to work with.
So what happened to the sport of checking one's Klout score? It's still available to the individual user, but that’s no longer the focus.
“The consumer piece is still very much alive,” Lithium CMO Katy Keim told me over the phone. “But the score thing, as you can imagine, doesn’t really maintain engagement over time.” This reflects my experience with Klout—someone else mentions it, and I log in just for the novelty value, but that’s about it. Keim told me Lithium has a sort of mantra when it comes to Klout’s new direction, changing “from vanity to value.” Instead of existing to fluff egos and quantify users’ reputations, it now exists to provide companies with information they can monetize.
But while Keim says the analytics are mostly accurate, they still don’t return perfect results. My alternate Twitter account lists me as an expert in Ben Stiller, though I’ve never tweeted about Ben Stiller, and I think the last movie of his that I saw was Zoolander. (Sorry Ben. I don’t get out much.)
“We have a very good algorithm,” Keim said. “But I can’t say there aren’t outliers...I’m surprised we have [a category] as narrow as Ben Stiller.”
I’m also listed as an expert in deodorant, despite only five tweets of over 30,000 containing the word. The algorithm might be trying to tell me something.
Correction: Due to a miscommunication, the nature of Lithium's business was described inaccurately. It is a software vendor, not a digital marketing agency. It builds software for online communities and social media management and provides customer service to get these tools running. It also provides moderation services for online communities. However, it does not run social media accounts on third-party networks like Facebook and Twitter.