Despite Attacks, Klout Is Poised To Boost Its Influence

This post originally appeared in TechCrunch in 2011…

If you even so much as whisper your Klout score within specific circles, you’re likely to be met with a piercing stinkeye. Based in San Francisco with a small pot of funding, there’s something about Klout’s mission — to rank online influence — that ironically draws the ire of many influential people.

A few months ago, TechCrunch’s Alexia Tsotsis kicked things off with a great, provocative post (check out the comments, too) arguing results don’t match up with the offline reality of one’s influence. GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram artfully pointed out Klout is being used by companies for promotions and even in hiring. Marshall Kirkpatrick wrote a short post describing how Klout provides value, helping him sort various Twitter feeds by ranking accounts. There’s also a fascinating Quora thread detailing a host of other sentiments. Whether you’re a fan of the service or not, there’s clearly something polarizing about Klout which generates a range of reactions.

Despite the sentiments, Klout continues to roll with the punches because our online identities are fragmented across different services. These different sites rank their own users, of course, but typically only factor inputs tied down within their own gardens. The main forces, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, certainly weight their own users’ activity for various reasons, but Klout has built one single, unified score based on its own independent algorithm across these services.

Of course, this “PeopleRank” subjects the company to scorn, yet immunizes them against any changing winds within the different social services people use. A few months ago, Klout announcedan algorithm adjustment that seemed to lower many Klout scores, which generated even more suspect reactions. In the the follow-up to that announcement, Klout hinted that integrating Quora was on their product roadmap, but Quora hasn’t been shy about wanting to rank people, too, so if Klout is able to pull this off, it would be a significant signal toward their own growing clout.

I see no problem with Klout’s aggressive expansion. In fact, in the absence of any viable alternative, it seems to work, more or less. Even PR giant Edelman wants a piece of the space, as does new competitor Kred, but Klout has a great head start. While critics bang the drum for more transparency around the algorithm or hold their nose toward the idea of comparing their rank with others, Klout has been able to manufacture an incredibly simple, strong brand in a relatively short period of time. Larger companies and brands have taken notice, running campaigns with Klout and helping the small startup actually earn money and test revenue models, so much so that they have already hired an experienced Chief Revenue Officer.

Klout is a relatively young company. It is not perfect. It is going to make mistakes, and will continue to rub some people the wrong way. In the future, the company may elect to be more transparent about their algorithm, or expand their “perks” offering, or simply soften their onboarding pop-ups. Just as numerous brands are testing the effectiveness of routing messages through the service, Klout itself is experimenting with a range of ways to make this better for users and, in the process, attract more brands. This kind of ad-targeting is already in full-swing on many other sites—it’s just that it’s more overt on Klout.

All of this tends to bend back to semantics. “Clout” is a powerful word, which has various definitions, and in this context, we think of “having pull” or “influence.” With that connotation comes the impression of power, and that triggers different reactions. It’s worth remembering that Klout only claims to measure one’s online influence, and I tend to think that much of the backlash against the company is rooted in the misconception that one’s Klout score maps to the offline world. It’s easy to grandstand and take a publicly moral stance against what Klout is doing, but as it is with entrepreneurship and certainly the web, there are no rules. Companies and users are making the rules as they go, and that’s just the way it should be.

On the eve of  2012, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Klout move into scoring so-called “expert pundits” in high-value content verticals such as sports, politics, and even technology reporting, as well as partnering with startups themselves to help better tune their initial social-proof marketing efforts. They may also begin to experiment with ad campaigns outside U.S. borders, and could even be an influential social media player as attention focuses around the upcoming American presidential election.

Finally, I believe there’s something about the founder Joe Fernandez and team that positions them for success and will help them weather these current and future storms, embodied in the story of how their domain was obtained in the first place (Fernandez tracked down the previous owner of the domain via Twitter, showed up at a restaurant, and plunked down $5,000 in cash on the table). In fact, I’d argue Klout will get bigger and grow even more influential itself in 2012. With all the “newsfeeds” out there driving the information we consume, and as that content surfaces to mainstream channels, every feed will need some mechanism for surfacing consistently relevant and trustworthy content. If Klout can figure out a way to keep making money via brands and help people find the most relevant signals, it will not only grow, but secure its place within the fiber of the social web.