Gaming Klout Scores, 10 problems with the business of scoring people

I’ve been constantly entrenched in a decade of being a social scientist and data researcher. This has been mixed with a variety of data mining companies, social intelligence platforms, search engine strategies, and market analysis projects. All of these things revolve around the core elements of social data, influencer analysis, and new media integration.

My network consist of serious professionals that range from marketing agency executives trying to bolster client profiles, to independent consultants wanting to earn top-tier recognition as subject matter experts. On numerous occassions the conversation has been a conversation with ‘social media elite’ who fully understand blogging, Facebook, Twitter, and social community who are trying to paint themselves in the best light.  

It is only natural that my professional network turns to me and ask the question

“how do I game my Klout score?”

The first answer is “you probably shouldn’t”

The second answer is “why do you want to, why not?”

To formulate the right answer about gaming Klout it is easier to understand if we detail the reasons why a specific model does or does not function.

We also need to understand core flaws with what is happening in the marketplace and how people are adopting different systems.

So here we go…

There are both long and short term consequences of being scored on Klout (or other services like it) and there are always ways to manipulate a proprietary ranking system.

 This includes real world systems as well as online ones.

  • In politics = stuffing the ballot box, running a campaign
  • In union work = contract kickbacks, employee strikes
  • In social platforms = paid voting/profiles, creating awesome content
  • In search engines = search optimization, paid links, advertising, great content

Each scoring or ranking system has multiple counter balances

  • In political and union work you have a variety of legal and regulatory rules that attempt to minimize flagrant abuses.
  • In social platforms there are two counter-balancing forces working against each other: business profit vs. social expectation (but there are almost no legal or regulatory rules.)
  • In a search engine there are business needs of the advertiser, the publisher (Google/Yahoo/Bing), and the user. 

So what is it worth?

 It depends on your viewpoint, but it is priceless if you understand the big picture and take advantage of tactical opportunities.

With that said, having a real understanding of influence and decision making funnels has been the holy grail of sales and marketing executives. The more factors a business knows about the what influences your decision making process, the easier it is for them to funnel you into a monetizable set of choices.

So in 2008 a company named Klout came along.
Three years later they have a business valuation of $200 million dollars.

This is what Klout says about itself:

We could all say ‘wow’  for a moment as we ponder the amazing insight we will gain from knowing why you take action.

But the moment would quickly fade away into reality.

Klout IS NOT the standard of influence.

The ability to rank information systematically and algorithmically was the same promise that Google and every other major search engine promised us.  

We all know that categorizing information algorithmically works to some extent, but the underlying problem is that it is something that can be gamed, manipulated, and managed by the intellectual (and social) elite.

  • The ‘little guy’ always gets the short end of the stick.
  • The named celebrity, business, or brand always wins.
  • The biggest budget gets the ad space
    (and the ad space moves according to the needs of the business.)

Comparative ideas that Google taught us

  • Is Google’s platform now worth billions of dollars? Yes.
  • Is Google’s platform consistently wrong? Yep.
  • Is it currently the best most of us have? Probably.
  • Could Google have done it without selling our data? No way.
  • Can Google justify a multi-billion dollar organization without monetizing the data? Never.

 Why does Google’s model compare to Klout?

The first reason is that Klout is attempting to collect enough data and user interest to monetize a unique scoring platform. In many ways this is no different from thousands of other rating systems like the Google, Yelp, the Better Business Bereau, NASDAQ,  and even your Credit Score. Google has made billions of dollars by aggregating all sorts of content and providing a systematic rating for it (commonly displayed in the form of stack ranked search results.)

The second reason is that Klout is where Google was ten years ago. Right now Klout is in a mission critical phase known as ‘user acquisition.’

When a start-up figures out some basic cogs and repeatable processes, most of them immediately look for an infusion of cash to refine the process and acquire the market.  Klout recently gained a $30 million dollar investment (and a $200 million dollar valuation) from Kleiner Perkins and several other sources. At this stage of the game the Klout team now has to convince as many people to opt into the platform. Without a massive amount of user data and the acceptance of the Klout score, the entire process of monetization becomes incredibly difficult. (Read more)  

Compounding Your Future Interest, Your Risk

By opting into Klout, you are giving away an amazingly valuable personal asset in the form of allowing yourself to be categorized using your social data. If you don’t understand the full ramifications of this type of universal scoring system, go back and think about the scoring systems I mentioned ealier (Google, Yelp, Better Business Bereau, NASDAQ, Credit Score.)

Previous ranking systems have all had core flaws that typically weren’t seen for years. As any one system gains popularity, the becomes a percentage of users who understand how to abuse the system.

When it comes to online platforms and communities, an entire industry of unethical and abusive industry experts is waiting to cash out on an unsuspecting user base that doesn’t understand the full ramification of what is occuring.  This dark sided opportunity is multiplied when the population at large doesn’t understand the connection points of the data we are giving away.

The Inherent Flaws of Our Ignorance

I’m not saying that Klout is without it’s merits, but it is not a transparent or factually consistent model of influencer identification.

Klout’s own description says that it doesn’t use
potentially misleading metrics like follower or friend count.”
What metrics do they use? (see list of problems below…)

The common person doesn’t understand the ramifications of being labelled, sorted, categorized, scored, and monetized. They probably don’t understand what personal data is or what issues regarding online privacy arise when assembling information about individuals and groups of people.

 The 10 Problems

Problem #1

What are we really talking about? I don’t think it is influence.

If Klout had made the PR decision to choose any other tagline and not claim “influence”  I probably wouldn’t be writing this article.

I could use the descriptors of conversion rate, audience penetration, social syndication factor, and digital word-of-mouth multiplier and all of them would be a more accurate of what the Klout score actually is.

Problem # 2

The ‘mystery meat’ algorithm and secret sauce.

 CNN Money’s guest columnist John Scalzi said it best: “Who made Klout the arbiter of online influence, aside from Klout itself? I could rank your influence online. If you like: I’ll add your number of Twitter followers to your number of Facebook friends, subtract the number of MySpace friends, laugh and point if you’re still on Friendster, take the square root, round up to the nearest integer and add six. That’s your Scalzi Number (mine is 172). You’re welcome.

Problem #3

The Standard of Influence…influence of what?

Klout CEO Joe Fernandez – “We believe influence is the ability to drive action.”

I believe this definition to be fairly accurate, but the action that Klout measures is whether or not the person continutes to carry a message.

While the model of influence can be construde to measure the ability to repeat or engage with a message, the end result isn’t measured with Klout… but with campaign metrics, sales spreadsheets, brand impact studies, and word-of-mouth.

Klout provides some useful information about the conversion funnel across a very large audience, but the tactical measurement of influence is lost as Klout doesn’t measure targeted goals specific to the task at hand.

Problem #4

Secret Scoring Algorithm X  Monetization Issues X Marketing Campaigns

= recipe for disaster

When you take a secretive scoring system, apply the need to monetize it because you took $30m in funding, and have a need to have successful marketing campaigns to pay investors back… the end result is a scoring system that is made to sell. It isn’t a question of if it will be abused; but a question of who, why, and how often.

Problem #5

 I haven’t found any real groups of social data experts who have signed off on an unbiased third party review of the scoring system as it works in the past, present, and future.

Sure there are big PR and Marketing firms out there using Klout, but there are very few (if any) PR and marketing pros actually researching the underlying Kool-aid they are selling to the end client. There are also plenty of platforms and third party tools that have plugged into the Klout score because they have nothing better to use.  

As a professional I am not only hesitant to use Klout personally, but also against using an automated ‘secret sauce’ score for anything but a fluffy “wow” slide.

Problem #6 

On the flip side of problem #5, there are plenty of educated, experienced experts that I respect that share some great professional doubts about Klout score.
(see additional links at the bottom of the article, with hundreds of commentatary points)

Jeff Turner –
“I want to say this as clearly as I can – Klout is a game. Nothing more. Nothing less.” – Read More

Jure Klepic –
Without transparency and documentation of how Klout obtains their data to define users scores, the “standard” cannot be seen as a “standard” at all.” – Read More

Problem #7

FTC Violations?

 I’m not saying there are any here, but the information being provided by Klout to end users, third party partners, and end business employers skirts dozens of interesting aspects of the Fair Credit Reporting Act and the FTC’s requirement to disclose endorsements.

Klout does recommend that you disclose getting perks (sample below), but with thousands of people taking perks I’m very interested in knowing how many perks have been disclosed. If I was a big brand promoting myself through perks, I hope that my legal team has signed off on all the disclosure requirements with our fan base. The FTC has ruled that both brands and endorsers are individually liable for this type of problem.

Sample Klout Influencer disclosure

I was given a free product or sample because I’m a Klout influencer. I was under no obligation to receive the sample or talk about this company. I get no additional benefits for talking about the product or company. 

 Problem #8

Data integrity and model consistency.

When I review the results for any influencer analysis I am trying to compare Apples to Oranges. I need to understand the data so that I can be assured that there is not a contaminated source of bias.

  • If I stack rank a number of people (or myself) I want to be compared against similiar silos of information and data.
  • If I (as an early adopter of social media) input multiple profiles, the comparison of my data set against someone with one or no opt-in data set is bias.
  • If I look at a result and it simply says “trust me… we’ve considered all the appropriate factors….” then I’m not serving in the best interest of social science.

Problem #9

Equal Opportunity. Tied to problem #8.

If I am a company offering perks to an audience, am I adhering to sweepstakes, give-away, and lottery regulations that are state specific?

If I am an employer using this information in any way related to an employee, am I giving the same equal opportunity to non-Klout users who need to be held accountable for both disciplinary and career shifting scenarios?

Scenarios like these are critical to the function of a long term business (and the avoidance of costly labor and class action lawsuits.)

 Problem #10

International Privacy and Data Compliance.

As a data aggregator with a massive amount of profile information, does Klout store information in a way that is in compliance with international data laws?

 Community Question

A commenter at Business Insider asked this question:

 “The value of credit bureaus are the relationships they have with credit issuers, where they get proprietary data back about credit history. This is difficult to replicate. In Klout’s case, all the data they are using is public (to my knowledge), so can someone please explain how their entire product can’t be replicated by 3-4 smart guys, a long weekend, and a case of red bull?”

 Not too far off actually.

According to a Morningstar vs Motley Fool review, it would take a bit more investment capital to construct the data warehouse, customize a scoring algorithm, and buy full access to the Facebook, Twitter, and Google data APIs.  It would also require a bit of funding for general strategy and user adoption tactics. The end result is hard to justify a potential venture when a major service with tens of millions of users such as Facebook, Google, Twitter, Linkedin, Microsoft, or WordPress apply a new feature set for an existing user account (all of the services mentioned have the initial user account data to construct a very competitive, if not leading product.)

 Why doesn’t Klout get help?

The problem is a simple truth… the people who have the experience in detailing problems like the ones above are not exactly cheap strategic or tactical consultants.

If a person like myself sees value in a virtual commodity like Klout score, they have a few ways of monetizing that knowledge.

  • abuse the system, gain points for clients and projects while leveraging excessive perks through loopholes.
  • work against alongside the system to develop competitive or partner products that monetize flunctuating data points.
  • work for Klout and get paid to keep the secret sauce secret; trying to convince everyone that you have a secret recipe.
  • work for Klout and try to convince them to change core elements of the model (a politcal nightmare)
  • opt-out of it as a professional tool and understand the gamification benefits around social adoption.  
  • ignore Klout and move onto a measurement tool more defined, transparent, qauntifiable, and with certified data.  

My personal view

I may be a bit harsh on Klout.

They are tackling a big problem and have start-up woes just like any other venture funded company.

They are also treading into a realm of personal data, privacy, identity, and reputation that I am very passionate about. I hate seeing the ‘little guy’ or the most deserving people get abused by automated scoring systems that claim one thing and deliver another. I’ve talked about other directory companies like Google and Superpages in the past when they began monetizing user data, and our online influence and identity will become paramount to our online credit score in the not so distant future.

You can check out my related articles about data privacy, identity, and online reputation at the very bottom of the article.


What are your opinions on Klout?
Have you seen any people gaming Klout for the sake of having a virtual badge?


 What other platforms  provide measurement of an individual?  

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 Posts About Gaming Klout

 Things you should think about when dealing with people gaming Klout

 Things you should think about when giving your data away

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