J-P De Clerck: Influence and Power: The Delusion of the Social Klout Elite

word of mouth and the Klout social influencer elite

Behind the official mission of Klout and other social influence tools is a reality of businesses, obsessed with influence and power.

Earlier this month, I wrote a post about Klout and influence. When comparing the number of tweets it got, with those of other posts, I guess the post – and maybe, most of all the topic – affected quite a few people. Klout sparks debate, as do the topics ‘social influence’ and ‘influence’ in general.

In the mean time, Klout has announced a few novelties (topic pages, extra networks it connects with) and more thoughts about Klout and influence were posted, so I couldn’t help but write a follow up post.

Klout launched its so-called ‘topic pages’ since my last post. Simply said, it shows you the key influencers, according to the Klout approach, regarding specific topics. A convenient little feature for companies who are obsessed by the identification of influential social network users regarding the topics their business is related with and maybe fun for some of us. Klout obviously included a form of exclusivity in the new feature: not everyone has immediate access to this service. You have to be part of the social Klout influencer elite. Pretty obvious, right? After all, as the French say, “noblesse oblige”.


And so I found a message among my notifications that said, “You’re one of the first users selected to preview Klout’s new topic pages”. That’s quite something, isn’t it? As a bonus I could tweet about it as well, showing the whole world what an influential and important person, I am. Klout had even prepared a message, as it always does. I didn’t tweet about it. Not because I’m shy. However, who is interested in the fact that I, and many others, have access to a new feature that might be convenient for some people, but really isn’t a groundbreaking development?

It was quite an elitist, but most of all irrelevant message, if I look at it from my perspective and that of my so-called ‘followers’, at least those I – more or less – know. And isn’t that, besides personal interactions and the stuff I feel like sharing, the only important perspective? I mean, if people bother to “follow” me, I guess some do so for a reason, right?

When Klout announced the new feature, it also provided some more details about coming developments (most of them were in my previous post and one, the integration with Google+ and WordPress is a fact in the mean time), in order to realize its dream: truly being the standard in terms of online (read: social media) influence.

klout new topic pages


The official mission of Klout is quite noble: giving people, who are actively involved in communities and networks, share, participate and create content, the ‘influence’ and ‘visibility’ they deserve through all their gracious efforts.

Joe Fernandez, founder of Klout, tweeted that he is very happy with all the attention Klout gets, and he linked to another post that went online earlier this month as well regarding, obviously, Klout.

In this post, called “Why Klout matters. A lot.”, Mark Schaefer briefly summarizes some pros and cons of Klout, as you should know them by now, and called it “a historically important development”.

Mark basically argues, that although Klout obviously is merely an indicator of online influence, as I mentioned, it allows everyone to become a true influencer by creating content. In short, influence is no longer the privilege of the usual suspects (celebs) but it’s everyone’s, including yours and mine.

“Power to the people”. “Anyone can become famous”. These are all slogans, we are familiar with in a social media context. And it’s true until a certain degree but let’s please not exaggerate.

The social and online ‘Klout’ elite does exist, and businesses know it and increasingly use influence, very often as defined by Klout, to reach the networks of these influencers. There is nothing wrong with influencer marketing but there is something wrong with the enormous role it plays in social media marketing tactics. Klout and influence are not only about content and about hard and good work. Klout doesn’t take into account if what you write is “valuable” or not either. It takes into account social interaction. If you just post an infographic with two lines of content every day, chance is you will get more ‘Klout’ then if you post a groundbreaking vision. Don’t think populism is far away from popularity.


However, what struck me the most in Mark’s post was how he used words such as ‘power’ and ‘weapon’. ‘Content is power’, he wrote. And ‘(Klout and online influence) is an important online marketing weapon’.

I have a problem with such rhetoric. If we think in terms of ‘power’ and ‘weapons’, we don’t understand that social media marketing and marketing is about so much more than having an army of influencers – the content creators and others – to ‘convince’ and convert their networks. This limited approach goes in one direction only. I do not blame Mark. Ultimately, a prospect is still a ‘target’ in marketing vocabulary, and we want ‘hunters’ instead of ‘farmers’. Prospects and customers are seen as a prey, the weapons to shoot them down and drag them into the office as trophies, seem to be increasingly called ‘online power’ and ‘social influence’ nowadays.

This way of thinking is exactly what we want to avoid in a customer-focused, integrated and human values-based marketing approach that focuses on real dialogue and on value. It’s not about power. Or, at least, it shouldn’t be. And by the way, content isn’t ‘power’, nor about it either. It’s about contextual relevance.

People decide and have the ‘buying power’. It’s time to see that. Yes, they are ‘influenced’ but they strictly don’t buy because of it. Your ‘weapon’, to remain in the rhetoric of war, is your ability to listen and act, not the gun you carry. Marketing isn’t war. Well, it is. But it shouldn’t be. And the obession of looking for influencers as ‘weapons’ to convince the masses to buy our stuff, is utterly meaningless.

Unfortunately, the good old ways of reach, targeting and influence from a corporate-centric instead of a customer-centric viewpoint, still are very predominant. How else understand the moves of Facebook and the likes to know all about our ‘lives’? It’s simply about targeting.


I bet our grandchildren will laugh very hard when they see how we look at a tool such as Klout and the concept of ‘social network influence’ as power and even consider it a significant historical development. Do we really think that what we currently call social media marketing won’t be considered a pre-historic phenomenon in a few decennia? Do we really think that in a world where money until futher notice still defines power, social network usage and creating content gives us power?

Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. The goal of marketing isn’t having ‘power’ but helping businesses to make a profit so, in the best case, jobs can be created, and innovations can be made. To make a profit, businesses need to provide an excellent customer experience and understand the needs of people, while looking at costs. Influence has very little to do with that.

Influencers, as defined by Klout, and that’s why I call them the ‘Social Klout Elite’, are increasingly being looked upon as the rented email lists of the social sphere (and many actually like it): more and more companies hire and charm them “to spread the word”. It just happens a little bit more ‘indirectly’, among others through ‘word of mouth’. Think about it. What’s the difference between renting an email list to push a message and acquiring an army of influencers to spread a message? That’s not what social influence should be about. Influencer marketing is about earning the attention of people by offering something relevant, while tapping into the phenomenon of ‘influence’. Fortunately there are many other ‘influencers’ who will look primarily at what they can do for someone and became a so-called influencer because of exactly that.

So, to cut a long story short: what is Klout again?

  1. A limited methodology to estimate the impact someone has by sharing stuff, whatever the value of it, which is today’s reference and meets the needs of businesses who want to understand and expand the impact of their social media efforts in every possible way.
  2. A way for advertisers, by using the so-called Klout Perks, which are mostly focused on the U.S., to set up a form of relationship and influencer marketing.

Nothing more. Nothing less.

Klout Perks


Originally published 21 September 2011 on Conversionation


  1. I appreciate the debate and the dissent. However many of my thoughts and words have been stretched to the breaking point in this article so I felt compelled to respond.

    Today, to be influential, you do not need movie star good looks or a political machine behind you. Any one … at least any one with an Internet connection … has the opportunity to have a voice and create a sphere of influence through their content. This is a fact. It just is. I don;t see how you could deem this an “exaggeration.” Today, you are influencing me. That would not have happened even five years ago. That is historically important, right?

    I don’t know why you conclude that Klout plays an “enormous role” in social marketing programs. In the past six months I have taught dozens of classes, given dozens of speeches to mid-level and senior marketing folks from major companies. Less than 5% of them have ever heard of Klout. Klout is obscure. May I fairly suggest that “enormous role” is an exaggeration?

    I can point to hundreds of examples where entire careers have been built on content. Look at Chris Brogan and Robert Scoble to name two. Perhaps you are uncomfortable with the word “power” but indisputably their power base rests almost completely on their ability to create and move content. Without our ability to access their content, would you have heard of these guys 10 years ago? No. Content is power for many.

    Your quote: “Prospects and customers are seen as a prey, the weapons to shoot them down and drag them into the office as trophies.” You criticize my “rhetoric” with rhetoric. : )

    Your statement that people “strictly don’t buy because of influence of others.” Is false and there are many well-known studies that show otherwise. Of course there are many factors in a buying decision but study after study shows that peer influence is extremely powerful and can certainly overwhelm things like price and product features. In my world of B2B marketing “advice from a friend” is almost always the number one purchase factor.

    I am not necessarily a defender of Klout. However your critique is based on a limited view of the world, a snapshot in time when these measurement algorithms are still in the silent movie stage.

    Every major advertising and marketing firm I know of is using sociial scoring in some way. It is being mainstreamed into CRM programs. It is being integrated into traditional marketing programs in amazing ways. And increasingly, the dots are being connected between online conversations and offline buying behaviors.

    So I agree that Klout is a limited measurement tool if you only go by what you present here and assume that all development will end by tonight. However, if you think this through, look at the potential, and imagine the applications you will quickly realize that the ability to quickly and inexpensively access niche influencers on a mass scale is a historically important marketing trend. Thanks for the opportunity to comment and clarify. I appreciate your dissent and hope my defense of the article will not dissuade you from more debate on the topic. We need that.