Social Influence: what it means and what it doesn’t mean

Yesterday, I got an email from Klout.  I was told that I had qualified for a perk because of my status as a “well-respected influencer.”  I tell you this, not to impress you, not to brag, but as you’ll see in a moment, to illustrate what a bullshit term “influence” has become on the web.

It’s time to set the record straight once and for all.

What is influence?

Right now, I’m reading a book by Robert Cialdini called Influence, which is widely regarded as the preeminent book on the subject of influence.  In this book Robert talks about influence in concrete terms, namely the ability to get people to say “yes” or take action, in some cases where they otherwise wouldn’t, and in other cases to a greater degree than in other circumstances.  In most of the cited experiments, they tested several scenarios against one another to measure the occurrence of an action that led to a specific desired outcome.  Typically, one or more variables were tested.  The results were measured and analyzed.  Once trends of differences were noted, a hypothesis was formed and subsequently tested for effectiveness.  In each of the experiments, there was a specific scenario, and a specific desired outcome.

Here are a few definitions of the term influence:

“the act or power of producing an effect without apparent exertion of force or direct exercise of command”

“the power or capacity of causing an effect in indirect or intangible ways”

What’s not influence?

Today, I got this perk.

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Before I get into this, I’d like to also share with you, the list of topics that Klout considers me to be influential about (which btw I spent some time curating because the last list was junk).  As an aside, sadly, I couldn’t add “Bacon” as a topic.

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Let me get this out of the way…yes, I added Unicorns…mainly because I think it’s funny, not because I actually know anything more about Unicorns than your average 9 year old girl, or that I have any great pull in the Unicorn community.

Which actually brings me to my point:

I am far more respected and listened to on a multitude of topics than I am about horror movies.  Furthermore, and please forgive my french but…I HATE HORROR MOVIES!

No, I don’t “dislike” horror movies.  I don’t think “horror movies are ok, but I tend to prefer comedy.” No, I HATE horror movies.  ESPECIALLY the Saw and Insidious varieties.

I don’t talk about horror movies, and I certainly don’t have any influence in the horror movie community.

If we’re going to pick topics and pretend that Klout has any idea what we know about or have influence about, can we at least get the topics right and utilize that knowledge properly?

There’s so much to cover here so I’ll start at the beginning.

What the hell does Klout actually measure?

To recap, there are some very important components about influence, namely that it drives action with the purpose of a specific desired outcome.  Therefore the term influence is a misnomer unless we apply some bland, weak, incomplete, and incorrect usage of the word “influence,” which is exactly what Klout does.

Klout defines influence simply as “the ability to drive action. When you share something on social media or in real life and people respond, that’s influence.”  However, it uses the same actions for everyone, which from what I can see, basically answers and scores two questions “did someone interact and engage with a post” and “did the size of the network grow?”  These two signals of engagement and reach, are not the only two goals in social media business. Furthermore, these actions are not tied to outcomes, just action.  And with the attribution problem that exists across the web, as covered in ZMOT, there is little chance that Klout will EVER be able to truly measure influence as it relates to the path to purchase (something I’m sure at least a few companies actually care about influencing).

Influence is about your ability to drive action with purpose.  Hitting a like button is just something people do on the social web.  You don’t score people for using the track changes feature when they’re editing a document, it’s just what you do when editing a document.

Furthermore, getting more people to follow you means precisely nothing, because that system is so deeply flawed that to give it any credit whatsoever is tantamount to strapping wings to your back and thinking it means you can fly.  You want a bigger network, go to and buy some….there, now you’re an influencer, it cost you $5.

What are you actually influential about?

You know what is influence?  I’ve gotten 4 people who hated olives, to not only try olives (in some cases several times) but actually learn to appreciate and now LOVE olives.  That’s influence!

They didn’t want to do it necessarily, but I influenced and persuaded them to take a different perspective and take new action with the desired outcome of appreciating the wonderful fruit know as the olive. Technically, I’m more influential about olives than I am about video blogging.

Chris Brogan has influenced me to forego a latte to contribute to a cause.

Seth Godin has influenced me to look at the world differently and approach my career from an entirely different perspective.

Not one of those things could be measured by Klout whether it happened on or off the web.

Here’s the BIG problem

Up until now I’ve been on a little bit of a rant, though I’ve tried to stay on-topic throughout.  I should explain to you why this gets me so mad.

Because dammit, more and more companies are adopting this bullshit score!  Microsoft’s Yammer integrates Klout social networking scores.  And what’s worse is that companies are making hiring decisions, promotion decisions and customer response decisions based on Klout scores, and that’s just unacceptable.

Across the web, people are still defending this kind of behavior!  They always start with something resembling “like it or not…” Well I don’t like it because Klout is preying on the uninformed and bastardizing the idea of influence.  I, for one, won’t stand for it, and the quickest way to lose credibility in my book is to have any belief in Klout as a measure of “influence.”

So I contend they drop the term all together and pick something more accurate.  Maybe just measure attention and reach, average the number together, embrace an honest definition and just call it the Klout score.

It would certainly cut down on all the buzzword bingo about “influencers,” and at least it’d be honest.

One more thing.

If you’re not busy, go give me a K+ for unicorns.

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  • Sully

    Ahh yes. Using ‘attention’ and ‘reach’ gets much closer to one’s true clout in the world. Sad that companies use a bogus klout score to make important decisions (like hiring and promotions / demotions). No wonder most people are still unhappy in their jobs – nor able to perform to expectations.