Klout Is Basically Dead, but It Finally Matters

Forecasting today’s biggest business and tech trends.
May 1 2014 12:33 PM

How Klout Finally Matters

Klout failed to become the official scorecard for social media. Social networks will get better by learning from its mistakes.

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Perhaps Klout wised up to these problems. The service has pivoted, or at least changed its messaging. The Klout of 2014 is all about originality. According to its home page, “Klout suggests sharable content that your audience hasn’t seen yet.” The user dashboard has a newfound emphasis on “creat[ing] great content,” rather than obsessively tracking one’s performance on various networks.

These sentiments are well placed, and I believe they’re sincere. But they jar. There’s still an unshakable cognitive dissonance in trying to be one’s “creative” self on a site devoted to measuring the reactions of an “audience.” No matter what we call those things—“sharing” vs. “creating,” or “friends” vs. “audience”—the problem remains. Klout encourages us to get real by constructing an artificial layer atop our social interactions. It hopes we’ll “create” great content, but it provides no serious tools to do that. Instead, it recommends the pre-existing content it thinks we should share. The whole approach just doesn’t make sense. Klout’s existence defeats its purpose.

And yet that purpose remains. It’s valid. Take away Klout, and the need for Klout presents itself again. Klout’s very public pratfalls will taint the social-influence space for quite some time. A lot of startups won’t touch it. That’s for the best. They’d just end up building something on top of the existing networks, chugging along until they rediscovered Klout’s limitations.

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Eventually, two categories of firms will nail the Klout concept. The first will be the social networks themselves. By internalizing a lot of Klout’s ideas—influence and connections within social graphs—they’ll quietly make their users’ news feeds more relevant and useful. They’ll surface and strengthen connections between users. Most importantly, they’ll do it in the background, carefully avoiding the observer effect by keeping users out of their own “scores.” To wit, Facebook has made some impressive improvements to its news feed algorithm. Twitter isn’t far behind.

Ad-tech startups will also learn from Klout’s example. AdRoll, a specialist in retargeted advertising campaigns across social networks, raised a $70 million Series C round last week. (To date, AdRoll has raised $89 million.) “Retargeting” shows users ads based on content or retailers they’d previously visited or found enjoyable. As an advertising strategy, it’s extremely effective. To the extent ads could be seen as “content,” for better or for worse, a retargeted ad is much more likely to match people with products they want to see.

But what about products users don’t know they want to see? That’s where influencer networks still matter. And that’s why ad-tech startups—maybe AdRoll, or maybe another in the flourishing field—will want to build the tools to track and measure influence. Not universal, capital-I Influence of the kind that pits Bieber against Obama. Rather, a relativistic influence: a measure of one’s tastes and behaviors as they seem to affect the tastes and behaviors of others. As with the social networks, the ad-techs won’t want to provide social-networking users from wading into the muck of influence, scores, and tracking. They’ll keep everything behind a curtain for their advertising clients to fret about, as they deal in segments and behavioral clusters, and not in your personal “Influence Score.”

As for you, the user? You’ll wander through the social networks, happier than ever, your mind unclouded by Klout—the way you should be socializing. You might suspect there’s a curtain behind you, off in the background. There are people behind the curtain—people with pens and pads, scribbling notes, keeping score. But you don’t know the rules of the game they’re watching you play. If you did, you couldn’t play it. The game would fall apart.

Jon Nathanson is a technology columnist, startup investor, and strategy consultant in San Francisco and Los Angeles.

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