Decoding the social influence enigma: Q&A with Klout’s Joe Fernandez

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It must be difficult being Joe Fernandez. He is the founder of Klout: the social media analytics startup that measures users’ influence across their social networks. Klout scores people based on their influence on networks like Twitter, Facebook and Google+.

The company has come under heavy criticism for its measurement algorithm. The most vocal of these critics is TechCrunch co-Editor, Alexia Tsotsis, who wrote a piece titled: “Nobody Gives A Damn About Your Klout Score”, following outcries from users on 26 October 2011 when the platform changed its algorithm.

Klout scores range from 1 to 100, with higher scores correlating to a higher assessment by Klout of the strength of one’s online influence. They are supplemented with three specific measures, which the company calls “true reach,” “amplification,” and “network impact”. According to Klout, its measurement algorithm “incorporates more than 400 signals from seven different networks. We process this data on a daily basis to generate updates to your Klout Score.”

These social networks include, Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Foursquare, LinkedIn, Wikipedia and Klout itself.

The events of 26 October seem to have had a profound effect on Klout. Speaking at LeWeb London earlier this year, Fernandez commented on what he and his staff think of that day: “You can’t say October 26th [The Kloutocalypse] in our office without people flinching,” he went on, “[But] it bonded everyone much tighter. It fuels us to work harder and build better things. We love the challenge and the naysayers.”

Klout has not had an easy time. People have called it “useless” and it has inspired spirited debate on this very site.

“The story of Klout is me and the team not being smart enough to realize how challenging what we’re doing is and charging straight ahead into this crazy ambition,” Fernandez added during his interview at LeWeb.

Thing is, being Fernandez, is probably getting a little easier.

Microsoft recently invested an undisclosed amount of money in Klout. The deal allows the startup to plug into Microsoft’s search engine, Bing, as part of its social search algorithm. What does this means for Klout? It gets traffic and brand marketing from yet another big name, and money both funding and revenue. The San Francisco-based company also has raised about US$40-million in funding to date. That’s impressive for a platform most people don’t see the point of.

Fernandez is pretty realistic about his company. He gets that it is not a true measure of a person’s worth. Fernandez believes it’s a representation of your influence online.

In this brisk interview, we chatted to the CEO about the accuracy of Klout’s algorithm and the meaning of influence.

Prior to founding Klout, Fernandez provided data solutions to the real estate industry as director of innovation and research at OnBoard Informatics — a company that provides real estate information services and solutions to real estate data, publishing, and technology companies.

The humble founder reckons that “by helping people understand their influence, they will use it responsibly”. This will hopefully combat people trying to use their Klout scores and influence for monetary gain.

Memeburn: How accurate can an algorithm be at measuring influence really?
Joe Fernandez: The world is moving from pages to people, and just as Google seeks to understand the world’s information, we seek to understand the world’s influence. Our mission is lofty and have a lot of work ahead of us, but we’re very proud of what we’ve accomplished in four years.

MB: How does Klout actually measure influence? Surely tweeting about llamas once does not mean I am influential about them?
JF: We’ve gone into detail about how we calculate the score here.

MB: What is the magic formula for measuring influence and influential comments online? Does the algorithm change often?
JF: We are constantly evolving the algorithm with an eye toward increasing the score’s accuracy.

MB: Google uses page rank to work out what is an influential site, what does Klout use?
JF: We sometimes refer to Klout as “Page Rank for people”.

MB: Do you think we’re moving closer to an accurate means of measuring influence?
JF: Yes.

MB: How do you feel about people using their social influence for financial gain?
JF: Not sure I understand this question, but generally speaking, our hope is that by helping people understand their influence, they will use it responsibly.

MB: Does a person have to have millions of Twitter followers to be influential?
JF: Not at all. We define influence as the ability to drive action. A person’s ability to get their network to engage with them is much more telling than their follower count.

MB: Are there people with millions of Twitter followers that are not influential?
JF: We believe that everyone has influence.

MB: Who is the most influential person on Twitter?
JF: We don’t only focus on Twitter to measure influence. That said, Barack Obama probably has the highest individual Klout Score at 99.

MB: After Google+, LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook — what’s the next best social network to look out for?
JF: Are you asking which networks will be connected to Klout in the future? If so, we are working on adding more networks every day, and will announce them as they are added. If you’re asking for a Klout prediction of what is the next network to be invented, we’re not in the business of predicting that. We are merely here to serve as a layer on top of those networks to measure influence.

MB: You seem to have a strong focus on Twitter and Facebook… what about the other social networks? Is it an access issue, or do you just prefer Twitter?
JF: Twitter and Facebook, because of their massive usage, provide the most data for us to determine influence. That said, other networks like LinkedIn and Google+ are growing very rapidly, and they are both factored into the Klout Score.

MB: Do you think people gaming the service has damaged its credibility?
JF: No. One of the reasons we regularly update the algorithm is to keep it fresh and ungameable.

MB: Is ranking by social influence the next step in social evolution?
JF: We think it’s both in demand and very useful to individuals and brands.

MB: Where do you see the most growth for Klout?
JF: We are very focused on making sure everyone understands and is recognized for their influence, and we are making a lot of headway with mainstream users.

MB: What is Klout’s business model?
JF: Through Klout, brands provide special offers, called “Perks,” to influencers and pay a fee to make those offers. We are also considering other forms of revenue, but Perks makes up the lion’s share of our income.

MB: How do you hope to expand the Klout experience?
JF: Every day, we are working to make the algorithm more accurate and to offer a clearer understanding of your influence. Our latest site redesign includes a feature called “moments,” which lists the content that has most contributed to your Score. We hope to continue developing useful tools like this for our users.

Photo Credit: Kmeron

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