The strength of a person's influence - online or off - depends largely on how it's measured, a fact much discussed in social media circles since it was revealed earlier this month that Justin Bieber has a higher Klout score (100) than President Obama (85), the Dalai Lama (90) or Gary Vaynerchuk (72).
Klout is just one of many companies to emerge over the past 18 months promising to identify and rank influencers, leading social media gadfly Brian Solis to dub 2010 The Year of Understanding Influence.
But the phenomenon didn't end with 2010. Last week, another company debuted its influencer-ranking service: MBLast, an Atlanta-based startup, has released mPact, a cloud-based application that identifies and ranks influencers surrounding specific topics. The service is intended as a counterpoint to Klout, whose publicly available scores reflect a person's overall influence on the social media universe.
"Our product is keyword-driven," said mBlast CEO Gary Lee. "We pull out voices and actual writing that matches up with keywords and topics that are relevant to the person using our software." The idea is to help, say, General Motors figure out who is most influential in the area of auto sales, rather than just who is most influential in general. (Paying customers can also receive more category-centric rankings from Klout.)
MBlast joins an increasingly crowded field that includes Peer Index, Backtype, Tweetreach, Twitalyzer, and of course, Klout. At stake is a small fortune from marketers willing to pay any company that can help them pinpoint those people most worthy of their outreach efforts.
But all these services define and measure influence differently, and no service takes all social media platforms into account. Each naturally has its blind spots. Raak, a social media plug-in, posted an experiment on its blog in December that strongly implied a bot could achieve a high Klout score simply by tweeting entertaining nonsense once a minute.
The science behind influencer scores is further hobbled by the fact that the companies issuing them are young and sometimes lightly staffed. As of now, Klout scores are based on just a handful of platforms, including Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn. Founder and CEO Joe Fernandez said he will use an $8.5 million infusion of funding from earlier this month to add 20 services to that list by the end of 2011, including Foursquare, YouTube and Quora.
"The big obstacles are just that every network we add, it gets much more difficult to handle the amount of data we have to process," he said. Other services, like mBlast, also measure activity on blogs and Q&A sites like Yahoo Answers. Some, like Twitalyzer, measure one platform only. And all seem to have a different idea of just what it means to be influential. (Is it number of retweets? Number of followers? What about the reputation of the media outlets you write for?)
The result is a lot of confusion both for those looking to identify influencers and those being ranked. That confusion will persist over the next year as these services refine their offerings and methodologies - and are joined by new competitors.
For now, one key to understanding a person's influence is to understand the service doing the ranking, and how it defines influence, according to Brian Solis.
"There's influence as it relates to the social graph, and then there's this idea of influence that relates to the interest graph, where words like relevance become a little more important," said Solis, who is acting as an unpaid advisor to mBlast but claimed no preference among the various services. "The interest graph is something that I think is going to be a real big deal in 2011 and 2012, where it's not about how big a net you can cast but about how do you reach the right people and get the right kinds of outcomes with those people."
For his part, Klout CEO Fernandez advises a pragmatic approach. 'The score is meant to be a tool, a starting point," he said. "You have to do a reality check on what your business challenge is and does this fit and does it make sense? You need to have a person making these decisions." In other words, if a bot receives a high Klout score, it's up to a person to decide whether it is a good idea to approach that bot.
He did, however, take issue with the idea that a bot didn't necessarily deserve a high Klout score. "Imagine the National Weather Service has a bot to give tornado warnings on Twitter, and those tweets retweeted like crazy," he said. "That would be an influential bot."
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Douglas Quenqua is a journalist based in Brooklyn, NY who writes about culture and technology. His work has appeared in The New York Times, Wired, The New York Observer, and Fortune.
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