What Klout scores say—and don’t say—about media influence

KloutSince Klout launched in 2009, journalists have had a prickly relationship with the social media site that claims to compute your online influence as a single number. NewYorker.com editor Nicholas Thompson wrote that the site could fuel “unhealthy competition and unhappy obsession” because of the way it ranks friends (in case you’re curious, Thompson’s Klout score is 81). A Wired article by Seth Stevenson (Klout score 59) reported on people who received hotel upgrades or got passed over for jobs thanks to its “mysterious, proprietary algorithm.” And then there’s the fact that at one point, Justin Bieber had more Klout than Barack Obama or the Dalai Lama, prompting bloggers to bash the site.

Intent on addressing this criticism, Klout recently updated its scoring system to include more data (now more than 400 social media signals up from 100, according to Klout’s corporate blog) and factor in so-called “real-world influence.” A new feature called Klout Moments shows users which posts have generated a high volume of action and thus impacted their score, which Klout claims will create greater transparency around scores.

Just as it has with Facebook and other Silicon Valley disruptors, transparency—or lack of it—has been a big sore point between Klout and the media world. Klout scores from before the update on August 14 have been adjusted retroactively, effectively wiping out a record of the company’s changes. Nowhere on the site can you access scores under the old system for comparison.

Clout = Klout?

Journalists may bemoan the lack of transparency but on at least one count, Klout seems to know what it’s talking about: media influencers. The top Klout scores in the media are, unsurprisingly, attributed to television personalities and other boldface names (Oprah, Al Gore, etc.) but if you strip those out—easier said than done these days—to look at actual, practicing reporters you get some interesting trends. We took a list of top Klout scores in the media from JournalistTweets.com and did our best to remove non-journalist celebrities and personalities like Jimmy Fallon, Newt Gingrich and Ryan Seacrest to come up with the top journalists on Klout. (Did we mention this list was selectively edited by us? You can ding us right now for removing Paul Krugman and Anderson Cooper.)

Ezra Klein

Washington Post blogger/columnist

Klout score: 86

David Carr

New York Times blogger

Klout score: 85

Jeff Jarvis

Blogger and journalism professor

Klout score: 84

Brian Stelter

New York Times media reporter

Klout score: 84

Walt Mossberg

Wall Street Journal tech columnist

Klout score: 84

Jake Tapper

ABC News’ senior White House correspondent

Klout score: 84

David Pogue

New York Times tech columnist and Scientific American contributor

Klout score: 83

Lance Ulanoff

Editor in chief of Mashable.com

Klout score: 83

The most obvious thing that pops out is how many of the top scores go to media people who make a living talk about the media.  Carr, Jarvis, Stelter and Ulanoff. If nothing else, Klout confirms algorithmically once and for all that the media’s eyes are trained firmly on its own navel. Here’s another interesting result of our faux-experiment with Klout scores: print still carries weight but the real influence happens when you become a cross-over star as nearly all of our top scorers are. Pogue and Mossberg are consumer tech gurus who have successfully embraced the web. Carr has done charmingly offbeat videos at the Times while writing columns and doing investigative reporting. Jarvis and Klein are all over the web but still have a foot planted in the offline world.

Klout for the almost-famous

So can a normal journalist—that’s the kind without a legion of fans following his or her every tweet, the kind that writes about state politics, or books, and who spends much more time doing the interviewing than being interviewed, get Klout? Sort of. It helps to, like our hit list above, talk at a lot of other media people online and have a big title behind you. But simply being deft at social media appears to go a long, long way. We talked to Yael Grauer (@Yaelwrites) and Kim Tracy Prince (@kimtracyprince), by no means household names, but both of whom have Klout scores around 70 (if you’re still wondering what’s high and what’s low, sign up for Klout for confirmation that you are nowhere near as influential as you thought you were).

Prince, a onetime TV producer and self-professed mommy blogger, says her score jumped from 63 to 70 overnight after Klout changed its scoring, but she hasn’t made a concerted effort to raise her score. “It grew just from my natural social media activity,” explains the Los Angeles-based writer/editor, who has just over 4,300 Twitter followers. None of her editors have asked about or mentioned her Klout score, but Prince says her score is “nice for a phantom ego boost every now and then.”

Grauer, on the other hand, has had a few clients comment on her Klout score and ask if she can help them boost their score. “I’m going to help them brainstorm about things that they could do,” she explains. Based on her observations, adding her Facebook and Google+ accounts has helped bump up her score, because she’s more active on Facebook than Twitter.

The Minneapolis-based food, fitness and sports writer has 2,200 Twitter followers, 2,800 Facebook friends, and 540 people have her in Google circles. Her follower counts aren’t especially high by Klout standards, but she posts frequently and interacts with other users on a regular basis.

According to Klout, Grauer is influential on 20 topics including writing, journalism, mixed martial arts (which she covers as a writer), and…bacon. She’s not sure about the last topic but suspects other users gave her points for her expertise on pork bellies (+K is a Klout feature that allows users to give each other points to indicate topics in which they are influential).

Virginia-based food writer and cookbook author Monica Bhide (@mbhide) hadn’t even checked her Klout score until two of her editors complimented her on it. (Her score was around 71 before the scoring changed and is now 77.) Bhide says she hasn’t gotten more assignments or higher pay as a result, but believes it may help demonstrate her value to the editors she works with.

So far, none of the three writers knew of any editorial policies about Klout perks at their respective publications—high Klout scorers have been known to be offered freebies. And none had gotten juicy new assignments or other benefits as a result of their high scores. As Prince puts it, “A high Klout score can boost your marketability, but doesn’t substitute for skill.”

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