The truth about social media power and influence

social media power

By Mark Schaefer

I wrote my first blog post about Klout about two and a half years ago. At that point, it was little more than another obscure social media start-up fighting for attention.  Over the ensuing months, I wrote follow-up posts that criticized Klout and its competitors for some of the embarrassing mistakes they made.

But I grew fascinated by this topic of social influence.  How DOES a person become powerful and influential on the Internet — an alternate universe that HATES any form of authority, titles, or rules?  The more I studied and thought about this, the more interesting it became. I eventually wrote a book about the subject called Return On Influence, which launched exactly one year ago.

I studied this topic of online influence intensely for a year. I read books, academic research, and white papers. I interviewed more than 70 people ranging from brand managers and mommy bloggers to Dr. Robert Cialdini, arguably the leading expert on influence in the world and the author of the seminal work Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. I got to peek inside Klout (at that point virtually the only game in town) and talk to its customers.  And here are the three conclusions I made:

1) This is a historically important time where personal power has been enabled through our ability to publish on the web.

2) The nature of power and influence in the online world is vastly different than what we are accustomed to in the offline world. It’s important for businesses and individuals to understand this — your paradigm has to shift.

3) Klout is on to something.

A year later, I’m very proud of the acclaim the book has received from the press, reviewers, and thousands of readers from around the world. I haven’t written on the topic of social influence in awhile and I thought I would reflect on what has happened in the field since the book came out.

The good.

Moving the debate along — It has been great to see meaningful debate emerge from the book as people begin to understand the changing nature of influence.  There have been some great blog posts examining the potential for corruption of these scores, the difference between advocates and influencers, and creative new ways these tools are being incorporated into traditional marketing.  Almost every marketing conference now has some element of social influence discussion on the agenda. Some of the more interesting topics include:

  • What are the differences and relationships between advocates, influencers and fans?
  • How do we connect influencer outreach initiatives to measurable business gains?
  • How can we integrate influencer data into traditional marketing initiatives?
  • Now that we can find these legitimate influencers, what do we do with them?

New technical development — A group of new companies has emerged to challenge Klout, the acknowledged market leader.  Some of them have been niche knock-offs, but others, like Appinions, offers breath-taking new opportunities for marketing insight and innovation. Appinions digs deep below the surface of mere social media input, leveraging patented Cornell University technology to cull insight from 5 million online sources. Now this is getting interesting!

Stabilization — Klout and its social influence comrades have the unenviable task of scaling fast and iterating in public. Being publicly scored and evaluated pushed a hot button with a lot of people and a rash of PR gaffes seriously hurt the credibility of the genre to the point that people could not get past the damage to rationally assess the potential of the technology. Thankfully a lot of that drama is in the past. Scores have slowly stabilized, scamming has been addressed, and the focus is on progress instead of PR spin. The debate is generally becoming less emotional and more intellectual, although many people are still rolling old tapes.

New commercial development — Nearly all the major social influence programs are finding footing with customers. Klout announced new partnerships with Microsoft and ESPN. Kred has introduced a dizzying array of features that slice and dice scores a dozen different ways. PeerIndex has evolved to become a UK-focused discount shopping site. Appinions is gaining ground with a subscription model. Almost every PR, advertising, and marketing firm is trying figure out how these useful new tools can be integrated into marketing campaigns, or even coming up with versions of their own. The idea of “social influence marketing” is moving into mainstream marketing budgets.

The bad.

The social influence feeding frenzy — In the past 12 months there has been a feeding frenzy of misguided PR and marketing people trying to hook up with “influencers,” in a desperate attempt to ride the wave.  As somebody typically on the receiving end of this behavior, I can say that 99% of the activity is crap.  I especially feel sorry for the most popular mommy bloggers who are deluged with offers and incentives. Everybody wants a piece of an influencer but most are clueless on how to do it well.  It’s still about relationships, folks.

The Klout Addicts — There is an underground network of folks supporting each other’s Klout addictions. They are obsessed with elevating their scores and doing whatever it takes to grab more valuable loot.  Swag-grabbing is harmless good fun, but I’m not sure what a connection with these folks really does for creating business results.  I’m guessing the brands are starting to figure this out?  This is one of the potential dangers I pointed out in the book and it seems to be coming true.

The Klout Echo Chamber — There are still a number of folks out there regurgitating the same tired, out-dated, and irrelevant criticisms of social scoring companies.  As they repeat their rants among themselves, they have simply created their own Echo Chamber.  The biggest problem is that these folks are stuck in an “offline” framework of power and influence or haven’t bothered to look beyond their emotions to understand the theory and psychology behind the scores.  Some of the wearisome rants include:

  • “Klout is just stupid and doesn’t measure anything.”
  • “Justin Bieber has a higher score than Warren Buffet so that proves that Klout is meaningless.”
  • “Klout says I’m influential about grapes so that proves that it is worthless.”

These were perhaps valid commentaries at one time but today it is simply running old tapes. Here is what a Klout/Kred/PeerIndex score provides: An indicator of a person’s relative ability to create content that elicits online sharing and reactions.  A company like Appinions further applies these scores in the context of topics, themes, and sentiment.

No more, no less.

Like credit scores, social influence scores are imperfect and not necessarily an indicator of future behavior. And yet, both of these indicators are useful. How many careers today are dependent on a person’s ability to effectively move content on the web?

How am I influencing you right now?

It’s likely that you know little (or nothing) about me as a person.  I’m not an “influencer” in a traditional sense in that I have any power over you through a title, an elected position, or an organizational chart. And although I can’t tell you what to do, you may actually take some action after reading this post. Will you tweet it? Forward it to a colleague? Save it for later?  Will you spend your precious time to comment on it? Have I even changed your view or attitude? Made you angry?  Made you interested enough in the subject to explore the book?

My source of power on the web comes from essentially one place:  Having an ability to create or aggregate content that is shared and creates a reaction.  Without having the ability to create and move content, most influential bloggers you admire today would probably be toiling in a cubicle someplace instead of speaking on a global stage.

In this limited context, does a social scoring number like a Klout score make sense?  Can Brian Solis create and move content  better than me? Yes. Can I do this better than many of my students? Yes. Social scoring is far from perfect, but over time, this is the valuation that is beginning to be refined – a relative ability to move content.  And that is very limited, but also very useful to many companies and brands who want to find people who can create buzz on a topic or product.

In conclusion …

Thank you for supporting (or debating) these new ideas over the past year.  I hope there are two main lessons you took away from the book:

First, this is an amazing time for everyone to find their own online power, their return on influence. It doesn’t matter what college you attended, the color of your skin, or how much money you have. You can publish on the web and you can find your own power.  Now, what are you going to do about it?

Second, I encourage you to be a critical thinker and cut through the emotionality of a company that purports to measure your influence. Yes, that might seem distasteful. It’s icky to me too. But as a business professional, we must move beyond the noise of the debate and look for the signal.  Take a clear-headed look at the real dynamics of online influence and the implications for you, your brand, and your business, and make an informed decision.

Disclosure on companies mentioned in this post: I have never received a gift or “Perk” from any social scoring company.  I accepted a dinner from the president of Kred in 2012. Both Klout and PeerIndex provided Return On Influence as a premium to their customers in 2012 as part of a promotional deal with my publisher McGraw Hill. I have indirectly provided paid counsel to Appinions as an adviser to one of their outside marketing agencies. I provided unpaid marketing counsel to Dr. Cialdini’s company. Links to books are affiliate links.

All posts

  • Great post Mark. I wish Klout could do more regarding the gamification of it. In the past I’ve been asked by more than one person to give them Klout on a specific topic. When I give Klout I don’t necessarily click the first three that show up. I normally click more and see if those choices fit the person I giving it to.

    I actually prefer Kred over Klout. I feel Kred does a better job of truly measuring influence and interaction. Kred needs to de-clutter their website because there’s way too much going on.

  • Lana

    Hey Mark
    I really enjoyed the read. You’ve definitely got me thinking & now I have some work to do !
    Thanks for sharing the fruits of your research with us all.

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  • Hi Mark,
    My social influence (Klout) score seems to be influenced by whether or not I share other people’s content, which is then retweeted. So my score is not just about my ability to create content that elicits online shares and comments (on social media). It also reflects my ability to select interesting content created by others.

    “Social media feeding frenzy” is something that even impacts less influential social media users. Marketers (and business owners) are sometimes misguided in more than one way, and Twitter tools don’t help.
    For example: I tweet about social media and online marketing from time to time because I read about the topic and if I think an article is worth people’s time I’ll share it. Next thing I know I get marketers following me – well, me and a thousand other Twitter users. Guess what they’re tweeting about? They’re 100% talking about their products and services. Either that or total BS I don’t want to hear about either so no follow-back from me…

    Honestly – I’ve wondered if I should get out of the water 🙂

  • I am not a huge fan of influence scores, although I am starting to dislike them less and less as my score goes up 🙂 heheh

    I guess it’s another element of the online world that people need to understand and make positive use of.

  • Yeah, I hate that gaming stuff. But luckily it only seems to be a relatively small percentage of people. Also, last summer Klout took measures to significantly dial down the scores of known gamers. I know many scores dropped by 10 points or more over night! Thanks Jason.

  • Thanks Lana.

  • This is a good point. Certainly effecitvely “aggregating content” is a form of effective content. I probably should have mentioned that but tried to keep it simple since the article was already longer than normal. Thanks for pointing that out!

  • It’s OK to dislike the scores as long as you know enough about what is going on to make an informed decision … and it sounds like you are doing so. What frustrates me is when folks just keep repeating the same mantras over and over again without thinking critically about the trend. Not surprising — it happens in every field — but no less exasperating. : )

  • L C

    This post is brilliant and refreshing at the same time… Thanks so much, Mark. I am a ghostblogger so I keep up on the trends and the “social media feeding frenzy,” as you describe it. I laughed out loud at that line! Made my day. What a pleasant bit of blessed sanity this morning!

  • sitesthatwork

    I’ve found this to be one of the most fascinating topics I can think of.

    IMO, there is a need for some sort of scoring system. With the rate at which content is being created and the fact that anyone can create a website there needs to be some way for people (and search engines) to determine whether or not someone knows what they are talking or writing about. Whether or not that comes in the form of a scorecard such as Klout remains to be seen.

    I think the concept is brilliant even if the execution still needs some work and I’ve personally seen indicators that lead me to believe that Klout for one is trying to bridge the gap between expertise and activity.

    Interesting about Apinons, I hadn’t heard of them yet – thanks for sharing. Is it a paid model? I couldn’t really tell what they do from their website – time to dig further 🙂

    Thanks for sharing Mark and continuing to move the debate along.


  • Thanks LC. Sanity is what I aim for : )

  • Appinions is a subscription model but I believe they have a free introductory period, or at least they used too.

  • sitesthatwork

    Thanks, I’ll have to check into it – I didn’t see an option for a free trial, but maybe I’ll request a demo so that I can learn more – thanks again.

  • Send me an email through me site and I’ll personally connect you with somebody from the company.

  • Agreed.

  • For a fiction author, finding out anything about influence is nice, so I sort of like Klout. My biggest problem is that it only measures my sharing. I can’t get it to connect my blog. I get sent into this interesting causality loop when I try to connect it. LOL It does help you answer the question: is anything I’m doing working? For years, fiction authors couldn’t answer this question with any certainty. Even royalty statements wouldn’t tell you anything about how you sold anything, just that you did. The danger is always letting yourself get caught up in the measuring and not doing the writing and the personal connecting. Your blog is a great place for grounding and reality checks. 🙂

  • ross_boardman

    Hi Mark,

    A great piece of writing that seems to buck the trend “be the most popular on Twitter” etc.

    I did some numbers today, a bit basic, but I think they illustrate something. Maybe 400M tweets per day. Maximum of 140 characters. Average word length (in English) is 5, so 6 with spaces. We speak at about 100 words per minute. So if we tweet at the full 140, this may equate to over 60,000 hours of what would be radio traffic generated each day.

    So somehow in amongst all that noise, we find a few relevant chats and snippets which grab our interest. Some of this is really good stuff that we pass on. We have to tune into people or lists to get this. Somewhere in there is the essence of influence. I am not sure if it’s in the content but it’s in the discovery of the content and then the influencer?

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  • MARK,

    Great post. As someone who works with national consumer brands, I can say most clients favor advocates far more than “influencers” and aren’t even sure what influencer means, given the current mucky waters. I enjoyed your description of the Klout addicts (aren’t we all getting tired of that by now). We are experimenting with Branderati and some others that aren’t mentioned here. Like all research, brand advocacy and influencer marketing is evolving and hopefully beginning to provide more meaningful applications in brand marketing.

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  • Mark, great perspective. As you put it, influence metrics measure the ability of a person to elicit online sharing and reactions (I dropped “create content” because of the following).

    Essentially, this is distribution. And marketers care about getting distribution of their content, perspective, message, etc. Marry those two together and you have the reason why today’s “influence” measures really are the measures that will matter to marketers once they can find a way to harness them.

    Some of the debate gets caught up in discussion of what is influence. You can influence actions and influence beliefs. Many people want to cling to the idea that we should influence beliefs, and those new beliefs will drive actions (some days, I’m in this camp, so I know it well). But for marketers, the reality is that the measured action is distribution and they are in the business and using available distribution systems.

    (Part of an old “Klout got this one right” rant of mine coming back to me as I read and commented).

    Thanks for revisiting the topic, good to see your perspective on it again.

  • Mark its a Great post!

    There are two closely attached things, one is called Numbers and other is Feelings. Tools such as social scoring are statistical tools that show us numbers. Yes they are important to some extent but considering that they will replace the non-numerical things (feeling, feedback of clients) is totally ridicolous.

    All we need to know and understand the usage of each service and how it can be helpful for ourselves without getting distracted in the promotional messages of that products/companies.

    Thanks once again.

  • Katherine Tattersfield

    Klout sucked till I got some swag. Off to join an underground addiction network!

  • Awesome, comprehensive post. I am personally fascinated by the whole Klout et al debate.

    Part of the obsession people have with Klout (whether they’re bashing it, or discussing its merits against the Echo Chamber you mention) is that “scoring” is such a natural thing. We are naturally curious and we naturally love to compare/compete (subconsciously, on our own terms preferably).

    For millenia, we had no way of looking at someone and assigning some sort of value, (well not much beyond appearance-based judgments). Recently we, as a society, were able to judge (and stereotype) people based on numbers. How much we make in a year, how much we weigh (drop 20 pounds before the summer, get 15 Klout points before your next big conference – same principle), what year car we drive, how big our house is etc.

    Now the Internet comes along, and people on the web just lose it. Klout scores, number of followers and Likes, clicks, page views, etc. And most of the information is public. People have figured out a way to use all this to make money and exploit it (which is why a lot of people are angry and why it all feels dirty somehow).

    Ultimately however, it is what it is. Klout isn’t wrong and it isn’t right. The most important is to think critically and individually. If you’re trying to get a speaker for a business conference, do you go for the guy with the highest salary? It depends on your objective, your audience, content, etc. Same as using klout (or number of followers, or any other tangible metric) to determine influencers.

    Going back to money, most of the people who think critically know that a long-term, successful business is more than how much revenue, or even profit, it has. It would be wise to apply that critical view to other metrics we encounter every day.

    We should be guided by principles, values, and real objectives, not Klout scores, number of Likes, etc. Especially that going forward, the prevalence of rankings and scores will only increase as the world becomes more digital (and more measurable).

    PS – just bought the Kindle copy of Born to Blog. Will read as soon as I finish my current book. Can’t wait! 🙂

  • Interesting that you mention search engines. I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that Google has plans to enter this area. After all, AuthorRank is in some ways Google’s version of determining an individual’s authority (and influence).

  • I’m sure that Google has something like this and of course Bing is incorporating Klout scores into searches now.

  • Agree with your statements. I can’t believe any of these platforms hasn;t cracked the nut on blogs yet. That is where the true influence is taking place!

  • I think the influence takes place between the lines. Everybody has access to the same “math” but not all tweets are created equal and not all content is equal. Some of it flies and soars. Some of it lasts but a moment. I think there is a correlation between content that persists and moves and influence, if it happens consistently. Thanks Ross!

  • Thanks for that very important insight Patricia. I think there is a role for influencers but you’re right — the gold is with the advocates!

  • Thanks for sharing your wisdom on this today Eric!

  • Many thanks for taking the time to comment Muhammad.

  • There is that angle too : )

  • Once again, you exude wisdom and insight far beyond your years. I often say the say thing — “It is what it is.” So let’s understand it. The market will decide whether it ultimately succeeds or fails but since the whole trend has quite a bit of momentum, we should understand the world for what it is, not for what we would wish it to be. Thanks for the amazing comment Pavel!

  • sitesthatwork

    I can’t wait to see how it all shakes out. I agree with Mark that it’s a good bet that Google already had something like this. I wonder how/if Google will take Klout into consideration now that Bing is or if there will be something else that plays into Google Authorship that is publicly visible.

    IMO Google still has more clout(pardon the pun) than Bing and Bing’s algorithms for SEO aren’t the same – things like the rate at which they index sites is very different from Google, so I wonder how using something like Klout as a factor will work if content creation is part of the overall equation and the two search engines don’t have the same content indexed.

    I’ve seen huge differences in what is indexed for one website between the two search engines.

    At any rate, it’s all fascinating and it will be fun to watch it all play out.

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  • I hadn’t really paid attention to Appinions … since consumer insight is the core of any content we create hitting the mark, will certainly take a closer look!

  • great article, Mark

  • In spite of the mass criticism, I’ve always loved Klout from the start. Just to be able to consolidate your social media activity across various networks and have some sort of insight as to what was going on is what I always appreciated.

    My Klout score has never broken 60, so I’m far from being a social media rock star. However Klout helps me to re-focus my social media efforts. For example, I would like to get Facebook below 60% of my score contribution (right now it’s at 73%) to help diversify my reach and my audience.

    One thing that I wish Klout (and Kred) could improve upon is incorporating more social networks into their score calculations; especially Pinterest and Tumblr. I had a post on Tumblr that received 25 likes and 4 reblogs yesterday, but there is no way this is quantified on Klout. With Pinterest as well, I get a lot of interaction. Although I must say, I don’t regard connections and interactions on Pinterest to be as lasting or meaningful as connections and interactions on LinkedIn. Whether I’m right or wrong in thinking this way, or if this is the case for all users, it would be interesting to see how (or if) Klout handles these networks in the future.

    Oh, and I’m am totally lost by the efforts of the “new” Peer Index. Kind of a shame, since I enjoyed their metrics as well!

  • Agree — distilling wisdom from the data will be a key competitive force!

  • I have a confession to make. Although I do encourage people to be aware of the positives, negatives, and potential utility of these scores, I pay zero attention to the dynamics of my score : ) I just try to do good work and be helpful and let the chips fall. So the idea of using Klout proactively like you are is interesting to me and I give you credit for the creative and rational approach.

    I agree that a major opportunity still remains with incorporating these other networks and keeping up with the complex and nuanced changes that are occurring everywhere. Thanks for the thought-provoking comment Shona!

  • Adam

    I find this entire topic so fascinating, and I agree with the exchange you had with Pavel. Those who reject the entire concept of influence scoring really are fighting human nature. For better or worse, it seems an inevitable evolution of what humans have always done (even subconsciously) — look for shortcuts to assess others. In our information-overloaded world, people will likely look to these shortcuts more and more.

    I think the dynamic will be the same as it was before influence scoring — the wisest people will never reduce individuals to a metric but will simply use it as one piece in a more thorough evaluation.

    Thanks for the thorough post Mark and for your continued leadership on this issue.

  • I agree Adam. Debate is necessary. Whining is wearisome.

  • measuring influence, reach, engagement, scope, comprehensiveness and returnoninvestment (R.O.I.)

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  • Great point about the difficulty in scaling and iterating in the public eye. I do think there is some legitimacy to social scoring and perceived influence, but it is tough to watch the companies stumble/fumble/bumble their way to a workable solution. Every misstep is blown up, and in some cases…rightly so.

    Klout definitely got the headstart. That means they take the brunt of the criticism, but they also have the lion’s share of the brand recognition. I know we are currently tracking three of the social scores with Pulse Analytics right now. Hedging our bets in case clients have a favorite!

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  • If we wait a few months, maybe Klout with become un-trendy so we simply won’t have to worry about it anymore.

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  • Dan Purvis

    Excellent article, thanks Mark. Influence is a subject that generates a lot of fierce debate and we could talk about it all day. Ultimately, Artificial Intelligence, particularly with data-centric stuff, should never be relied upon as 100% fact…Human Intelligence will always be required to make sense of it, to contextualise it, and to ascertain relevancy of individual influencers.

    I always urge caution for using so-called influence ranking tools, particularly the free ones. They are rudimentary by nature and open to gaming to artificially inflate scores…yes, I’m a cynic (see my post on Social Influence here: but I do see the value in ranking social individuals – providing it is done right.

    Gaining a 360 degree profile of an individual’s digital footprint can be immensely powerful for brands seeking to grow and engage with their community (or associated communities), especially for garnering support and brand advocates to spread their word way beyond their own reach.

    However, too much stock is put in these free ranking tools, which become more of a popularity contest. They’re not as accurate as they could be, owing to them being free and also based more on quantity than quality.

    There is no miracle cure for this, and we’re still a long way from delivering accurate rankings. It should be about relevance and context…algorithms (indeed any Artificial Intelligence) cannot ascertain these parameters as they look at tweets out of context.

    Klout especially grates me because it boasts that it is the “Standard for Influence” with its users at its core. We’re not at its core – we’re merely digital playthings for its affiliate marketing programme.


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  • Marty Black

    I just finished reading the new Influence Marketing Book by Sam Fiorella and Danny Brown. What a wonderful business book; it really offers a strategic look at how business can use influence marketing and achieve real results. It talks about Klout a little but focuses more on business influence and the customer. I wonder if you’d had a chance to read it and what your thoughts are on their approach?

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