Klout CEO Joe Fernandez Responds To Critics


Two weeks ago I wrote a post here called “Delete Your Klout Profile Now!” 

So far more than 10,000 people have read it on Social Media Today and another 2,000 on this blog.    It’s been shared and re-tweeted more than 2,200 times.

More important, several other bloggers and journalists have come out with posts and articles critical of Klout’s business model and privacy policies, including the New York Times.

My post against Klout was not a work of balanced journalism—it was a passionate editorial.  I do consider myself a blogger-journalist and most of my focus is on researching, interviewing and presenting new ideas about customer experience on the social Internet.  I do express my opinions at times, sometimes as an agitator.

In the spirit of fairness I asked Klout CEO Joe Fernandez if he would be willing to answer questions.

“Skeptical” was his response, but he gave it a go.  He wrote: “I am guessing you probably know that I’ve generally always made myself available and participated in the discussion around Klout even with people who have very different points of view than I do. I get that we are doing something that can be controversial and think that discussion around it is healthy.”

I said I would submit a list of questions and I promised that I would run his responses verbatim.  In addition, I offered him the chance to close by saying anything he wanted.

I will take an opportunity to write more about Klout some other time, but not here, at least not beyond this introduction.

Here are my questions and Fernandez’ answers:

Q: Assume for a minute I’m someone new into social media who’s new to the Klout concept.  I’ve read about the concerns people have, but I want your side.  What’s the argument for someone to register and participate in Klout?

A: The goal of Klout is to help people understand and maximize the impact they are having on the social web. For people who are just establishing their presence on social media, Klout is a valuable tool to benchmark their effectiveness. If you think about the amount of time we all spend on social media it’s really helpful to know and understand the impact we are having. When you see your Klout score go up you will know what activities and content your network is the most engaged with.


Q: Let’s go through some of the concerns and objections to Klout.  The New York Times on Monday published an article about the Klout practice of establishing profiles for people who haven’t registered at Klout, using their public data from Twitter and Facebook.  What’s happening with those existing profiles and how will you handle profiles of non-registered users going forward?

A: First, I want to take responsibility for screwing up here. We made a mistake by not thinking that people may be interacting with their kids on Facebook and that they could end up in Klout. Within hours of realizing this, a change was introduced to fix it. Our only intention here was to show users cool data about their influence and while we did not violate any Facebook policy we definitely learned a lesson on this. In the future we will do a much better job and we are proactively engaging the community to get a broader set of perspectives on this.

I have detailed our privacy standings here – http://corp.klout.com/blog/2011/11/we-value-your-privacy

{RJM NOTE: I’ve added the gist of the post from this link, as it relates to creating profiles of people who have never registered, and who may not be aware they have a public Klout profile:]

“I think it’s important to be specific, so here is how Klout thinks about and has always thought about social data:

  • Klout analyzes public data to measure a person’s influence. The best way to think of this is in relation to how Google analyzes public websites to generate PageRank.
  • Klout respects the privacy settings of all the networks it measures. If you have a private account on a social network and you have not explicitly given Klout access to your data it will not be analyzed.
  • If you are creating public data but do not want it measured by Klout you can opt-out by going to the privacy page.
  • Klout has no interest in understanding the influence of minors. We are working with Facebook and Twitter on this, as well as building our own safeguards to make sure this does not happen.”

Q: What is the specific number of non-registered profiles have you deleted?

A: Not going to share specifics here but I will say that total opt-outs is less than .01% of our registered base.


Q: How can you stop the profiling of kids under 18 years of age? Under 13?

A: This is a challenge that every company doing business on the social web faces. We work closely with the platforms and their trust and security teams to share insights and best practices. I think there is also a role we can play here in helping parents understand how data is spread on the social web so they can be more informed about what their kids are doing.


Q: You create public Klout scores for individuals, and you say Klout is “the standard for influence,” that is, Klout is the most important way that social influence can be measured.  (If it wasn’t the most important, then it wouldn’t be “the standard” would it?)   

But it’s very easy for people to game their social media use to get their Klout scores higher without really being more influential.  There are thousands of people who find a trendy topic (Demi divorcing Ashton, Black Friday, Taylor Swift vs. Adele, the new Twilight movie, etc.) and tweet about it, knowing they’ll get re-tweets.  If I follow Jeff Jarvis and keep saying proactive things about his books, he might RT me.  I can find people on Twitter who re-tweet everything I write in hopes THEY’LL get re-tweeted, etc.   

In other words the score is being easily gamed and there is a small faction of people who do it aggressively.  Doesn’t this inherently corrupt the “standard” Klout claims to set?

A: It’s an interesting paradox with Klout. Change the scoring algorithm and everyone gets upset. Leave things the same and everyone talks about how easy it is to game (even though there is very little hard proof to back this claim up). I think it’s helpful to back up and think about Google PageRank. Here is answer from Quora that I came across that does a really great job of describing how we think of the Klout algorithm: (http://www.quora.com/Klout/Do-Klouts-changes-on-October-26-really-reflect-influence-more-accurately?q=klout+oct).

“Think of it this way: Google

Google does not make public the specifics of their ranking algorithms. Like Klout, they simply provide advice about the kinds of things their algorithms look for. (e.g. accurate page titles, clear copywriting, good URL structure, quality content). What many people take away from these tips is the idea that search engine optimization (SEO) is the end-game for a successful business, which of course results in attempts to game the system. Businesses rise up the ranks and achieve “success” by investing in SEO “strategies” instead of quality of content and services. Ultimately, this is the result of a flawed system, and Google makes attempts to disrupt such practices.

As search engines get better at quantifying quality, we will start to see ranking and “true” relevance converge (of course, they never will entirely, and as always “relevance” is subjective). In such a world, the only way to “game” the system would be to play fairly. The target metric would still be set by Google (or pick your favorite search engine), but the results would be more internally consistent and the rankings would more precisely reflect Google’s idea of relevance.

Klout’s goal is exactly that.

Today when Klout announced the updates to their algorithm (http://corp.klout.com/blog/2011/…), they got a good amount of negative feedback in the comments section. People claimed to have been “working for months” to increase their Klout score, that Klout was “playing games” with their reputation, that they have been “Netflixed” (betrayed) by Klout, and that Klout has been “lying to” and “misguiding” its users.

For anyone in SEO, these complaints should sound familiar. The outcry comes from the misguided notion that Klout score is the end-game. Users feel betrayed because the system in which they were succeeding was swapped-out beneath their feet. What they don’t understand is that, much like search engine ranking, the system must constantly change (in ways both big and small), else it will deteriorate. There is no way to “win” at Klout (or Google) — you can only try to keep up.

In 2010, Google made 516 updates to their algorithm, some larger than others. According to Eric Schmidt, they tested over 13,000 changes. I believe that the result of these changes, and the rigorous testing that goes on behind the scenes, has been largely positive, regardless of how many business were impacted negatively. We can only hope that, as Klout expands, it follows in the footsteps of its search engine cousins and realizes that it can never stop moving.”


Q: Klout’s tagline is “the standard for influence.”  But you don’t make your scoring algorithms public and your data is not audited by any outside authority for accuracy.  You’re not beholden to anyone to be accurate, or to be free of bugs that could be exploited to game the system.  Why should we—or advertisers–believe that Klout is “the standard for influence?”

A: Fair question. I believe there are a few things worth considering:

  • I agree that we have not done enough to make it easy to understand what the score means and why a person has a certain score. This is something we are really focused on right now.
  • While there is more we can do, I would argue that we are incredibly transparent from the standpoint that you can go to Klout and put in anyone’s name and see his or her score and data. Think about all the other data sources like Neilson or Comscore that act as standards and how they operate in the background  – only accessible to a few willing to pay high subscription fees.
  • There is no centralized auditing committee to review Klout data but because we put the scores out publicly the whole world audits our work every day. If someone sees an issue with Klout data not only are we informed about it, but it is almost always then shared with the rest of the world through Twitter and blogs. I would bet that we are more audited than most standards.
  • We have to earn being “the standard for influence” every day through the quality of our data. Again, because it’s all public we either past the sniff test or we don’t.

Q: You added an option to profile settings to “delete your profile” on November 1st.  Can you explain why, and how you feel about that option going forward?

A: Perhaps foolishly we tried to take a hard stance on this issue before Nov 1. Our position was that if you are creating public data we are going to analyze it, just like Google and thousands of lesser-known companies are already doing. At the same time our goal isn’t to be jerks and the day came when this felt like the right thing to do for the community.

I feel like we were probably being overly idealistic and I am glad we have the feature in place going forward.


Q: How do you react to posts like mine objecting to Klout or calling for people to delete their Klout profiles?

A: I started Klout almost 4 years ago.  Back then social media (and Twitter specifically) was basically a joke. Like most entrepreneurs I am no stranger to people telling me that what I am doing is impossible or just plain a bad idea. You develop a thick skin trying to create new things and take on the world.

I understand that what we are doing can be viewed a lot of different ways. My goal with Klout is to create something really empowering for the individual but I get why it can be controversial. I think conversation around what we are trying to do here is healthy. I feel like a lot of the conversation lately has been filled with misinformation around how the algorithm works, our goals, and what we do with our data though, so that has been somewhat tough to handle.  However, in the end it just means we need to do a much better job of being proactive about getting our message out about these things.

Q: What is the specific number of profiles Klout has deleted of people who did not proactively register at the Klout site?  Is it Klout’s policy going forward to publish profiles of people who have not opt-ed in to Klout by registering at your site?

We do not disclose opt-out (or registration) numbers but I can tell you the opt-out numbers have been small. Our policy on whose data we analyze is detailed on our blog – http://corp.klout.com/blog/2011/11/we-value-your-privacy/.

[RJ NOTE: See an excerpt from this link quoted above in response to question #2]

Q: Klout is competing with other companies in the “social influence” scoring business.  There’s a broad objection to the idea that social influence can be calculated in any meaningful way.  People can be seen and heard broadly but have very little influence, and visa-versa.  To me, it’s like trying to calculate “talent” or “beauty.”  How do you respond to that?

A: We believe influence is the ability to drive actions. For the first time influence can be measured through social media. There are a lot of nuances though. I often think about doing a Google search back in 1999. The results were better than anything else out there but if those same results were returned today you would laugh. This is the same journey we are going through at Klout. It’s very early but we couldn’t be more excited about the challenge ahead of us.


Q: Your business model, roughly speaking, is to evaluate people’s social influence, identify those people to advertisers who you consider to be most influential.  Clearly you have to sell an advertiser on the idea that this will be good for them.  What’s your pitch of how this works?

A: Actually this is the opposite of our business model. We never identify influencers to advertisers. We help individuals understand their influence and then identify brands that want to connect with them. The power is always in the users’ hands. They have the power to pick what, if any, brands they want to connect with and their information is never sold to advertisers.

I am really proud of this model and find it strange that it’s something we seem to get bashed for. Influence is the holy grail of marketing. Companies across the web make money off our influence every day as we are cookied and shown ads as we cruise the web. Klout is the first time that individuals directly participate in the value created from their influence. I love that over 250,000 perks have been given out this year. These are real people getting real products and then having the power to tell the world if they like them or not.

You asked about our pitch – it’s actually pretty simple. We get calls every day from brands that want to reach influencers. We ask them for the topics of influence they are interested in and what they are willing to give these influencers. If we think what they are willing to give the influencers is cool enough we will post it in the Klout Perks section of our site and users have the choice as to whether or not they want to participate. Again, this is very different than identifying influencers to brands and it’s important to us that the power is always in the user’s hands.

Q: Anything you want to add?

A: I appreciate you taking the time to have a conversation about Klout with me. If you are interested in hearing more about the vision behind Klout or some insights on our algorithm I would recommend checking out our blog at http://corp.klout.com/blog

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About Rohn Jay Miller

I'm a strategic designer who works with clients who are transforming their business models because of change brought on by the Internet. Solving disruption is often a problem and an opportunity at the same time. Previously I was a founding partner of Ikonic/USWeb in San Francisco, and Senior Vice President--Product & Technology for Knight Ridder in San Jose.

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