The pitfalls of chasing Klout in higher education

Some colleges have moved away from Klout-based social media strategies.

As tempting as it might be to have one super metric that allows you to go to your bosses and show how successful your brilliant social media strategy has been, please do us all a favor and resist the impulse—especially if the metric you’re going to choose is Klout.

It seems like a fine enough idea in theory: one score that ranks how successful you are at engaging with your audience across multiple platforms, but in practice it promises one thing and delivers something much less useful, more opaque and occasionally even annoying.

First, you aren’t the user of Klout. You’re the product being sold by Klout to marketers. Advertisers and brands covet so-called influencers, people who will tweet, tumbl, or post to Facebook about the fantastic Klout Perks they’ve been given and therefore spread the word about a product much more cheaply and effectively than display advertising.

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A great idea, but if you’re working for a college, the only thing you’re trying to sell is yourself—to prospective students, the media, alumni, or any other number of constituencies. I’m a firm believer in choosing the services you use strategically.

If it makes sense to join a service, if, for example, it will help you reach a new audience, then it’s a good idea. But joining things because they’re popular, without any thought of how they’ll be helpful, isn’t a strategy. And there’s simply no way that a high Klout score will help you reach the people you’re interested in reaching.

In fact, it might drive people away, courtesy of my second point: Klout encourages bad behavior online. I noted in a blog post a few weeks ago that one person interviewed by Wired said he tweeted up to 45 times each day.

Sit back and take that in. Imagine how completely annoying that person would be to follow on Twitter.

That’s the kind of behavior Klout rewards. The internet—the world at large, really—is filled to the brim with charlatans and the shameless, people who are willing to barge into random conversations so they can talk endlessly about themselves, people who don’t respect boundaries, don’t respect your time and attention, generally don’t respect you.

Why would you want to be one of those people? Promoting your achievements, and doing so loudly, is one thing, but hijacking other people’s valuable time for your own agenda is something else entirely.

Finally, why would you trust someone else instead of your own eyes?

Klout uses a proprietary algorithm to determine their ranking, and Klout officials are unlikely to start sharing it, since that’s how they make money. Colleges already have to deal with opaque and sometimes seemingly arbitrary rankings.

Why would you voluntarily sign up for another? I have a deep philosophical problem with rankings assigned without any published metric. As I noted above, there are things you can do to increase your Klout score, but they’re almost all things you shouldn’t be doing.

So if it’s opaque, encourages annoying behavior and doesn’t really offer any advantages, why do people use it?

For one thing, it offers bragging rights.

Who doesn’t love to be told that they’re better at something than someone else? As I’ve said elsewhere, though, you can’t win at social media. It’s not a competition, it’s a tool. That’s especially true when it comes to colleges. How can you compare a liberal arts college with an enrollment of about 1,200 (like, say, Cornell College, where I work) with an enormous, state-funded research institution with nearly 31,000 undergraduate and graduate students (like, say, our neighbor the University of Iowa)?

We fill different niches, compete for different students, and have different philosophies. Comparing us is like comparing shoes and cars—both can move you toward a destination, but they aren’t in the same category.

The other driver is that bosses like to quantify things, and having one number in place of a whole bunch of numbers seems attractive. It’s especially appealing to people who understand that social media is important without necessarily grasping how or why it’s important and what the best practices are.

Try some education—explain why Klout isn’t all it seems, and offer up some other metrics that can be used to track your progress.

There is real beauty to the way that social media sites let us connect with others, and too often, the loud and the obnoxious can obscure that. If you want to really increase your influence on others, try this simple, guaranteed strategy (which is in no way guaranteed): Post compelling content, tweet about it regularly, but no more than once an hour and four to six times a day.

Track hashtags and keywords that are important and see if you can move the conversation forward. Post photo, videos and links to Facebook three to five times a week. Respond to questions and try to be helpful. Forget about your Klout score and even forget that Klout exists at all. Sit back and reap the rewards.

Jamie Kelly is a media relations director at Cornell College.

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