Buzz! Debates! Insults! The Klout in the classroom controversy

By Todd Bacile | September 4, 2012

Klout

Last week Mark Schaefer’s syndicated blog {grow} ran my guest-authored post discussing a Klout classroom project I created for the undergraduate Electronic Marketing course I teach at Florida State University. The story created somewhat of a controversy. Tens of thousands of people read the blog post and thousands of social media conversations gave the story significant reach. Some readers liked the idea of the experiential student project – which I refer to as “The Klout Challenge” – while several other readers were not as supportive – that’s the understatement of the century!

Five days after the blog post was published I presented this class project at a large academic marketing conference: The Academy of Marketing Science – World Congress. The reaction and feedback after my 30-minute presentation was quite different from many on the web: the conference attendees loved the idea of The Klout Challenge. The reaction from one senior professor at a large university summed up the attendees’ reaction: “Just so you know, we are stealing this for our class!” Several other faculty members from other schools approached me with a similar desire.

So Why the Confusion?

The reaction from the marketing conference crowd was much different from the reaction of many online. Somewhere along the way many people online misunderstood my Klout class project and what I was attempting to achieve. Part of this was due to some people reading the blog’s title (and subsequently the text contained within thousands of retweets): “Florida State University class using Klout to determine student grades”. Many people read the title without taking five minutes to read the blog post itself. If one reads only the title and has a negative opinion of social influence scoring metrics I understand why some people would be upset. Other people just hate the idea of social influence and Klout. For those people there was no confusion!

Media Coverage To the Rescue?

Fortunately, multiple media outlets reached out to me wanting to know more information about The Klout Challenge. Inside Higher Ed and The Chronicle of Higher Education each interviewed me and ran stories clarifying some of the misunderstandings. However, all of the media coverage was not so kind. Adding to the controversy was a U.S. News and World Report education article reviewing my class project while conveniently leaving out several details. Never let the facts get in the way of a great story!

Clarifying Facts and Fiction

In an effort to clear some of the confusion and misinformation floating around the web, the following presents a fact-versus-fiction comparison for many particulars some people took issue with regarding my Klout student project and the Klout metric itself.

Point #1: Klout is not used in hiring decisions

Fiction: No companies really care about an applicant’s Klout score. Therefore, you shouldn’t be teaching students anything about it.

Fact: Really? Check out this story, this one too, and also this one. Some hiring managers – like it or not, appropriate or not – are using Klout scores as part of the application process and hiring decisions. And some hiring managers have told me first-hand they use Klout when reviewing applications. I would hope a Klout score is not “the” determining factor, as other additional information paints a more complete picture of an applicant. Yet, Klout has entered the real world in some – not all – hiring situations; and I feel obligated to educate my students about it.

Point #2: Nobody in business takes Klout seriously

Fiction: Klout does not matter in the business world.

Fact: Thousands of companies are currently using Klout in marketing activities. In addition, many firms now include customers’ Klout scores inside of CRM systems such as Salesforce.com. That’s right: when you call up your credit card company, your bank, or an airline the customer service reps may be looking at your Klout score on their monitor. This is all in addition to the prior point above that Klout is used in some hiring decisions. In the real world Klout matters.

Point #3: Klout is a secret algorithm and you can’t teach the unknown

Fiction: Nobody knows how Klout’s algorithm works or what the scoring variables are; therefore, it is unfair / impossible to teach anything related to Klout.

Fact: Klout uses hundreds of variables in its algorithm, similar to how Google uses numerous factors in its search ranking algorithm. And similar to Google, Klout.com does in fact discuss several variables and criteria that influence a Klout score. Does Klout give away every factor or each one’s weight? No. Nor does Google! Does Klout give enough information to have a decent understanding of the algorithm’s criteria? Yes.

Point #4: The class project’s purpose is to game the system

Fiction: The purpose of the project is to get a high Klout score; or worse yet, game or manipulate the metric.

Fact: The purpose of the project is to have students apply several social media engagement strategies via their own social networks. This gives them hands-on experience and skills prospective employers are seeking for internships and entry-level social media marketing jobs. How does one grade or quantify social media engagement activity? Enter Klout. I spent several months testing various engagement strategies I lecture about in comparison to the Klout algorithm. I was pleasantly surprised to see a strong positive correlation.

Point #5: You can’t use Klout to assign a grade because it’s flawed

Fiction: The Klout algorithm is flawed. You can’t use it to assign a grade because it is not always accurate and is too ambiguous.

Fact: The business world and higher education are filled with imperfect or questionable metrics commonly accepted and used every day. We live in an imperfect world where complete information in any key decision is rarely known. In the context of higher education, many students who have participated in projects using marketing simulation software will agree. Simulation software uses grading and ranking algorithms ambiguous to students, yet the exercise is a worthwhile experience. Thousands of universities and colleges use simulation software every semester. The takeaway: if all flawed metrics were to be discarded we would be left without any metrics.

Point #6: The overall course grade depends on Klout

Fiction: A student’s entire course grade is determined by their Klout score.

Fact: As stated in the original blog post, this is a project within the course accounting for a portion of the final grade. Had I known there would be such an overblown focus on this aspect I would have included the project’s weight in the title (currently 10% of the overall grade). I believe most of the Twitterverse missed this fact by only reading the title or reading the text within retweets.

Point #7: It’s unfair to force students to participate

Fiction: It is unfair to students and violates their privacy to force them to create content online.

Fact: All students have the option to opt-out of this project. They can choose to write a paper in lieu of the project. However, thus far only two students out of over one hundred have opted-out of the project. I teach an Electronic Marketing / Social Media course; and most students are eager to learn more about social media applications and tools.

Point #8: It’s not fair that changes to the algorithm may hurt students’ grades

Fiction: If the algorithm changes mid-semester and students’ scores are negatively affected, they are unfairly graded down.

Fact: Students are informed this is an experiential project using an external metric beyond my control. The benefit of using a widely known public metric is students being able to take their scores with them to job interviews. The detriment of using an external metric is something may change. The algorithm may update. Klout may go bankrupt. Klout may be bought out and the algorithm axed. Whatever the reason, if there is an unforeseen major change causing students to be in a position to have their grades negatively affected, fear not: everyone gets an A. Not ideal, yet this is the tradeoff of using a public metric to gain hands-on experience which may help them land a job. By the way: nothing negative has happened thus far.

The purpose of this post was not to convince the anti-social influence crowd into thinking more positively of Klout. The Klout haters passionately hate Klout; and I respect their opinion. Instead, the purpose of this post is to clear up a few misconceptions circulating online regarding the class project I created using students’ Klout scores. I welcome all comments, be it a supporting or dissenting opinion.

NOTE: a research paper discussing in-depth details of “The Klout Challenge” will be published in Marketing Education Review‘s special issue on teaching innovations. This special issue will be available in spring 2013.

Todd Bacile

Todd Bacile is a marketing doctoral candidate and instructor for Electronic Marketing and Services Marketing in the College of Business at Florida State University. Social Media Marketing Magazine recently ranked him as one of the Top 100 Marketing Professors on Twitter. Aside from social and mobile media research interests, he carries thousands of miscellaneous baseball facts and trivia questions around in his head. Follow or contact him on Twitter :@toddbacile

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17 thoughts on “Buzz! Debates! Insults! The Klout in the classroom controversy

  1. Reblogged this on Valentina's Marketing Blog and commented:
    WOW. Time to work on my engagement on Social Media platforms!!! Check out this article. If you have a low Klout score you might get a bad grade in school, even worse, you might not be offered an internship!

    Like

  2. I think this is brilliant. I have developed a social media curriculum for a technical institute here in Canada and looking at the evaluation of the course, Klout would be a great idea.
    If I end up teaching in the winter I’m definitely referencing your material here. Thanks a lot Todd.

    Like

  3. Thanks for the compliment, Jeph. This project is ideal for any digital/internet/social media marketing course. One benefit of The Klout Challenge is the experiential aspect for the students. Marketing education researchers have conducted studies, in which the results suggest experiential learning projects maintain students’ attention, enthusiasm, and willingness to participate. All of these aspects help to bolster learning. By the way: a detailed write-up of this project will be published in Marketing Education Review’s spring issue discussing teaching innovations. Best of luck with your class! Please share this with others within our discipline via Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Google+, and other social networks. Thank you!

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  4. It is not very often that I get a chance to read such an insightful article. What a pleasant surprise to find such a wonderful well written article. Your informational content has proven very useful.
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  7. Reblogged this on Swiss Academia and the Social Media Landscape and commented:
    The debate over the use of social media scores has been generating a lot of controversy here in the U.S.
    Is it unfair to ask students to engage in these sort of exercises? Or is it a legitimate way to teach students about social media?

    Like

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  12. I love that this is a debate now. I think it could work because you are grading on an outcome in the class, not “effort”. In real life you don’t get a grade on effort, you get graded on the outcome. It goes against traditional school grades but that why it’s going to work and you’re going to see more and more of this.

    Ash

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    • Thank you for the comments, Ashley. It really is an interesting debate with valid concerns on each side. Your comments about effort are spot-on. Effort is one thing; and a result is another! This is an experiential learning project that leads to results, by way of effort.

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