Four Years In, is Klout Working? Your Guess is as Good as Mine: Updated

Here’s an embarrassing disclosure: about a year ago, my annual bonus became tied in part to Klout. The reason – as you might guess – is that Thomson Reuters wants to ensure that I’m engaging in social media. Assigning me a minimally acceptable Klout score forces me to get out there and Tweet, “like,” and “inShare,” among other things.

I understand the reasoning. People largely discover their news through social media. If you hide from it, no one sees your stories. Besides, there aren’t many alternatives to judging social media “performance,” aside from perhaps looking at one’s numbers of followers across various platforms (which, incidentally, would be fine with me).

So why am I embarrassed about this objective of mine – one I imagine is now the standard for plenty of other employees, across a range of industries? Because four years after its founding and despite $40 million in funding, it’s just not apparent that Klout works very well.

There are small clues everywhere. As I reported last week, for example, the company’s chief revenue officer, Tim Mahlman, recently left. A seasoned operating exec, he was the first person hired into the role, and 10 months later, gone, poof – he’s now at Greycroft Partners, a Klout investor that is paying him to meet with startups as an entrepreneur in residence.

Did Mahlman suddenly leave because Greycroft found itself in desperate need of his services, or did he leave because there’s not much revenue to manage at Klout? (A third possibility exists: that Mahlman was lousy at his job. But I doubt Greycroft would have brought him aboard if that were the case.)

Mahlman didn’t respond to a request for an interview last week; Greycroft didn’t respond, either. Meanwhile, asked if revenue factored into the equation, a Klout spokesperson would say only that Mahlman’s leaving was a “mutual decision on both Klout’s and Tim’s part.” She added, “We value and respect Tim and wish him well in his new position at Greycroft.”

Klout’s “Perks” program, in which it offers fringe benefits to supposed social media “influencers,” seems to be missing the mark in many cases, too. Though the company said last month that it has already delivered more than 700,000 perks in more than 350 campaigns, the numbers don’t mean the program is building brand awareness within the circles it intends to, as TechCrunch pointed out.

In fact, considering that those 350 campaigns involved 300 brands, it’s worth wondering what percentage of Klout’s advertising clients are repeat users. But when I posed the question to Klout, I was told only that Klout has “had great success with brands like Audi, Microsoft, Disney, Chevy, Gilt and others, and the Seattle Convention & Visitor’s Bureau was happy enough with their Perk campaign in March to launch another one with us this summer.”

Audi seemingly last worked with Klout to allow “key influencers” to test-drive the then-new 2011 A8 in the spring of 2011. Microsoft, which counts Klout as one of its customers, tried Klout’s Perks program late last year, when it shipped off 500 free Windows Phones to people deemed social media influencers by Klout. (Some of them were frustrated to discover they had to be AT&T subscribers to use it.) And Disney appears to have offered its last Perk – early screenings of “Winnie the Pooh” – in July of last year.

Chevy, on the other hand, is in the midst of its third “perk” program with Klout. The idea is to offer three days of access to a 2012 Volt to influencers who’ve been identified as influential in social media, technology, and environmental topics.

Maybe the program will work beautifully, too, but I have to wonder, given that Klout still doesn’t seem terribly skilled at picking out who knows what. At least, the topics in which it considers me influential are comically off-base. I’m certainly no authority on Baltimore, Brooklyn, Sydney, or Russia. I don’t specialize in drinks or cookies, and I have no idea who Terry Jones is – my apologies to Terry Jones, who is listed as one of my areas of expertise.

In fairness to Klout, I’ve only given the company access to my Twitter account, so it can only extrapolate so much. And the company said at the Le Web conference last month that it will soon be releasing a new version of Klout, one that will incorporate users’ “real world” influence to impact their Klout score and that should improve the topics on which users are considered influential.

Asked about both earlier this week, Klout’s spokeswoman told me that Klout is “constantly working to evolve the product and, yes, will soon release an important update, but have not disclosed the exact date or specific details yet.” She also told me that Klout has “not announced how we are incorporating real world influence into the Klout Score.”

(Unlike competitor Kred, which discloses to users why their scores rise or fall, Klout has always operated as a bit of a black box, saying only that it doesn’t look at follower numbers but rather the amount of engagement users are driving from their followers, along with the influence of the followers who a user engages through retweets.)

Certainly, Klout’s announcement on Monday that it has hired its first COO — Emil Michael, whose previous roles include angel investor, senior VP at TellMe, and White House Fellow — suggests the company is determined to get smarter about its business.

Indeed, the move was praised as indication that Klout is moving into the big leagues. Klout CEO Joe Fernandez said himself in a blog post that with Michael – who will be “overseeing all business functions” — Klout is “poised to take everything to the next level.”

I don’t know what that means, but I’m rooting for the company to make the leap. I’m stuck with it now. I’d like to believe that it works.

Update: Klout asked if I might include more information about the company to offer a “fuller view” of whether its offerings work, which I’m happy to do. For example, while the company can’t provide “specific numbers at this point,” In addition to Chevy, it says that “just a few” of its other return “perks” customers include GE, Chili’s, Amazon Publishing, Turner, Red Bull and Subway. The company also launched Brand Squads in April, a program “that.offers influencers a chance to have an impact with the brands they love.” Klout also receives revenue from “partners who use our data for a number of different purposes,” including Salesforce, which integrates Klout scores into its software for customer service dashboards.

Photo: Image courtesy of Shutterstock.