Pity the person who answered the phone when Heather Armstrong tried to get her washing machine fixed for the fourth time in two months. According to Armstrong, a surly customer service rep for Maytag said she didn’t care that Armstrong had 1.5 million followers on Twitter. But Maytag ended up caring after Armstrong’s angry tweets about the machine went viral and caught the attention of the media.
Now that ordinary people can use social media as a megaphone, companies are trying to find ways to avoid public-relations debacles like the one caused by Armstrong’s Twitter tirade in 2009. At the time, if Armstrong hadn’t have mentioned her following, Maytag would have been hard pressed to find out about it. But in the past two years, a handful of startups such as Klout and Peer Index have developed ways to measure a person’s social-media capital and then feed that information to companies in real time.
Klout measures a person’s online influence on a scale of 1 to 100. By looking at data from Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter, its algorithm determines who starts conversational trends and who gets people to click, comment, or retweet. It can gather this score from public data, and it can incorporate private data as well, if subjects who are curious about their Klout scores allow it. “We have data on 75 million people—and most people who are active, most of the influencers, we’ll have data on,” says Klout’s CEO and cofounder, Joe Fernandez. Klout also offers breakdowns of influence by category, because a tweeting sommelier in Manhattan may require closer attention from a vineyard than from an airline. Still, Fernandez admits that the tool is not foolproof; Warren Buffett, for example, is not on Twitter but certainly is influential.
Several providers of customer relationship management (CRM) software have incorporated Klout into their applications in the past year. If a customer like Armstrong calls up a company that is using such an application, the phone rep can get a quick readout of the person’s score—assuming the rep has key pieces of information, such as the e-mail address that the customer uses on Twitter or Facebook. Citibank, McDonald’s, Delta Airlines, and Coca-Cola are among the companies that can pull up a Klout score, according to Jesse Engle, the CEO and cofounder of CoTweet, which incorporates Klout into its CRM software and counts those four companies as customers. “Everyone engaging in social media is constantly making judgments about who to engage with and how to engage,” Engle says. However, he points out that a customer’s Klout score is just one metric to track, in addition to the person’s buying history and customer service record.