I recently had the chance to catch up with Melbourne-based recruitment manager Axel Koster. Axel has received a lot of attention because of his impressive social media presence – as of right now, Axel has more than 564,000 followers on Twitter, a huge amount for a non-public figure. What’s more, Axel’s only following 249,000 people, so it’s not follow-for-follow situation, he actually has a huge number of people just following him. One of Axel’s first questions to me was ‘why don’t you have more followers?’, and it definitely made me think. In all honesty, I’ve never really made a concerted effort to increase my follower count; I follow people who I’m interested in, I follow-back people who are tweeting similar content or things I like – I’m happy that my feed is generally populated by people who are likely to be engaged in my content and what I tweet about. While I could, of course, go to more effort to find more like-minded tweeps, my view has always been that follower counts, in themselves, are not necessarily indicative of a person’s social engagement, and thus, not the most important metric. But in talking to Axel, it definitely highlighted that your follower count is important, at least to some degree.

Forming a Crowd

Axel is one the most followed people in Melbourne, and the only non-celebrity in the top 10 most followed. He’s been featured in magazines, been given awards for his influence – he’s even been offered commercial opportunities and jobs based on his Twitter presence. In hearing of Axel’s experiences, I can definitely see how follower count is important. When Axel tweets, people – especially brands – listen, as his digital voice carries the weight of half-a-million people. While the general consensus is that having just one engaged follower is far more valuable than a thousand un-engaged folk, it’s clear that that number, your follower count, or your Like count on Facebook, is important. And obviously, many people agree – the fake follower industry is now estimated to be worth more than $360 million annually. Celebrities too know the importance of followers – almost all the big players have a percentage of purchased audience, a chunk of their following patronized by bots. Indeed, Twitter itself has noted that up to 5% of their user-base, or around 10.75 million profiles, are likely fakes. Given those figures, it’s obvious that there’s demand for artificial followers coming from somewhere, and that demand is being ramped up by the social-proof value of having a large follower count. No matter how you look at it, you can’t deny that follower counts are important, but are they important because they’re reflective of a person’s influence, or are they important because the social media platforms have inadvertently made it so?

Under the Influence     

And here’s where things get interesting – while Axel has more than half a million people following him on Twitter, his Klout score is currently 63. Agree with its metrics or not, Klout aims to measure a person’s social presence in more depth, assigning numeric values to actual interactions, as opposed to follower or like counts alone. As explained by Klout:

The majority of the signals used to calculate the Klout Score are derived from combinations of attributes, such as the ratio of reactions you generate compared to the amount of content you share. For example, generating 100 retweets from 10 tweets will contribute more to your Score than generating 100 retweets from 1,000 tweets. We also consider factors such as how selective the people who interact with your content are. The more a person likes and retweets in a given day, the less each of those individual interactions contributes to another person’s Score. Additionally, we value the engagement you drive from unique individuals. One-hundred retweets from 100 different people contribute more to your Score than do 100 retweets from a single person.“

So Klout measures actual interactions, as opposed to audience numbers. By comparison, social selling expert Rachel Miller has just over Twitter 6,500 followers, yet her Klout score is a whopping 78. Rachel’s a well-known social media identity and is highly active in Twitter chats and across the social space in general – what these numbers would suggest is that despite Rachel having only 1.15% of the following that Axel has, she’s actually more influential and receives more interaction from the people within her social community. But the raw numbers, the numbers highlighted by Twitter, don’t tell that story. If you were a brand and you saw these two profiles side-by-side, with no other reference point than follower counts, who would you choose to be your brand advocate?

Influence vs. Audience

So which is more important – influence scores or audience size? To me, it’s similar to the evolution of SEO. At first, SEO was based on keyword mentions, how many times a word was mentioned on your site. If you wanted to rank for ‘plumbers in London’, you’d just mentions that term, over and over again on your site and it would rank high in search as a result. People worked this and started gaming the system, so search engines got more advanced, looking at backlinks and references. Those processes were gamed also – Google and other search providers are in a constant battle to stay ahead of cheats and hackers who are working to help businesses rank highest in search results artificially, a practice which diminishes their core product.

In social, we’ve started out with follower and Like counts as the key metrics linked to success and status. Having more followers makes you look more authoritative, so businesses cropped up with ways to game this, thus diluting the actual influence of that number. Our next measure of verification is to turn to influence metrics, like Klout and Kred – but of course, those too, can be gamed. This was an element I found slightly confusing about Klout’s decision to introduce a content discovery element to their platform early in 2014 – the official announcement of which opened with the line: “People always ask us ‘how can I raise my Klout score?” The Klout content discovery platform effectively shows you how to game Klout, how to artificially increase your influence score by sharing content most likely to be of relevance to your audience. Theoretically, you could blindly share content from Klout every day and increase your share counts, and thus, Klout score, without ever reading a thing. There’re also ways to detect and share trending content – Aaron Lee wrote recently about how he has received huge amounts of interaction when he has re-posted highly shared images, which he’s detected through Post Planner. That strategy makes perfect sense, getting more likes and comments will help increase the reach of your future posts (particularly on Facebook), but it can also be used to artificially increase your influence level. While it takes a little more effort to game, influence metrics can be… influenced. And once you know how, it’s actually not that difficult.

And even then, while those within the social media industry are aware of the relevance of having a higher Klout score, those outside the industry may not be, in which case, your follower count would be more relevant and would add more sway to your authority in the space. Whether that audience is actually listening may not even matter, raw numbers are often still what people are looking for.

The Challenge of Established Process

So what’s the answer? Should we be focused on follower counts, or should we put more into influence metrics and refining those measurements, make engagement scores the numbers we highlight on social profiles? Maybe we should cap followers and Likes the way LinkedIn does with connections (at 500), minimizing their impact as a ‘social proof’ factor? It’s hard to say which way to go, which measurement is going to be more important, as that interpretation depends on the audience you’re addressing. Having more followers is important, but having more engagement will likely prove more valuable in the long run. Really, one should be a result of the other – neither should be an aim within itself – but in the rush to establish relevance, we compete for the metrics highlighted to us as most important. In which case, it’s the platforms themselves that have created the follower and Like arms race, and it’s the platforms themselves who can change it. It’s likely, in future, that we’ll see more influence metrics taken into consideration when we assess a brand or individual’s social presence, as social media becomes more embedded and more a part of everyday business. But audience is what we’ve long been aligned to as the key success metric in marketing and advertising. Audience size, audience reach – this is the yardstick for how we’ve traditionally measured achievement in this space. That number’s likely to remain a focus for some time – while the need for action on both fronts will remain, it’s important for social leaders to consider how they highlight the value of engagement over mass, of focus over reach. It’s one thing for you to know the value of engagement, it’s another to explain that to others who’ve always seen it a different way. As we work to integrating new ideas and processes, consider the metrics that are most relevant to you and your business goals, the numbers that correlate and support those elements and more closely align with ROI. If follower count works for you, then that’s the stat you should measure, but it’s up to you to utilise the data and highlight the most valuable metrics – and be able to explain why they’re important, in contrast to more generalized measurements of success.

Andrew Hutchinson

Andrew Hutchinson

Freelance Writer/Social Media Consultant at adh
Andrew Hutchinson is an internationally published author, award-winning blogger and social media consultant from Melbourne, Australia. He has more than 12 years experience working in media monitoring, helping clients locate, evaluate and action keyword occurrences in all forms of traditional and digital media. He's also a Hootsuite Ambassador for the APAC region and one of the 'Best Thinkers' on leading social media news website Social Media Today. If you're looking for a writer for your business, or advice on how to maximise your digital media presence, please go to www.andrewhutchinson.com.au for more information.
Andrew Hutchinson