December 3, 2023

News Analysis: Got Twitter? You’ve Been Scored

This is not science fiction. It’s happening to millions of social network users.

If you have a Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn account, you are already being judged — or will be soon. Companies with names like Klout, PeerIndex and Twitter Grader are in the process of scoring millions, eventually billions, of people on their level of influence — or in the lingo, rating “influencers.” Yet the companies are not simply looking at the number of followers or friends you’ve amassed. Rather, they are beginning to measure influence in more nuanced ways, and posting their judgments — in the form of a score — online.

To some, it’s an inspiring tool — one that’s encouraging the democratization of influence. No longer must you be a celebrity, a politician or a media personality to be considered influential. Social scoring can also help build a personal brand. To critics, social scoring is a brave new technoworld, where your rating could help determine how well you are treated by everyone with whom you interact.

“Now you are being assigned a number in a very public way, whether you want it or not,” said Mark W. Schaefer, an adjunct professor of marketing at Rutgers University and the executive director of Schaefer Marketing Solutions. “It’s going to be publicly accessible to the people you date, the people you work for. It’s fast becoming mainstream.”

Influence scores typically range from 1 to 100. On Klout, the dominant player in this space, the average score is in the high teens. A score in the 40s suggests a strong, but niche, following. A 100, on the other hand, means you’re Justin Bieber. On PeerIndex, the median score is 19. A perfect 100, the company says, is “god-like.”

Companies are still refining their methodologies — sifting through data and evaluating other networking sites.

This month, Klout announced that it was beginning to incorporate LinkedIn profiles.

As Azeem Azhar, chief executive of PeerIndex, put it, “We’re at the start of this journey and we expect the journey to take us into much more nuance and granularity.”

Marketers are signing on. More than 2,500 companies are using Klout’s data. Last week, Klout revealed that Audi would begin offering promotions to Facebook users based on their Klout score. Last year, Virgin America used the company to offer highly rated influencers in Toronto free round-trip flights to San Francisco or Los Angeles. In Las Vegas, the Palms Hotel and Casino is using Klout data to give highly rated guests an upgrade or tickets to Cirque du Soleil.

“For the first time, we’re all on an even playing field,” said Joe Fernandez, the chief executive and co-founder of Klout. “For the first time, it’s not just how much money you have or what you look like. It’s what you say and how you say it.”

How does one become an influencer?

After analyzing 22 million tweets last year, researchers at Hewlett-Packard found that it’s not enough to attract Twitter followers — you must inspire those followers to take action. That could mean persuading them to try Bikram yoga, donate to the Sierra Club or share a recipe for apple pie. In other words, influence is about engagement and motivation, not just racking up legions of followers.

Industry professionals say it’s also important to focus your digital presence on one or two areas of interest. Don’t be a generalist. Most importantly: be passionate, knowledgeable and trustworthy.

Still, scoring is subjective and, for now, imperfect: most analytics companies rely heavily on a user’s Twitter and Facebook profiles, leaving out other online activities, like blogging or posting YouTube videos. As for influence in the offline world — it doesn’t count.

Mr. Azhar, of PeerIndex, calls this “the Clay Shirky problem,” referring to the writer and theorist who doesn’t use Twitter much. “He’s obviously massively influential,” Mr. Azhar said, “and right now he has a terrible PeerIndex.”

Jeremiah Owyang, an analyst with Altimeter Group, a digital-strategy consulting firm, wrote a few months ago that using a single metric to evaluate influence is dangerous. He noted that Klout “lacks sentiment analysis” — so a user who generates a lot of digital chatter might receive a high score even though what’s being said about the user is negative. Also, a single metric can be misleading: someone with little Twitter experience can snag a high score if they happen to post a video that goes viral.

More broadly, Mr. Schaefer of Schaefer Marketing and others are concerned that we are moving closer to creating “social media caste systems,” where people with high scores get preferential treatment by retailers, prospective employers, even prospective dates.

No wonder some people are trying to game their scores. Attaining true influence requires time and commitment. And while your flesh-and-blood self deserves a break every now and then, your digital self will pay the price.

“I went on vacation for two weeks,” said Mr. Schaefer, “and my Klout score went down.”

Stephanie Rosenbloom is a style reporter for The New York Times.

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Itineraries: Getting Closer to Guests

“We want to be there when someone transforms the recommendations of their friends into booking a reservation,” said David Godsman, vice president for global Web services for Starwood Hotels. “If they press the ‘Like’ button, we want to start a conversation.” He said he viewed his company’s Facebook pages as a way to extend Starwood’s relationship with its customers “from the 10 days they stay with us, to all year long.” Starwood has Facebook pages for 1,000 hotel properties across its nine brands.

Hotels need to make sure that their booking engines can be found wherever the customer is, rather than asking the customer to search them out, said Glenn Withiam, a spokesman for Cornell’s School of Hotel Administration, which recently held a hotel industry conference that examined social media.

Offering reservations directly helps to keep the conversation between the hotel and its guests, Mr. Withiam said. He added that using social media to communicate took the relationship beyond the booking transaction. The hotel can find out what pillow guests prefer, the drinks they want in the minibar or the type of room they need. Personalized service can keep a guest coming back, he said, and that, in turn, helps hotels hold the line on room prices.

“Hotels need to demonstrate the value of staying with them,” Mr. Withiam said, because when the focus is just on the lowest price, the competition leads to fewer amenities, lower service levels and decreased customer satisfaction.

Mr. Withiam added that travelers were expecting trip-related services to be available on the new platforms. PhoCusWright, a travel research firm, has found that 13 percent of social-network users now shop for travel on those Web sites and 35 percent of mobile-phone users expect to book travel on their phones in the next year.

Axses Systems Caribbean, a company in Barbados, has helped about 30 small hotels and chains in Barbados and nearby make their reservations available on Facebook since early 2009. Ian Clayton, the chief executive of Axses, said he hoped that by offering reservations directly, while customers were excited by the property, his hotel clients would lose fewer bookings to online travel sites.

The online agencies — Expedia, Travelocity, Orbitz and Priceline among them — increased their share of total online hotel bookings to 46 percent last year from 41 percent in 2008, according to PhoCusWright. Douglas Quinby, senior director at the firm, attributed most of that increase to travelers’ greater price awareness and decreased business travel during the recession.

While those travel agencies can be great assets for hotels — allowing them to sell more rooms and to sell those rooms at a lower price without diminishing the hotel’s brand image — there are multiple drawbacks, Mr. Withiam said. Hotels make less money for rooms sold through an online travel agency than if customers had booked directly. Those customers may also start to think about meeting their travel needs through the online agency, rather than through the hotel, becoming in essence a customer with a relationship to the booking Web site and not the hotel.

Trump Hotel Collection has been offering Facebook reservations for around six months, and Ivanka Trump, executive vice president for development and acquisitions at the Trump Organization, even has a booking widget on her personal Facebook page. Ms. Trump said her company had an advantage in social media because “we are a personality-driven brand.” She added, “When I tweet out a hotel special, a million people see it.” Once guests have made reservations though Facebook, Ms. Trump said a hotel “attaché” contacted them to complete a “dossier” of their personal preferences, like the newspapers they wanted delivered, in-room amenities they required or particular room temperatures.

Jillian Carroll, a Facebook spokeswoman, said that the travel industry was a natural partner. “Travel is inherently social,” she said. Travelers have long asked their friends for hotel and restaurant recommendations, and then shared their impressions afterwards. In addition to making reservations, Ms. Carroll said, some travel-related companies used Facebook to respond to customer complaints, notify users of travel reviews posted by their friends or run sweepstakes to win a free hotel stay.

To help the companies refine their pages, Facebook offers analytics showing the aggregate demographic information of the people who “Like” a particular page. Companies can also discover the time of day that receives the most engagement and which actions spur more people to press the Like button.

Hotels are trying different ways to use the new media. Hyatt guests with smartphones can check in and check out with them. That means travelers can check in during the taxi ride from the airport and simply pick up keys at the front desk.

Hilton Worldwide estimates that about 615,000 customers have downloaded its mobile apps. Along with the ability to make or modify a reservation, it has offered new services like meals that are ready when guests arrive.

While at-your-fingertips booking and personalized service may be important to business travelers, there is no denying the bottom line. “All too often, travelers will leave a hotel Web site and look for a better rate in an online travel agency,” Mr. Clayton said. To entice customers to book directly via Facebook, some hotels are offering a guaranteed lowest price.

Using Facebook and smartphone apps, hotels hope to deepen or regain the relationships they had with customers and to raise the quality of their experiences when they check in. Attracting guests to book directly in new ways is a win for the hotel, said Mr. Withiam, from a financial, customer relationship and brand perspective.

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