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Joe Fernandez, co-founder and chief executive officer of Klout.


Recently, the people at Patagonia Inc. – a company that makes some of the world's best-known outdoor clothing and gear – made a strange appeal to their customers.

They asked them to buy less.

The appeal is part of Patagonia's long-standing commitment to the environment and sustainability. In effect, its new program urges customers to buy only what they need, and to repair the Patagonia products they have before considering buying new ones.

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As a public relations strategy, the approach is novel. But the appeal's success will also serve as a measure of just how influential a company Patagonia really is.

In this four-part series, we'll take a look at how small and medium-sized businesses can measure their level of influence on customers and potential customers, especially in the digital world.

We'll look at tools and services – both paid and free – that can aid business owners in measuring and increasing their influence. We'll also look at some great – and terrible – ways that businesses are affecting the on-line conversation around their brands.

With the rise of recommendation engines – websites that let users rate, recommend or blast businesses they've recently bought things from – the days of a one-way advertising message flowing from a company to its customers are largely over.

Instead, more and more businesses, from locksmiths to restaurants to airlines, are spending much more time monitoring and participating in the conversations that customers are having about them.

Sometimes, such as when companies are caught writing fake positive reviews of their own products and services, that approach can backfire. But when it's done well, such a strategy can help to build customer loyalty better than any advertising campaign.

Increasingly, the extent to which a company can influence the conversation is becoming easily measurable, thanks to social networks such as Facebook and Twitter. A fairly straightforward way to measure the impact of what a company has to say is to simply look at the number of followers it has on Twitter or fans on Facebook; the higher the number, the more influential the company.

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But while that's sometimes a good starting point, it's not always an accurate measure. For one thing, some companies are so well-known that they're likely to have millions of followers and fans, even if a lot of those people don't actually like the company – or, indeed, if they've signed up to follow the company's accounts primarily to criticize it.

That's why a number of companies have started to build tools that perform a deeper analysis of social media influence. Perhaps the most well-known of them is Klout.

The Web-based service aims to measure the "true reach" of a person or a company's on-line influence. Klout does this in large part by employing algorithms that filter out Twitter and Facebook "spam bots," which are automated accounts usually designed for mindless advertising or to simply push out links to viruses and other sketchy content.

Klout also gives more weighting to amplification. The idea is that the more influential a social media entity is, the more often its messages are shared, retweeted or otherwise propagated through the social media network. So, even if one small business has far fewer followers than another, it may have a higher Klout score if the messages it sends out are amplified to a greater extent.

Of course, even services such as Klout don't paint the full picture of social media influence. Customers may be sharing a company's message in massive numbers, but that isn't always because they agree with it.

In addition, businesses that focus on the Klout score of a single company Twitter or Facebook account can sometimes miss the true influence of the company as a whole – the combined social media weight of what its employees and fans have to say. In the case of many small businesses, a single employee might have a more influential social media presence than the company itself.

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This series continues next Thursday.

Other stories can be found on the Web Strategy section of the Report on Small Business website .

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