"Look at someone like this guy right here," Alex Taub says, intently peering at his laptop screen.
We're in Taub's office right off Union Square in New York City. It's the headquarters of SocialRank, the startup he co-founded. SocialRank shows companies and public figures with brands to promote which of their followers on Twitter and Instagram are most valuable.
Taub's pulled up his own Twitter account to show me one of his own followers, someone who seems valuable.
"This guy's got 1.4 million followers," he says admiringly. "That's crazy. That's like, more followers than some of the big celebrities."
But here's the thing. This guy tweets a little but almost no one ever responds. No one cares. In spite of all those followers, he's not really valuable, Taub says.
Worldwide, ad spending on social media was estimated at nearly $24 billion last year. And figuring out the value of social media followers is a burgeoning business. Companies like Klout, Moz, Fruji and Markerly are all in the game.
"Within the industry now, there's a strong belief that what you really want is a passionate audience, even if it's slightly smaller, versus a larger, meh audience," says media analyst Alan Wolk.
That's a change from the conventional wisdom of the past 10 years, which has been about accumulating as many followers as possible.
"Most brands, they've been building these massive audiences over the past five to 10 years but they're not doing anything with these people," Taub says.
He points to a huge company like Nike. It can blast tweets to all of its 5.7 million followers on Twitter, but also target them by drilling into their data.
SocialRank's software analyzes the Twitter bios of its clients' followers. It looks at what people tweet and how often they engage. Then it lets its customers filter and sort followers into categories, for example, showing which are soccer fans. Or soccer fans in Boston. Or who's also following Adidas. All this can be used for specific promotions and direct marketing.
SocialRank also shows which followers fall in the coveted category of "most valuable." But what does that mean?
"Ultimately it comes down to how engaged these followers are," says Drew Baldwin. He co-founded Tubefilter, a company that curates and charts online videos.
"The likes, the retweets, the reblogs," adds his co-founder, Josh Cohen.
Valuable followers will retweet videos and promotions. They'll warmly talk about brands, and their followers will pay attention. But how do you measure this kind of passion? "There's no real standard yet," Baldwin says. "That's the next big problem to be solved in social media and online video."
Cohen adds that another problem is figuring out if followers on certain platforms are more valuable than followers on others.
"So what's a Vine view worth?" he wonders. "Is it worth more than a YouTube view? What percentage of a YouTube view?"
YouTube star Grace Helbig has lots of views and lots of followers. More than 2.8 million people subscribe to her YouTube channel. The comedian and actress has her own, generous algorithm for determining their value.
"Having an audience that listens to and resonates with your creative ideas is invaluable," she says firmly.
If you're an artist, anyway. For marketers, what's invaluable is converting that resonance into commerce.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Now a little news about social media. It involves the number of people you reach if you use social media - you know, your followers on Twitter, people who like your page on Facebook. Admit it. You've checked that number. Marketing experts say it's better to have quality followers than a large quantity. NPR's Neda Ulaby explains.
NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: The conventional wisdom has been, for years, that lots of followers is a very good thing, especially if you're a company or public figure with a brand to promote, but maybe not so much anymore says analyst Alan Wolk.
ALAN WOLK: Within the industry now, there's a sort of strong belief that what you really want is a passionate audience, even if it's slightly smaller, versus a larger, sort of meh audience.
ULABY: Yeah, no one wants a meh audience. Maybe that sounds obvious, but figuring out the value of social media followers is a burgeoning business for companies like Klout spelled with a K and SocialRank. I met SocialRank's co-founder Alex Taub in his New York office.
ALEX TAUB: Most brands, they've been building these massive audiences over the last five to 10 years, but they're not doing anything with these people.
ULABY: Let's take a big company like Nike.
(SOUNDBITE OF NIKE COMMERCIAL)
ULABY: Nike runs TV commercials during big sporting events that reach millions of potential customers. It can also blast tweets to its 5.7 million followers on Twitter. Nike can target them by drilling into their data. Twitter bios and what people tweet can help show which followers are soccer fans, who are soccer fans in Boston for a specific promotion, who's missing from the Nike store database, who's also following Adidas.
Taub's company pulls in all of your followers.
TAUB: And then we let you filter and sort them so we've basically let you data mine your own audience.
ULABY: Taub's company then helps you figure out which followers are the most valuable.
TAUB: Look at someone like this guy right here.
ULABY: Alex Taub is showing me the account of some who seems valuable on Twitter.
TAUB: This guy's got 1.4 million followers. That's crazy. That's, like, more followers than some of the big celebrities.
ULABY: But here's the thing. This guy tweets a little, but almost no one ever responds. No one cares. In spite of all those followers, he's not really valuable. This is true of a certain kind of followers across social media platforms.
Josh Cohen and Drew Baldwin founded a company called Tubefilter. It charts and ranks online videos which rely on valuable followers.
DREW BALDWIN: Ultimately, it comes down to how engaged these followers are.
JOSH COHEN: The likes, the retweets, the reblogs...
ULABY: The shares and of course, the possibility of going viral. Valuable followers will retweet commercials and promotions. They'll talk about things warmly, and their followers will pay attention. But the tools to measure those things are in their infancy.
BALDWIN: There's no real standard yet. I think that's the next big problem to be solved in social media and online video.
ULABY: That was Drew Baldwin. Josh Cohen adds that another problem is figuring out if followers are more valuable on one platform versus another.
COHEN: So what's a Vine view worth? Is it worth more than a YouTube view? Is it worth what percentage of a YouTube view?
ULABY: I asked a YouTube star about the value of her followers. Grace Helbig has a lot of them.
GRACE HELBIG: On YouTube, I think it's at 2.7 million right now.
ULABY: And since we talked, it's grown to 2.8. Helbig is a comedian and actress. Her algorithm for determining the value of followers is generous.
HELBIG: Having an audience that listens to and resonates with your creative ideas is invaluable.
ULABY: For an artist anyway. For commerce, what's invaluable is converting those feelings into marketing.
Neda Ulaby, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ONLINE")
BRAD PAISLEY: (Singing) I'm so much cooler online. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.