There is no way I’m using Twitter properly. I rarely Tweet links to my own articles, barely use the service to promote myself and make contacts, and I only have a little over 400 followers. My social media “influence” amounts to nil.

So, while I can appreciate the massive amounts of data that Klout and other, similar services are pulling in, analyzing, and spitting out, the influence race often feels like an unnecessary popularity contest. Without any real reward for becoming an “influencer,” what’s the point of gaming the system to get more attention?

Influenster thinks that it has the answer. The New York-based company has been working under the radar to connect these “influencers” with brands, where the influencer can test and review products for free. The company previously raised a “very small” friends and family round, but besides that it has operated under the rader and grown on revenues alone. Now, after two years and almost 200,000 users, Influenster is ready to announce itself to the world.

Basically, Influenster is a marketing research startup that makes “influencers” happy by giving them free products provided by companies that use the service to better target and analyze their market. Users are asked to fill out surveys, create content, and connect their social accounts (of course) in order to become eligible for trial products, with the understanding that they might be expected to post a review of the product and let the company know what they think about it.

Those surveys, pieces of content, and reviews are the main differentiators between Influenster and other companies, like Klout. Instead of crawling a user’s social media accounts and trying to guess how important or knowledgeable they are about product categories like food, wine, or gadgets, Influenster comes right out and asks the user to provide that data themselves. Rather than lurking behind the scenes and gathering the data that consumers leave behind, the company proactively requests information based on what a  brand wants to know.

This allows brands and companies to target customers in ways that they couldn’t before, the company says. Instead of shipping products to anyone that signs up for a sample group, brands can target specific consumers and get valuable input on a product.

Influenster co-founders Elizabeth Scherle and Aydin Acar say that they purposefully avoided the press (I tried not to take offense to this) until they were able to build the company and refine their product, which is a nice change of pace from companies that announce their pre-existence, existence, funding, and growth once a month. Scherle and Acar say that the business has reached the point where they’re ready to get some press and, in the future, raise some money.

In case it wasn’t clear from the lead paragraphs, I’m not usually bullish on the entire “influence” space. Though I’ll admit that life is essentially a long popularity contest – “It’s about who you know,” etc. – I don’t think that this really transfers well to the online world in a quantified, beneficial way. I do, however, find myself feeling different about Influenster.

This might be because both Scherle and Acar have a background in marketing – Scherle as a marketing guru and Acar as a marketing researcher – and are thus naturally good at selling their product to the skeptical masses (read: me) but at least some of it has to do with the model itself.

Other services, like Klout, feel like they’re lacking a purpose or genuine benefits for the end-user. Influenster gives influential people that meet a brand’s criteria free stuff. Though it’s easy to argue with the “influence” aspect of the service, “free” is a tough concept to poke holes in.