There's Facebook, Twitter, and the other social networks, plus community-driven websites, all of them generating comments good and bad about your company, products, and rivals. The promise of a never-ending focus group (along with fear of not knowing what's being said about you) has given rise to a fast-growing market for social media monitoring and sentiment analysis software and services. What could be better than letting technology magically comb the Web to bring back and interpret brand-relevant comments?
If only it were that simple.
If you wade even ankle deep into social media monitoring, you quickly realize that it's a much more nuanced problem than spotting positive or negative opinions. For starters, comments often have multiple meanings or gradations of meaning (see "7 Ways Sentiment Is Hard To Decipher Online"). And when it comes to marketing research, the best insights often come with no mention of a specific company or its products.
"The mistake people make is they just listen for brands and miss all the conversations," says Frank Cotignola, consumer insights manager at Kraft Foods. "I tell people who are using this data to flip it around: Listen to what people are saying, and then see how your brand fits in." Knowing what percentage of comments about a barbecue sauce brand are positive or negative may be far less valuable than gathering insight into what people like about barbecuing, how they cook, or how they'd like to cook.
Cotignola and other seasoned miners of social media sentiment--at the likes of American Express, The Wall Street Journal, and the American Red Cross--say it takes a lot of human interpretation to get any value out of sentiment reports. While the technology is driven by marketing in most companies, IT shouldn't sit on the sidelines, as it has a role in expanding use of sentiment analysis across the company.
This Isn't A Survey
Pollsters and the news media routinely use sentiment analysis technology. The Wall Street Journal's Sentiment Tracker is an infographic that shares public opinion about certain topics as expressed on Facebook and Twitter, using sentiment analysis software-as-a-service from NetBase Solutions. Recent topics it has tackled include space-launch vendor SpaceX's taking "One Small (Privatized) Step..." toward a commercial space program and the Mark Zuckerberg "Hoodie-Gate" episode. Out of 1,000 Facebook and Twitter posts on Zuckerberg between May 7 and May 11, 47% were positive about him and his Wall Street backers wearing hoodie sweatshirts while pitching the Facebook IPO to investors, 41% were against it, 4% made comparisons to the Trayvon Martin case, and 8% cracked jokes, such as "Zuckerberg should have the decency to graduate to a pinstriped executive hoodie." (Sentiment analysis can't yet tell if a joke is actually funny.)
The Journal has been careful not to present Sentiment Tracker as a scientific public opinion poll, as Twitter and Facebook users are younger and have higher incomes than the population at large. "It's just very important for us to always make a distinction as to what this actually tells the reader, and not present it as something more than it is," said deputy editor Ryan Sager, speaking at last month's Sentiment Analysis Symposium in New York.
The Journal's editors have talked about weightier uses of sentiment analysis, such as a Candidate Tracker for the current election season. But here, too, they'd have to be clear about the biases of social media. "Ron Paul has always kind of had a very high and very positive Internet buzz because he's Ron Paul, and that's where his audience is," Sager noted.
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