Product and service companies must also be aware of these "channel biases." At the American Red Cross, Banafsheh Ghassemi, VP of marketing and e-CRM customer experience, says the patterns of interaction differ by phone, postal mail, email, and social media. A giant among charities, with more than 500,000 volunteers and 35,000 employees, the Red Cross monitors social media comments made by volunteers, donors, and other constituents using the SaaS tools of Radian6, which Salesforce.com acquired last year.
"For the Red Cross, social media is typically positive--they're telling us how much they love us," Ghassemi says. "But if they're taking the time to write and email or send us mail, chances are it's negative. They either didn't like something or they wanted to express an opinion or make a suggestion."
Social networks were not, for the most part, a source of love for Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker during his recent election recall fight. Sentiment analytics vendor Topsy Labs found that tweets related to Walker generated a very low -1.999 sentiment score, while his Democratic opponent, Tom Barrett, registered a relatively neutral 0.932 score. Yet Walker carried 53% of the vote to stay in office. "In Walker's case, Twitter wasn't representative of the electorate, and it points up the need to choose your data carefully and interpret it with these biases in mind," says analyst Seth Grimes, who organizes the Sentiment Analysis Symposium.
Sentiment analysis technologies shouldn't replace conventional research, such as in-person focus groups, Ghassemi says. Focus groups and surveys are important for getting more depth into ideas picked up in social media monitoring. But each channel requires different tactics.
"The traditional researcher always wants to ask questions: Why do you use this product, and why do you use it that way?" Kraft's Cotignola says. "With social media, you just stand back and listen, and you can't ask, 'Why did you say that?' So it's a cultural shift for researchers."
Kraft Foods has developed a Community Intelligence Portal to tap into consumer sentiment across social networks, blogs, and other websites. Like The Wall Street Journal, Kraft relies on the services of NetBase, one of the largest among the growing number of sentiment analytics vendors. NetBase continuously pulls comments from more than 100 million Web sources into its ConsumerBase, a cloud-based database of consumer sentiment accessible via an API. NetBase runs natural language processing, analytics, as well as machine-learning algorithms on top of this big data resource, to help customers spot and make sense of relevant comments.
Cotignola says Kraft tries to "tune into the conversation" rather than just listen for brand mentions. "You have to listen when consumers talk about snacking, listen to what they say about the way they barbecue and what they use, and you have to listen to their emotions and feelings," he says.
The Perpetual Research Machine
Those are some of the limitations of sentiment analytics. But there are several key advantages.
First, social sites are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, so social media analysis is a real-time tool that's not subject to the time lags inherent in focus groups and surveys. Ghassemi of the Red Cross describes it as a "leading indicator" for her. "You can start to pick up on the signal in the noise right away, and once you spot a trend, you can go into your other channels and use conventional research to figure out what's behind the trend," she says.
Timeliness is essential to the Red Cross because it's often dealing with fast-breaking disasters, such as the earthquake in Haiti, where the nonprofit pioneered the use of text messaging for fundraising, collecting some $40 million within days to support ongoing relief efforts. It also listens to "on the ground" social chatter during disasters to learn where help is needed most. Meantime, it's listening for everyday comments about the brand and people's experiences at blood donation centers and health and safety courses it runs.
By mixing network analysis (who is influencing whom) with sentiment analysis (insight into what they're saying), companies can reach the most important influencers, not just the largest number of people, the way mass media can. Services such as Klout can help companies figure out who the "influencers" are for a particular topic or industry, and some of the sentiment analysis platforms have built-in features or add-ons to assess whether influential groups have positive, negative, or neutral opinions of a company or product.
"Even though the reach of friends and family is much smaller than a TV or radio ad, they're much more influential," Ghassemi explains. "If your cousin announces on Twitter that he just gave blood and that he feels really good about it, chances are you will pay more attention to that than to an advertisement."
However, social channels can approach TV and radio reach if celebrities or big media create or amplify the social content. If that cousin happens to be actor Ashton Kutcher, he'd be instantly telling 11 million people he just had a good (or bad) experience giving blood.