Social media monitoring platforms and sentiment analysis technologies can help you manage and make sense of the deluge of brand-relevant comments posted on Facebook, Twitter, and other social networks. But there's no silver bullet in technology.
The hard part, as we note in our recent feature story, "Sentiment Analysis: How Companies Now Listen To The Web," is creating and executing on a realistic social media strategy. Consumers go through a multi-step journey when evaluating and experiencing your products, according to McKinsey & Company, so the trick is to monitor and respond to social comments the right way at the right time, amplifying positive sentiments, leading potential customers to product offers, and gently steering misguided critics toward reliable information.
Social networks have built in biases, so don't think of sentiment analysis as scientific research. The Wall Street Journal and other media outlets are careful not to present sentiment analysis results as reflections of popular opinion. And social media analysis can't replace conventional customer focus groups because you can't ask follow-up questions to understand why people hold certain opinions.
Social media analysis does offer many distinct advantages. For instance, it's a real-time, always-on resource that's an invaluable early warning indicator of crises and emerging trends. American Red Cross, for example, uses social media to find influential donors and volunteers with lots of friends and followers on social networks, and it spotlights influencer opinions to build community and enhance the bond with the charity.
Think beyond your brand when analyzing social media comments. Kraft Foods listens to how customers interact with its products and what new recipes they're trying rather than just counting positive and negative comments about its brands. In fact, comments often can't be classified as strictly positive or negative, and it's very difficult for sentiment analysis tools to understand the nuances of human language. Focus on responding the right way to the majority of clear-cut comments, addressing complaints and service requests, and amplifying the positive sentiments of satisfied customers.
It's also important to seize on viral social media attention--so long as it's positive. Procter & Gamble did just that in in late February when workers at the Daytona 500 were shown on national TV using Tide detergent to clean the track after a crash and fuel spill. The company quickly seized on the social media buzz by producing a related TV commercial within a matter of days.
This being an election year, perhaps the most valuable and timely tip is to focus on "swing voters," meaning the people who haven't necessarily made their minds up about your brand or products.
While sentiment analysis dashboards often highlight the red "negative" comments and green "positive" comments, Christopher Frank, co-author of the social media strategy guide "Drinking From The Fire Hose" says it's important to focus on the yellow "neutral" segment. It may be easier to sway this large group of potential customers than to change the entrenched opinions of those in the negative camp. Winning over the undecided customer is the key to a winning campaign. Now dig into our tips.
Consumers consider and evaluate before they buy, and they have to have a positive experience before they will advocate a product and bond with the manufacturer as a loyal customer. Social media monitoring platforms can help organizations spot consumers at each one of the steps along this "consumer decision journey." As outlined in this McKinsey & Company article on Demystifying Social Media, brand and product managers have to respond appropriately at the right time. That might mean commenting publically on social media to get out ahead of a potentially damaging controversy, or it could mean quietly channeling specific comments to customer-service channels for one-on-one intervention. When the sentiments are positive, you can retweet or otherwise amplify the favorable customer reviews. You can also lead consumers toward helpful resources or time-sensitive targeted offers, moving them along the decision journey toward the sale.
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. In this piece appearing in March, Sentiment Tracker looked at 28,000 Twitter and Facebook comments about Tim Tebow joining the New York Jets.
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 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 the Sentiment Analysis Symposium in May.
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.
Consumers react to different entities in different ways through different channels of communications. 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. Comments on Facebook and Twitter about Red Cross are typically positive, she says, but when people take the time to write an email or send a letter, chances are it's negative. "They either didn't like something or they wanted to express an opinion or make a suggestion," Banafsheh says.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker had the opposite experience with social networks 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 of AltaPlana.
Mass media like TV, radio, and newspapers can help you reach the masses (if you have the budget, that is), but social media can help you reach targeted influencers. The American Red Cross knows that recommendations from friends and relatives (including those posted on social networks) have more influence on donations than ads or fundraising campaigns. By mixing network analysis (who is influencing whom) with sentiment analysis (insight into what they're saying), companies can reach the most important influencers. You can use services such as Klout or built-in features available with some sentiment analysis platforms to figure out who the social network influencers are for a particular topic or industry.
In some cases social channels can approach TV reach if an influencer happens to be a celebrity. If actor Ashton Kutcher tweeted about giving blood, for instance, he'd be instantly telling his more than 11 million followers about his good (or bad) experience.
Sentiment analysis technologies can't replace conventional research such as in-person interviews and focus groups that let you go in depth on inferences you might have picked up on through social media monitoring.
"The traditional researcher always wants to ask questions: Why do you use this product, and why do you use it that way?" says Frank Cotignola, consumer insights manager at Kraft Foods. "With social media, you just stand back and listen, and you can't ask, 'Why did you say that?'"
Social networks are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, so one advantage of social media analysis is that it's a real-time tool that's not subject to the time lags inherent in focus groups and surveys. Use social media sentiment as a leading indicator and a way to track sentiment over time, but then use conventional research to figure out what's behind the trends.
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."
Kraft, for instance, has more than a dozen flavors of barbeque sauce and it's always looking for new recipes. Thus, knowing what people like about barbecuing, how they cook, or what new dishes they're trying may be more valuable than knowing what percentage of comments about a particular brand are positive or negative.
Online comments don't fall neatly into "positive" and "negative" buckets. There's a range of consumer sentiment that challenges even the most sophisticated natural language processing technologies. Catherine van Zuylen, VP of products at sentiment-analysis vendor Attensity, details at least seven shades of sentiment that defy easy categorization, from false negatives like "crying with joy" to compound sentiment like "I loved the trailer but hated the movie."
Sophisticated sentiment-analysis systems can be optimized to handle some subtlety, but no amount of tuning will lead to perfection. It's best to focus extra effort on acting on the majority of clear-cut sentiments.
Whether it's through an offer, a video, or an entry to a contest, you can spur viral social media attention that can far surpass the power of paid media, says David Edleman of McKinsey & Company in this interactive tutorial on social media strategy. Once consumers have purchased your product, a next step is encouraging them to share ratings, recommendations, or even referrals through social media. You can also devise special deals, insider access, or exclusive content that encourages people to share the value with their friends, says Edleman. By building communities where consumers can share their own recipes, exercise tips, or tastes in music, you foster everyday contact with and loyalty to your brand.
Procter & Gamble was listening to the social buzz in late February when workers at the Daytona 500 were shown on national TV using Tide detergent to clean the track after a crash and fuel spill. Within days, P&G created a TV commercial, posted on YouTube, using footage of the incident. As a sportscaster narrated, talking about "a new use for laundry detergent." Captions read: "You keep inventing stains … we'll keep inventing ways to get them out."
"P&G was just tracking the Tide brand, and all of a sudden their monitoring system just lit up," says Christopher Frank, co-author of "Drinking From The Fire Hose: Making Smarter Decisions Without Drowning In Information". "Their social team responded quickly, and it speaks to the capability of being agile."
Many sentiment analysis dashboards highlight the red negative sentiment and green positive sentiment, but Christopher Frank, co-author of "Drinking From The Fire Hose: Making Smarter Decisions Without Drowning In Information" says it's important to focus on the typically larger yellow segment of neutral sentiments. These are would-be customers without entrenched feelings who can be moved to buy or who might be at risk of falling into the negative camp. It's the consumer equivalent of the swing voter, and as we're all witnessing as the election year heats up, politicians know they have to focus on these undecided voters to win the campaign.