"From my perspective, the work is all in that up-front investment," said Maynard, the director of research for Room 214, a digital agency based in Boulder, Colo. In other words, once she has done a good job of framing her questions in a way the software understands, the answers just roll in--and, more importantly, she can often get answers to more specific questions than she could with other tools by going beyond simple keyword tracking. "I don't recommend it to every client because sometimes it doesn't make sense, but where it works well you can get a much more fine-tuned sense of what's being said on the Web," she said in an interview.
Crimson Hexagon competes in a crowded market for social media monitoring and listening tools, but it distinguishes itself with what the company calls a "statistically based, human-aided algorithm" based on research from Harvard University's Institute for Quantitative Social Science. Wayne St. Amand, the company's senior director of marketing, said that is how ForSight goes beyond keyword tracking, "which tells you people are talking about something a lot but doesn't tell you why," and sentiment analysis, which gives the analyst a rough idea of positive or negative opinions without providing much detail about the reason for those opinions.
Instead of punching in a list of keywords to track, a ForSight user must take the time to page through a series of social media messages manually and assign them to categories. This helps train the automated system to understand what it's reading better than software alone could do, for example by applying human understanding to the problem of identifying statements that are sarcastic or that are expressed in a Twitteresque series of abbreviations that even the best natural language software would have trouble decoding.
"The computer can't replace human judgment, but our tool allows you to basically train the computer to replicate your judgment and your understanding particular phrases," St. Amand said in an interview. Once trained, the software often achieves about 97% accuracy in scoring or categorizing statements, which puts it on about the same level as human judgment, he said.
The product has gained notice for its use by the media. For example, Crimson Hexagon ran studies on behalf of Fast Company magazine when the introduction of iPhone service by Verizon was rumored, back in October and again when the deal was announced in January. CNN used the tool as part of its mid-term election coverage, such as an analysis of attitudes toward the Tea Party. Powell Tate, a communications agency founded by former White House press secretaries Jody Powell and Seila Tate, has created an online tool called PoliPulse that shares illustrations of public opinion based on Crimson Hexagon data on an ongoing basis.
The Verizon/iPhone example is one St. Amand used to illustrate what the software can do. For example, a Crimson Hexagon analysis last Fall was able to show how many social media participants thought the iPhone coming to Verizon was just a crazy rumor as opposed to those who took it seriously. The tool could also pick out who planned to stick with AT&T, who would consider changing to Verizon, and who wanted to switch to Verizon at the first opportunity--even though the comments used very different words to express those thoughts.
Maynard said she finds that ForSight allows her to create a filter that knows the difference between "it's cheap, and I hate it" and "it's cheap, and that's why I love it," a distinction that would otherwise be lost on a computer.
Zach Hofer-Shall, a Forrester Research analyst, said in an interview that Crimson Hexagon is targeting a segment of the market that is most concerned with data quality and accuracy, whereas social analytics players like Radian6 (which is being acquired by Salesforce.com) are known for delivering high-volume analytics relatively inexpensively.
Crimson Hexagon enterprise customers tend to be large, sophisticated marketing organizations that have made it someone's job to do social media monitoring and reputation analysis, he said. So even though setting up an analysis in Crimson Hexagon may be a little more labor intensive, it makes sense for that person to spend the time, he said. "For them to be dedicating an afternoon, or even a couple of days, to making sure it's right--that's a no brainer. That's what they're there for."