If I tweet my feelings about an artificial sweetener, Coca-Cola wants to know about it. Am I discussing new scientific findings about sweeteners? Praising the taste of one while maligning another? Talking about how it’s helped me lose weight? Marketers typically pay big money for research into what people are thinking about–to gauge success, identify threats, ferret out misinformation, and pick up on themes that resonate with consumers.
These days, ample clues to the future direction that products should take are hidden in the fields and streams of the Web. “Brands don’t become great by monitoring the past,” says Stan Sthanunathan, vice president of marketing strategy and insights for the Atlanta-based Coca-Cola Company. “The challenge is to have a point of view on the future.” Tens of millions of new blog entries, status updates, and tweets appear online every day–so information is out there for the taking, on everything from tech product launches to new movies to soft drinks to brands of soap. “Consumers know what they want and are giving their opinions in an unconstrained fashion,” he says.
The trouble is that there’s far too much data for any team of human readers to get through. “Very often, you end up boiling the ocean,” Sthanunathan says. Machines can help, but peering into human emotion is a more complicated task than traditional search and analytics. After all, feelings often come in the form of abbreviated, slang-ridden tweets that computers cannot translate into anything meaningful. Marketers today aren’t mining simply for information on click-throughs and page views–they want to mine the secrets of the human heart and come up with hard data on soft concepts such as “mood” and “passion.”
A new crop of companies say they can deliver this to brands. Jonathan Spier, CEO and cofounder of Netbase, a startup based in Mountain View, California, bills his company’s technology as able to “read and understand the English language.” He means that to include emotion and nuance.
Coca-Cola has been testing Netbase’s platform at its corporate headquarters since September, using it to watch the response to a new advertising campaign–and to monitor the discussion around artificial sweeteners. Sthanunathan says Coca-Cola plans to roll out the platform within the company globally starting in November. Netbase has impressed him, he says, with “its ability to understand the context as opposed to just the content.”
Spier explains how Netbase works by citing a sample tweet: “The iPhone has never been this good.” Some systems that purport to tease out users’ moods search for keywords, such as “iPhone,” “never,” and “good.” Most of these would be fooled by the sample sentence, interpreting its sentiment as negative because of the word “never.” The simple word “this,” however, alters not only the mood of the sentence but also its intensity. “The iPhone has never been good” is a negative statement, Spier explains, while “The iPhone has never been this good” is strongly positive.
Although Netbase’s consumer marketing and research product is new, it’s based on R&D that goes back to 2004. The company has eight patents pending, some from its early work building a platform to identify and understand patterns in English sentences. More recently, Netbase has added statistical learning capabilities that allow the system to improve as it encounters more and more text.