By STEVE LOHR
No one doubts that social media – all the stuff on Facebook, Twitter and other online forums – provides a rich lode of user sentiment that companies ought to be able to exploit. And not just to sharpen their marketing, but also to improve their products and services – potentially, the ultimate source of customer views and a crowd-sourced suggestion box.
But the challenge is how to make sense of the ocean of information, find meaningful patterns and use it as guide for action. The digital tools for social media monitoring and analysis, analysts say, are still primitive. The current ones focus mainly on so-called sentiment analysis, giving companies a broad-brush approval rating at best.
SAS Institute, the leader in advanced business intelligence and data analytics software, thinks it can do better. It is introducing a software service on Monday called SAS Social Media Analytics that analysts say seems to represent a step ahead in social media analysis tools.
The new SAS service is powered by the natural-language processing technology that SAS picked up in 2008, when it acquired Teragram, a Cambridge, Mass., specialist in that niche of artificial intelligence.
Analysts who have looked at the new offering – and tried it out – are impressed by the accuracy of its automated sentiment analysis. Until now, they say, software alone has not come near the caliber of “human readers” (a person reading through thousands of tweets related to a given company and rating each as positive or negative).
Katie Delahaye Paine, head of a communications measurement and research firm in Berlin, N.H., said the best sentiment analysis software has been about 70 percent accurate, compared with human readers. But when she tested the SAS service it scored 92 percent.
Mark Chaves, director of marketing intelligence at SAS, said the service will also allow companies to move beyond sentiment analysis of social media. For example, he said the tool will allow companies to attach “influence scores” to identify the people, blogs and Web sites that are most important to their company or industry.
In the case of a hotel company, Mr. Chaves said, the technology could be used to find people on Twitter who have the highest percentage of tweets related to the hotel industry or that specific company. Then, a heavy hotel twitterer would be graded by number of followers, a sign of influence. Next, the hotel twitterer would be graded by how often he or she is retweeted, an indication of the engagement of the poster’s online audience.
Using the technology, SAS recently identified the 10 most influential Twitter posters for a hotel company, which Mr. Chaves declined to name. The hotel company’s marketing staff knew of only one of the top 10, he said.
O.K., so then what does the hotel company do? Presumably, reach out to these influential people on social media to make sure they have the latest information about the company and its services, Mr. Chaves said.
Along with online ads, he noted, working with “these influencers can become an important part of a company’s digital media mix.”
“Is that going to lead to more positive results for a company? We don’t know,” Mr. Chaves continued. “But it will lead to a more data-driven, focused approach.”