Relative to the latter, in many respects social media sites have become emotional dumping grounds. In postings long or short, depending where on the Web you are, people pour out their agony and angst, likes and dislikes, pleasures and displeasures.
From a business perspective, you might think about this as more of the same, only a different avenue into your customer's psyche. Company or product Facebook sites aimed at reaching out and touching customers join a long list of similar, although less technologically advanced, initiatives companies have engaged in over the years. Mailed satisfaction surveys, countertop drop boxes, customer complaint hotlines, firstname.lastname@example.org, Web forms -- these are but a few examples.
But the rise of social media as a business tool coincides with an increased interest in analytics and the fostering of data-driven decision-making. As a result, many companies are emphasizing the need to dig into what's being said by their customers out on the wild, wild Web.
And so we've seen growing interest in disciplines such as text analytics and sentiment analysis, with the goal being the ability to search out and analyze customer complaints or compliments generated in the free-form Web universe (as well as in similarly unstructured emails, PDFs, Word documents, PDFs, and so on). Text analytics, as discussed here, has become standard practice for many marketing departments as they study customer verbatim-responses from various sources, for example.
Such is the case at Oberweis Dairy, in Aurora, Ill. "Analysis of text records to understand customer complaints and quantify product issues is now just part of what we do," Bruce Bedford, vice president of marketing analytics and customer insight, tells me.
Sentiment analysis is similar but aimed particularly at monitoring emotions expressed on social sites, as AllAnalytics.com community editor Shawn Hessinger described in his blog, Getting Sentimental About Social Business Intelligence. A relatively new type of analytics, sentiment analysis is one of those topics that generates strong reactions among industry watchers.
We've heard of a handful of studies and actual use cases that show the effectiveness of sentiment analysis. Yet the naysayers are aplenty. As blogger Scott Koegler wrote in a recent AllAnalytics.com chat, "Combine anonymous users, no context, no consequences to comments. I can't buy that Twitter is anything but noise."
Another AllAnalytics.com community member had shared his equally strong feelings in a message board post. "Analytics is a powerful tool, and like the Force of Star Wars fame, it can be used for good and for bad. I guess it's up to who you talk to to define what's bad and what's good. But I think micro-targeting people based on their emotional responses (or instabilities) to sell them junk food, consumer electronics, and the like leans toward the bad," he wrote. "Then again," he added, "I don't get paid to market and sell junk food, consumer electronics, and the like."
With sentiment analysis being such a new and touchy topic, we asked two experts to weigh in with their thoughts in our latest Point/Counterpoint debate, available here. Joe Stanganelli, social media consultant, likes the approach and thinks companies will be able to derive good business intelligence from customer sentiments expressed in social networking content. Pierre DeBois, a Web analytics consultant with Zimana, is less enamored with sentiment analysis. Companies must realize they have a long haul ahead before they'll be able to enhance business strategy via sentiment analytics, he says.
How do you feel about sentiment analysis? Read the debate and share your thoughts on the message boards.