In our online, data driven society, a vast amount of opinion transfer goes on every day through blogs, forums, and general social media. This ‘grassroots’ dialogue provides a real insight into what is driving people, and what they really think – blogs provide an ideal location for people to talk about their real life experiences, and air grievances in a much more open way. And enterprises would be wise not to ignore these views from the Joe Bloggers of this world. Witness the recent ‘about turn’ by Facebook regarding its terms of service around retention of content submitted by users. Of course, this is an extreme example, and the threat of legal action probably did as much to force the u-turn as the groundswell of user opinion. It does, however, illustrate the power of public opinion. In the case of Facebook, however, the underlying sentiment showed itself quickly and far too clearly to miss. For many companies, however, gauging sentiment is not such an easy task.
A recent briefing with IBM was all the more interesting because of this. The focus of the briefing was a brand management tool that sits within its portfolio called COBRA (which stands for Corporate Brand and Reputation Analysis), which allows identification of relevant marketplace sentiment as expressed on blogs, social networks and news sources. The tool allows companies to spot trends, relationships and opinions that are being expressed on defined areas.
The possibilities of this really aren’t difficult to imagine. In government, for example, it is important to understand how people feel about issues that will sway political sentiment. Green is one such area, the government’s handling of the current economic crisis another. To be able to know what people on the street think and are saying is a valuable tool when preparing to reach out to those same people. Similarly, an enterprise, in the retail space, for example, cannot fail to benefit from advance intelligence that presents itself in social media on a competitor’s campaign strategy. Competitors’ campaigns can be seriously undermined if a company has advance warning and is able to quickly respond with a counter campaign. And this is where COBRA comes in. It scours literally thousands of dispersed items very quickly and bring the number down to a few hundred relevant ones on which mere mortals can carry out detailed analysis, COBRA having eliminated areas that aren’t worth looking at. It will also identify the strength of ‘signals’ – for example a weak signal could be an early indicator of an emerging trend. IBM claims that COBRA is able to identify strong and weak signals from thousands of documents daily with high accuracy.
Of course, COBRA isn’t the only such tool in the marketplace that can perform sentiment analysis, but it is one of a number that are starting now to gain traction – David Tebbutt has blogged on sentiment analysis on several occasions, most notably about Corpora (part of Infonic). Nor are such tools the answer to everything – no amount of clever software will completely remove the need for the human element. But in our world of information overload, tools such as COBRA really do seem to make an impossible task possible, and are surely real gems.