This post is part of the "Future of Business" series, which examines how cutting-edge technologies are rapidly reshaping our world, from how businesses run to how we live. "The Future of Business" is sponsored by SAP.
Companies know this and are carefully listening, thanks to software smart enough to deduce the emotions behind your words.
That's pretty amazing when you think about it: Social-media software today doesn't just find all references to a company or a product, it helps that organization understand how people feel about it.
The technology is called sentiment analysis. It uses complex math algorithms called "natural language processing" to figure out which words are considered positive and which are negative. This lets a company understand the overall message of thousands of mentions a month and to find tweets or comments that need a personal response.
The classic example is Starbucks. Did you know that there are 10 tweets every second mentioning Starbucks? And a tweet that says "I urgently need my cup of Starbucks and a scone before I head over to Staples" is distinctly different from a tweet that says: "URGENT: I just bit into a scone from @starbucks to find over 10 staples baked into it. Please RT and be careful." Yet, even at 10 tweets a second, @Starbucks consistently finds and answers those tweets where customers complain.
Nonprofits like the American Cancer Society are also using sentiment analysis. The ACS uses sentiment analysis to get feedback on its programs and events, says research analyst Liz Keck.
It's not entirely automatic, though. The software needs to be trained, she says. She points out that for other companies, the word "cancer" and "kill" could indicate a negative comment. Not so for the ACS.
"If someone says 'kill cancer,' both are negative words, but for us, it would be positive," says Keck. "So we had to teach the computer to recognize it as positive."
The ACS gets about 6,000 mentions a month on Twitter, public Facebook pages, blog posts, and in comments on blogs or articles. It sees a spike whenever it has its big fundraising event, the Relay for Life. The Relay, where teams of people walk or run on a track nonstop for 24 hours, has become an international phenomenon with races in cities all over the world. It has raised more than $4 billion to fight cancer. The ACS tracks about 62,000 mentions a year about the event.
Thanks to social media, Keck and her team have learned what kinds of things make the Relay better. For instance, the Luminaria Ceremony, where people honor loved ones lost to cancer by lighting a candle, is the most important part of the event for many.
"They put the lights around the track and walk around the track," says Keck. "It's very emotional."
Participants also love the part of the event where survivors take a victory lap around the track.
The ACS learned that it needed to highlight these ceremonies in its marketing materials for the races to help draw in participants.
The ACS also used sentiment analysis to find out what it should be tweeting and posting. For instance, October is Breast Cancer Awareness month and pink ribbons are everywhere. Some NFL teams even wore pink shoes and gloves to raise awareness.
But awareness isn't enough.
"We could see the buzz on social media but one thing that didn't show up was mammography recommendations," says Keck. "We want to make sure people are talking about these prevention recommendations."
So it inserted information about prevention into posts on Facebook and Twitter.
"It's nice to have people telling us what they want to hear and what they want to know instead of having to go ask them," she says.
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