Rise of the Machines

In April, when Domino’s suddenly had to grapple with the fact that a YouTube video of a couple of employees doing disgusting things with the company’s food was circulating rapidly across the Web, it was bad for the pizza chain’s business.

But Domino’s problem turned out to be good for business for a fast-growing segment: companies that track Web chatter. In particular, text mining firms like Lexalytics, Clarabridge and Visible Technologies say they have seen a spike in interest for their automated software programs. Text mining, which is already used by some Wall Street traders to track issues that could affect stock prices, is now employed by many top marketers, including Cisco, Hormel, Microsoft and Intuit, as a sort of blunt instrument to gauge online sentiment about a brand.

While none of the companies claim their software can get a precise read 100 percent of the time, they do claim an accuracy rate of between 60 and 80 percent. Jeff Catlin, CEO of Lexalytics, which developed a proprietary text mining system for Cisco, said such a solution is needed because there’s just too much information—whether on blogs, in news stories, on Twitter or elsewhere—for human beings to digest in real time. “If you look at reading a single story, a human will be better than a machine,” he said, and then added, when it comes to reading 100 stories, “if a machine gets it right seven out of 10 times, you’ll be able to predict the overall sentiment.”

Not everyone, however, believes that text mining is a silver bullet. Adam Nash, vp-search and platform products at LinkedIn, said his company has gotten a lot of requests from marketing and PR pros to add an interpretation feature to its popular Company Buzz tool, which tracks conversations on Twitter. But he thinks “it’s something that’s easy to do badly.” Steve Rappaport, knowledge solutions director at the Advertising Research Federation, meanwhile, cautions that text mining needs to be used with care. “It requires understanding what measures and indicators are truly measuring and indicating,” he said.

Despite their perceived limitations, automated tools for listening to branding messages is a growth industry right now. Suresh Vittal, principal analyst with Forrester Research, said the market for such solutions is around $150 million and “it’s growing at a very healthy rate right now.” Last week, the industry got another shot in the arm with the entry of Microsoft, a client of Visible Technologies, which announced a program called Looking Glass that tracks such messages for marketers and advertisers. According to the company’s advertising blog, it has used the technology to see what consumers were saying about Zune, its competitor to the iPod.

While it’s unclear what Microsoft’s entry into the category will mean for Visible, Vittal said it’s a net positive for the industry: “Anytime Microsoft enters a space, it’s validation.”

As Microsoft’s early interest in text mining shows, tech companies were early adopters to the technology. Intuit, for instance, has been using a text mining solution from Clarabridge for about three years, according to Chris Jones, Intuit’s analytics infrastructure manager. But Intuit, which makes popular personal finance software products like Quicken and TurboTax, has mostly used text analytics to monitor inbound calls from customers. Jones said the best use of text analytics is to identify what is causing consumers the most delight or pain. For instance, by monitoring such data, he was able to determine that many consumers found the company’s support site difficult to navigate, so Intuit reorganized it.

Jones acknowledges that his company is atypical in that most of the discussion is inbound. “We’re not a Pepsi or Coke where there are voluminous conversations outside our control,” he said. “We control about 80 percent of the conversation.” While Intuit’s marketing department has just started to use text mining for brand monitoring, Jones questioned the value of scraping sites like Twitter for insights. “If someone’s tweeting that ‘I’m sitting in a Starbucks having a latte,’ you don’t know where they are and they’re just stating a fact,” he said. “The richer conversations are where people are saying, ‘Hey, this is a great company because…’ or ‘Here’s what they need to change.’”

Nevertheless, adoption is spreading beyond tech. Sarah Hofstetter, svp-emerging media and client strategy at 360i, a digital marketing agency that lists Reckitt-Benckiser and NBC Universal, among others, as clients, said there’s been an uptick of interest since the Domino’s incident. “Fear has been the core of the motivation for daily active listening,” she said, though she didn’t say which clients were using it. “There are plenty of tools out there that you can license pretty cheap. The challenge is information overload. You can set up alerts to the point of crashing your inbox…It depends on the frequency of conversations about your brand and your threshold for pain.”