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The New Math of Social Media Research

RELATED: Media Companies' Social Problem

Faced with the challenge of tracking and analyzing billions
of posts, blogs, tweets and other social media artifacts, companies are
increasingly turning to a handful of major providers of social media tracking
services that use sophisticated software systems based on cutting edge math to
crunch through massive amounts of data each day.

Some of computer tracking system are already producing
important practical insights into social media conversations that major media
companies and the Hollywood studios are using to promote new films and
programs. "In the movie industry our clients are already amazingly astute in
using our services," notes Jennifer Zeszut, chief social strategist at Lithium
Social Media Monitoring, which works with a number of studios. Based on the
social media conversations "they can tell four weeks out if something is going
to be a big hit and if it doesn't look good four weeks out, they are putting an
amazing amount of effort into changing the course of events. It is pretty
amazing how predictive some of these tools have become."

As time goes by, these insights could become even more
valuable, potentially becoming the basis for improved strategies for promoting
new shows or network programming.

Melyssa Plunkett-Gomez, VP of sales and business development
at Crimson Hexagon, says that they worked with a client to analyze a new one
hour U.S. network show. The show received huge critical acclaim when the pilot
was screened in May, but opened with poor ratings and was quickly cancelled in
the fall.

In tracking social media chat about the show, they found
that it had attracted very positive comments but not a lot of conversation, she
notes. "One of the things that this customer learned was that if they had real
time data, they could have made investments to help build the conversation and
awareness of what was a really good show," she says.

Winning Combos

Over time, providers are also hoping to more closely
integrate this social media data with TV ratings and other more traditional
metrics. "It is very important to look at everything in an integrated
fashion-you can't just look at things in different silos-and we're spending a
lot of time blending data from other sources, like Nielsen's ratings" with the
work they do tracking social media, notes Pete Blackshaw executive VP of
digital strategic services at NM Incite, a joint venture between Nielsen and McKinsey
& Company.

Such efforts could provide researchers with a much wider
look at a show's performance and provide networks with a way to sell both a
show's ratings and its audience engagement. Zeszut notes, for example, that
ratings and the amount of social media activity aren't always related.

"One client of ours, Disney, was shocked to see how they're
different than the official Nielsen rating" was from the amount of activity the
shows were getting in social media space, she says. "They were able to use that
to win advertising deals [with companies] that were looking to connect with a
very young social media crowd."

At the moment, however, social media researchers are still
struggling to solve a number of more basic problems.

Sifting Through A
Flood of Sentiment

One major issue is simply narrowing down the flood of
information. Scott Centurino, CEO of Crimson Hexagon, which works with such
companies as CNN, Dow Jones and a number of major broadcasters and agencies,
notes that anyone trying to track the reaction to the movie Catfish with a simple key word search would
find themselves crunching through a huge number irrelevant responses about
cooking catfish or going fishing.

Figuring out what the relevant results might mean is also
difficult. On the simplest level, many companies use social media tracking
services to see if their brands are being viewed positively or negatively by
consumers-something that is called sentiment analysis.

But this kind of analysis is complicated by the sarcasm,
irony, slang, abbreviations, emoticons, poor grammar and bad spelling that
widely appear in social media texts. "Computers have to take that very freeform
language and try to decide if it reflects a positive, negative or neutral
assessment of a brand," notes Zeszut.

To make that determination, social media tracking services draw
on a number of different types of research, including natural language
processing, advanced statistical techniques and semantic analysis.

Natural language processing, which grew out of work on such
areas as artificial intelligence and the automated computer translation of foreign
languages, uses complex algorithms to process and interpret texts so the
information can be automatically summarized and analyzed by computers.

Sematic analysis uses advanced math and algorithms to try to
uncover the meaning by tracking patterns of words. By breaking up the
underlying semantic structure of a sentence, the computer determines which of
the words expressing emotion are connected to the key word being tracked.

Companies like Lithium Social Media Monitoring, formerly
Scout Labs, use semantic analysis while Crimson Hexagon uses what it calls a statistical

Based on research developed by Gary King, a co-founder of
Crimson Hexagon and the director of Harvard University's Institute for
Quantitative Social Science, their software also uses proprietary algorithms to
track the statistical relationships and patterns between words but it relies on
users to determine if those relationships express a positive or negative

With their system, users are given a number of sample posts
and then the software uses their classification to analyze the rest of the
material, notes Centurino, who says this helps avoid them imposing their biases
on the analysis.

Dr. Nick Koudas, president and co-founder of Sysomos, notes
that their platform uses three approaches-natural language processing,
statistical and semantic tools and stresses that their product is able to
handling a large amount of international data. "You can crawl and collect data
from 186 languages in 1989 countries," says Koudas, a well-known researcher who
holds more than 20 patents.

Measuring ROI

Koudas adds that they will soon be introducing a new
product, Sysomos Audience that will help people to analyze the return on
investment they've achieved from social media. "It is important because it will
give our clients the means to say social media is important because this is the
ROI we've achieved by using this technology," Koudas notes.

As researchers work to improve their software, some users
stress the importance of being able to see how the system is analyzing results
so they can correct any errors that might lead to misinterpretations. 

CNN, for example, used Crimson Hexagon for its coverage of
the State of the Union speech earlier this year and is using the social media
tracking service for its mid-term election coverage. While they've been very
happy with the results, Alex Wellen, senior executive producer, integrated
programming at CNN, stresses that "given the state of the technology you don't
want to take the data and just stick it into a machine and have it pop out all
the answers. As a news organization we owe it to our audience to play a role in
that analysis."

Companies also need to work especially hard to make sure
they follow up on whatever results they get. "It is not enough to simply give
people social media data, you have to understand how to make it actionable,"
notes Blackshaw. "If you are going to spend dollars on listening to social
media, you have to find a way for that information to bubble up through your
organization" so that it becomes more "strategically important" to the
company's efforts.