By Irene Tham
On Nov 24 last year, a day after news broke about his plans to run for the presidency if he garnered enough support, 'Tan Kin Lian' was mentioned 144 times on local forums and blogs. Two days before, his name had come up only about 20 times.
In the subsequent few days, netizens' sentiments of Mr Tan turned positive from the low regard they had of him earlier in the month. The reason: People wanted some contest for the presidency.
Earlier, some netizens had criticised the ex-CEO of insurer NTUC Income while he was in that role, while others had questioned his real motives behind the sudden role he took on as the voice of the common man.
These online sentiments were recorded and analysed by local technology start-up Brandtology. Its clients were three banks which wanted to track 'Tan Kin Lian'.
He had created quite a stir in the last three months of 2008, protesting against local banks at the Speakers' Corner on behalf of investors who had lost money in financial products linked to collapsed and troubled United States banks.
Understandably, his blog postings and other related cyber chatter became of interest to the institutions he was accusing.
The three banks, whose identities Brandtology declined to disclose, wanted to gauge the public's attitudes so that they could better plan a course of action to appease angry investors.
That organisations are using technology to quarry opinions on social networks like blogs and forums is a first here.
Until recently, no one had marketed advanced tools to extract and 'make sense' of the information trove on these sites.
At least two Singaporean firms have sprung up in the past seven months to mine and analyse netizens' comments on popular Net hangouts like The Online Citizen, Ping.sg and HardwareZone.
Brandtology - started by IT veteran Eddie Chau, 47, who previously founded security software firm e-Cop - is one such company.
Hiring close to about 30 people based in Singapore, Brandtology has invested about $1 million to date on technology development and operations.
'In the past, you had to pry information out of people. But today, they freely volunteer their opinions on the Net. This is a valuable database waiting to be unearthed,' said Mr Chau.
'Our fast-growing base of 20 clients is testament to the demand for our service.'
The other firm is JamiQ, started by former public relations consultant Benjamin Koe, 28.
This is a much smaller outfit, with five full-time staff based here. It raised about $100,000 in start-up capital, half of which came from the Media Development Authority of Singapore.
Mr Koe stumbled on the idea when he was working at a public relations firm and searching the Web for comments on a client's product. But he found no analysis of user sentiments.
'JamiQ was formed to fill the void,' he said.
Both start-ups declined to reveal the names of their clients, but said they included banks, government agencies and consumer electronics makers.
By turning to Brandtology and JamiQ, organisations inevitably acknowledge the growing influence of chats in cyberspace.
Influential bloggers are not only telling people what to think about, but are also shaping opinions and possibly action. This gives governments and corporations grounds for concern.
Computer assisted analysis
Random scanning of the Net may not be enough if an organisation wants to accurately assess the public's feelings towards a product, policy or an individual.
Here is where Brandtology and JamiQ's technologies come in handy.
Brandtology's natural language processing software - which 'understands' English, Chinese and Malay - first scans and organises Web content by author name, comment and date posted.
Comments related to a specific keyword, say 'Tan Kin Lian', are then analysed in the context of the article before being labelled as negative or positive.
For instance, the phrase 'bringing dishonour upon himself' in the context of Mr Tan initially keeping mum about his political ambitions is classified as a negative comment.
Further checks are then made by Brandtology's social media analysts to verify that online sentiments have been interpreted correctly. The analysts look for nuances, like sarcasm or slang, which might have been taken at face value by the computer software.
A blogger's influence can also be tracked based on the number of threads, or online responses, his comments attract.
Unlike Brandtology, JamiQ relies mainly on blog alerts and news feeds as well as Google's search results and page ranking to gather data.
So far, JamiQ has done three ad-hoc projects for public relations agencies and consumer electronics makers.
Organisations are beginning to wake up to the idea of mining cyber chats to stem damaging gossip if they have to, as well as for instant feedback on products and services.
Mr Melvin Yuen, director of digital strategies at public relations firm Waggener Edstrom Worldwide, attested to the trend.
'Companies can get instant feedback instead of waiting a few weeks for market survey or focus group study results,' he said.
Within hours of the commercial roll-out of, say, a mobile phone, the Web would have been flooded with grassroots comments on how the phone compares with its predecessor or a competing gizmo.
Similarly, when a service breaks down, the Net is likely to be the first place people go to air their frustrations.
Brandtology, which monitors Web activities round-the-clock for some clients, claims it can report on a widespread problem, say, an online banking glitch, within an hour of the first online complaint.
Armed with such instant feedback, organisations have a better chance of redeeming themselves from bad publicity.
Brandtology and JamieQ have first-mover advantage, but it is not too late for other technopreneurs to consider getting into this potential goldmine.
This story was first published in The Straits Times on 18 January 2009.