In the days of the eight-inch floppy disk, early information technology developers were trying to figure out big math problems and how to get to the moon. Did they foresee the era of sharing—rides, rooms, ideas, personal information, and photos? Today, we can easily find out what people are buying and eating, what their political views are, and which rapper they absolutely detest because what they share on social media can be easily found, monitored, and analyzed.
For some, there is significant value in all of that data. And who better to explain it than Timothy Torres, senior vice president of infrastructure at Sysomos, a social media analytics company?
“We work with companies, large and small, to help them figure out who their consumers are and what they are interested in,” says Torres, who works in Sysomos’ Sunnyvale, California, engineering office. The Sysomos headquarters is located in Toronto.
An example he provides is of a recognized soda brand that hired Sysomos to use image recognition technology to find their product in smartphone pictures shared by users of Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and other platforms. Surprisingly, it was seen very often with higher-end fashion accessories instead of the predictable backyard barbecues. “There was a bigger association with luxury products than thought,” he explains. That kind of information helps marketers identify markets in ways that no other forms of research can.
Similarly, the company is able to monitor and analyze political discussions. The 2016 presidential election, with so many contentious primaries earlier in the year, provided a rich trove of data. And it’s not just about what is being said but it is by whom [in demographic metadata], where, and with how much intensity.
And social media chatter can affect businesses in unexpected ways. When Sysomos picks up on outbreaks of colds and flus through real-time analysis of social data, it can advise an antibacterial consumer products firm where to reshuffle its distribution to reach regions where those infections are most pronounced.
When an athletic shoe marketer starts using a celebrity spokesperson, consumer reaction can be identified within hours, not months as was the case in the old analog world.
It’s all testimony to the powerful information technologies that have come into existence. It’s also about how people apply these tools in very human ways.
“Technology isn’t interesting until people use it.” He qualifies that in Sysomos’s case, the technology used is just a product of human ingenuity. Just as important, is that it starts with people looking at a problem or a question, after which they create the algorithm that helps mine through the data to find what they want to know. “Even people who are not technology-focused are very interested in how to deploy software that yields something useful,” he says.
It’s this interplay of technology and people that fascinates Torres.
“The stereotype of the technology worker is someone who is dry and numbers-oriented,” Torres says. “I’ll admit that in a lot of ways, that can be true.” And the creatives—the client-facing product managers who help work through those issues—tend to be the younger, more socially aware with larger personalities. So how do these two types work together?
“At Sysomos, we bridge this,” Torres says. “We keep communications active between these two types of people. Both sides have to understand each other.” As a very engaged tech person whose career started on a help desk, Torres successfully served as a bridge between both worlds even before he started working for Sysomos. He encourages techies and creatives around the globe to learn as much about each other, the tools available, and their business objectives as possible as a means for producing better results—for their companies and their careers.
Another challenge that Sysomos and many other companies face is the sheer volume of data available. Torres says Sysomos reads and indexes about four terabytes of new public information every day. While information is power, it’s daunting to see how that much data can be collected, analyzed, and used.
A big part of what adds to this is the Internet of Things, where devices, mechanical and digital machinery, buildings, highways, bridges, and even animals transmit data without human interaction. This is an opportunity for Sysomos to apply its data analytics capabilities to help make sense of things beyond human-centric social media. “In every situation, we are committed to making data approachable and useful,” he says. “It boils down to the smart application of math and science.”
“In every situation, we are committed to making data approachable and useful. It boils down to the smart application of math and science.”
This leads to the exciting prospect of predictive analytics, using data wherever possible to know what might happen in the future. “We are working to get to rapidly applied predictive technologies on an affordable level,” he says. “This will help us get ahead of issues before they happen.”
Of course, a lot of this raises the specter of privacy—how much do we want our own thoughts known, much less our futures predicted, by entities outside ourselves?
Torres explains that what Sysomos does is not about individuals but rather metadata. And that the company strictly adheres to privacy laws and contracts. Most importantly, the information used is freely shared by all. “When they share on social media, people are basically standing on a soapbox in the public square,” he says. And companies like Sysomos have the tools to use their proclamations to glean useful information about our society.
A New Kind of Marketing
For decades, marketers have wished to capture the most effective tool: word of mouth advertising. When 1950s homemakers talked about their laundry detergent over backyard fences, it could secure brand loyalty for life. But who knew who was saying what to whom?
Today, Sysomos’s Influence product does. It identifies influential people discussing brands in social media conversations. Correlating the product with publicly available biographical information, marketers can see who the influences are. Better yet, they can connect with individuals in those groups in relevant and meaningful ways.
The tools of traditional marketing research lose by comparison in cost and efficacy—except with diminishing groups of people who are not (yet) plugged into social media.