One of the first things I’ll do before even meeting with a prospective client is a little bit of homework. One of the things I’ll do is a quick sentiment analysis. This is where I do some searches, use a few tools, and see IF people are talking about the business in question, and then WHAT they are saying about the business. Are they saying good things? Or is there a lot of negative chatter? In some cases, it might even be a mix of both.

I’ll do some general Google searches and Google alerts. I’ll check out appropriate review sites, such as Yelp or Urban Spoon. I’ll do some basic searches of Twitter and other social networks. I might even use some sentiment analysis tools that can be found online, but only sparingly.

Sentiment analysis is a part of brand and reputation monitoring that is incredibly important. It helps you understand the perception (or perceptions, plural) that people have about your business. It gives you a benchmark as to what kind of work you have cut out for you as you move forward with an online communications plan. Are you digging out of a hole of negativity? Or are you starting from a good position of positivity? Which perceptions can you build on, and which do you need to work on?

For what it’s worth, I believe that sentiment analysis can only be properly done by a human. Automated tools can help you collect some of the data, but it’s important to put a human eye on things to properly interpret sentiment. Here are a few tips on gathering and interpreting sentiment data:

1. Online tools generally can’t sense sarcasm and subtleties in language – A popular Facebook meme is the “said no one ever” meme. An example of this would be, “Your incessant posts about politics on Facebook have made me fall in love with your candidate…said no one ever.” In testing this on various automated tools, this statement was ranked as a positive sentiment, when in actuality it’s a negative statement.

2. Online tools generally can’t interpret your choice of words – This is similar to the first point, but most of the online tools look for positive and negative words, i.e. love, like, always, never, not, and so on. But with today’s loose use of language, the negatives aren’t always negative, nor are the positives always positive. We’ve all heard the word “bad” used in the sense of something actually being “good” and that’s a rather simplistic example, but our word choice isn’t always easily interpreted by an algorithm. Consider these two sentences:

“I will never eat at Joe’s Bar & Grill again.”

“I will never eat anywhere but Joe’s Bar & Grill again.”

Clearly the first statement is negative, while the second is positive, but based on structure and the use of the word never, several of the online tools see them both as negative. So even if you use a tool to monitor your brand, you need to read through such statements to determine the real sentiment behind the words.

3. Context is critical – It’s important to understand the context of when something is written. A statement made at one time might weigh differently than a statement at another time. What other factors might have influenced a particular online statement? It could be as simple as the time of day, time of year, the weather, or something else, that might color one’s impression of a business. For instance, if I go into your restaurant at 2 p.m. and have to wait an hour for someone to take my order, it’s a lot different than going to that same restaurant when they are a lot busier during a meal rush. At that time, I might think that a one hour wait is reasonable.

Also, I’ve seen 3-star reviews (out of 5), that on further reading seemed like positive reviews. One person’s 3-star review might be another’s 5-star review.

4. Consider the source of the statement – I know of several locals who go out of their way to write negative things about businesses. So much so that they wear their curmudgeon status like a badge. Also, is the negative review coming from a real customer, or a competitor who wants to tear you down. On the same note, a positive review from your mom shouldn’t be considered as heavily as one written by John Q. Customer. Having said that, you also need to figure out what level of influence each individual might have. A statement by one person might carry more weight than the same statement by another person. And remember that the concept of “influence” can be fluid and relative.

5. Consider the timing of the statement – One of my clients is still battling some bad reviews from several years ago. What’s unfair about this is that the business had a different owner at that time, and the business has changed drastically, for the better. It’s now our job to encourage more positive reviews. That bad review might not be legit for the current owner, but it still might color the perception of someone who has no knowledge of the business and is looking online for guidance.

6. Understand that negative often outweighs positive – We are rather negative creatures. Most of us are more likely to voice our negative opinions online than our positive opinions. We like to talk bad about something we think is bad. With that in mind, remember that the negative statements might just represent a vocal minority. Now you have to encourage the rather silent majority to speak up.

7. Dig deep – Don’t just look for the obvious statements. Search for every configuration of your business name (including misspellings) that you can think of: Joe’s, Joe’s Bar & Grill, Joe’s Bar, Joe’s Restaurant. If people refer to you in some way, look for it, even if it isn’t your correct name. If your business name has changed over time, you might even need to search for the old name.

Do your research, and do it well. Don’t rely solely on automated listening tools, even if they promise to provide true sentiment analysis. Understand who your customers are and what they are saying about you. This will give you an understanding of how your brand is perceived, and what foundation you are building on (or tearing down).

How have you monitored your brand and researched the sentiment related to your business?