What if you could get inside people's heads and know how they feel about your business?

Traditionally, the only way to truly know someone's feelings about your company was if they told you directly, such as through a testimonial or a customer complaint. You knew that people were talking about your business, for better or for worse, but your ability to monitor such word of mouth was limited to what you might hear through the grapevine.

Tweet Me How You Really Feel
The internet has come a long ways toward changing how people talk about your business. Many conversations occur online in a way that can be seen by all. The internet has become the de facto space for making recommendations or airing grievances about companies and products. Anyone can publish a review online, and many feel the need to comment on everything from the quality of their morning coffee to the effectiveness of a local TV ad. 

When it comes to knowing how people feel about your business, getting people to share their sentiments is no longer the problem. The problem lies in monitoring and analyzing all of the information that is out there, and finding ways to improve the public sentiment towards your company.

Sentiment Analysis Programs
To fill this need, a number of online companies have developed, or are working to develop, sentiment analysis software. These sentiment analysis programs automatically monitor and collect any mentions of your company or brand online. They then analyze the wording of the comment to determine whether the mention was positive, negative or indifferent.

Teaching a computer program to correctly understand human feelings is not a simple process. Even human readers can sometimes have difficulty identifying customer sentiment based on a few words of text, without the contextual clues provided by body language or tone of voice. For example, the simple one-word statement "Great!" could have one of two completely opposite meanings, depending on whether the comment is presented sincerely or sarcastically.

Building a literal sarcasm meter is just one of the challenges faced by sentiment analysis programmers. However, since even humans have a hard time determining the intent behind such statements, sentiment analysis programs don't have to be perfect in order to be relatively accurate, or useful.

Using Sentiment Analysis
Several companies already provide online sentiment analysis as a service. The true value of those services depends on how you use them.

•    As a time saver. Theoretically, business owners or managers could perform sentiment analysis manually, by regularly searching the web and the various social media platforms for any mentions of their company or products. They could then determine the sentiment behind each comment or article and calculate the overall feelings and trends, same as a sentiment analysis service would do. However, that takes time, and if the company is large enough to generate a high volume of online mentions, it could quickly become unfeasible. The idea behind a sentiment analysis service is that it does all of the work for you.

•    As a benchmarking tool. Even if your company were small enough for you to do sentiment analysis yourself, you probably would not want to also do the same for every one of your competitors. A computerized sentiment analysis program can crunch the numbers on your competition or on similar companies in your industry. Without these comparisons, you have no way of knowing whether a 75-percent positive sentiment rating is a cause for celebration, or concern.

•    As a tool for managing or influencing sentiment. News travels quickly online. If a highly negative review of your company is posted by someone influential, or receives enough attention to go viral, you could have a major image problem on your hands. Sentiment analysis allows you to pick up on negative (or positive) spikes in sentiment quickly, and can help you pinpoint the source of the problem. You can then respond publicly, reach out to the person who sparked the negative press and take immediate steps to limit or reverse the damage.

In the coming years, online sentiment analysis is likely to grow in accuracy, functionality and use. So, if you agree that knowing how the public feels about you can be a highly useful tool, now would be the time to start looking into how sentiment analysis could work for you.

Chris Vaughn is the Content Marketing Director for DigitalSherpa, the world's largest content marketing provider for small businesses. With the recent acquisition of SocialTract, DigitalSherpa is thrilled to welcome the HVAC community in to our client family. Learn more about content marketing and check out our free e-books and whitepapers at http://digitalsherpa.com. Connect with Chris and the DigitalSherpa team on Facebook and Twitter or e-mail Chris directly at cvaughn@digitalsherpa.com.