Sentiment. What exactly is it? Why does it matter and why would you want to analyze it anyway? I’ve spent a few days with these questions and have come to a few — hopefully interesting — conclusions. Jon Sanderson, Mindshare Technologies’ VP of Marketing, often tells me that the key to a good story, whether PR announcement or movie script, is conflict. Think of the last bland movie you saw. Chances are it was lacking sufficient conflict to keep you interested. Conflict is a sentiment - a negative sentiment. Sentiments like conflict are interesting and to your business no sentiment is more interesting than conflict with your customers. This drives many businesses to be hypersensitive to negative reviews in surveys and social media. But negative emotions aren’t the only sentiment worth watching. Both positive and negative sentiment reveal emotional connections with your customers that can and should be monitored. The best way to monitor sentiment is by simply asking your customers how they feel, like in a survey. This approach has worked for decades and shouldn’t be thrown out just because we think the sum total of human brand opinion is spewed out by Twitter every few seconds (it isn’t!). But surveys have limitations too. For example, the Milan Travel Bureau found that when customers were asked, “Did you come to Milan for Arts and Culture?” customers overwhelmingly answered in the affirmative. However, when analyzing Twitter feeds, they learned that the exact opposite was the case. This may have been because most people want to appear sophisticated and cultured, even in an anonymous survey. Unstructured data sources like social media and open-ended survey comments can reveal sentiment insights other methods miss. But what kind of analysis is possible using sentiment? One popular theme at the Sentiment Symposium was using a sentiment index as a proxy for another metric. For example, after establishing a baseline “average daily sentiment” from news stories or Twitter feeds, it has been found that positive and negative changes in sentiment over time can be a leading indicator of a company’s stock price. However, before you cash in your 401K’s and start trading on sentiment futures, remember that correlation isn’t causation and the technology is still new. Another common theme at the conference was to treat sentiment analysis like a metal detector at the beach. It can tell you where something interesting might be buried in the sand, but it can’t tell you how valuable that something is. Similarly, sentiment analysis can indicate something of interest occurring with a correlated metric like a stock price or customer satisfaction index, but it probably can’t tell you what that something is. It’s an early warning system, not a detailed threat assessment. Once you start digging for golden nuggets of insights that sentiment analysis points you toward, begin with the end in mind. Katie Delahaye Paine, CEO of KDPaine & Partners, a presenter at the conference, advised sentiment data users to keep a healthy supply of “so what?” on hand. You found a trend in sentiment. So what? Your social media analytics tools showed you somehow increased positive sentiment after last month’s PR blitz. So what? Is it moving the needle? Is it resulting in increased customer satisfaction and profitability? Find a way to tie it back to metrics that matter. Dan Stone, a consultant for Altman Vilandrie, observed that analysts often confuse the “what I have” with the business’s “what I want.” One way to make sentiment matter is to move beyond thinking about it in simple terms. Israel Mirsky, EVP of Emerging Media & Technology at Porter Novelli, a member of the Sentiment Symposium’s Expert Panel, said he’s moved beyond thinking about sentiment as simply “positive, neutral, or negative.” He thinks of it in terms of engagement, passion, and trust. The experts at the excellent 2011 Sentiment Symposium agree that the best use of sentiment analysis is to make operational improvements based on customers’ opinions. It’s one more way to keep your brand story so exciting that your customers just can’t put it down.