There’s gold in them there tweets
IBM’s Californian research centre is finding valuable information for marketers in social media messages
The Almaden Research Center: the setting brings to mind a California of the past, but IBM’s researchers are looking decades into the future
The private road up to IBM’s Almaden Research Centre, out beyond the edges of the last suburbs of San Jose, offers unexpected vistas that let a visitor imagine a California of the past, long before it became the 31st state in 1850.
But a visit to the facility, one of 12 IBM labs over six continents, reveals research on the cutting edge of the future. Much of the work here is “blue sky” research, where staff – including eight fellows, eight distinguished engineers, 13 master inventors and 12 members of the IBM Academy of Technology – work at imagining a technological future at least five to 10 years, and sometimes decades, ahead of now.
“It’s one of the last real industrial labs, so we can take a longer view,” says research staff member Eben Haber. “That kind of timetable is a real luxury in understanding very hard and complicated problems.”
He has a particular interest in the point where people interact with technology, not just technology itself. “Many times, the problem is not, ‘can I do something’, but ‘does it do something for people?’” he says.
A personal fascination is how people use social media, and what can be learned about an individual from their social media posts, the language they use and the pattern of their activity.
A practical application is to help companies understand and market to their customers – or potential customers – better. But when such information has to be gleaned from terabytes of data, the challenge is difficult.
Haber has been doing research that couples large-scale data analysis of posts on the social media site Twitter with established research in psycholinguistics that can discern personality types from the kind of language an individual uses. This could be useful to marketers, as responses to online marketing campaigns are far lower than direct mail or phone campaigns.
With $170 billion spent annually on direct marketing in the US, it is potentially quite a breakthrough – and not just for advertisers. It can be a wake-up call for individuals to understand better the value of their personal data, he says.
“It’s possible to learn a lot from tweets,” he says, especially when they are compared with past data, a Twitter user’s profile information, and other seemingly innocuous details spread around social media.
His experiment, which mined three months of tweets, identified 90 million distinct individuals, of whom 15 million were recently active on the site. The goal was to sift through all those individuals to try and find people who might be interested, say, in taking out a mortgage.
Of the tweets flagged as most likely to indicate such an individual, some 50 per cent turned out to identify people who, on close examination, clearly were interested in buying a house, he says.
“On the whole, this was remarkably precise in trying to find the right people,” says Haber, especially when direct marketing across all mediums, tends to be scattergun, with a measly 2 per cent success rate.
His research group used Twitter “because it is the most open of the social media sites” – most tweets are readable by anyone – and also because it is easy to get data for research. Twitter makes it possible to gather tweets directly, and there is a whole market of resellers who package very large Twitter data sets, he says.