Bill Baker, CTO for Visible Technologies

Bill, most people still know you from your senior role at Microsoft in the BI app and SQL world and were surprised to see you suddenly at Visible Technologies.

It was something that had been in the works. I left Microsoft at the start of September, 2008 and started at Visible Technologies the next day. I gave a lot of notice, it was well-planned and we took care of things in flight and got it squared away, I've been going at my new job ever since. At Visible, I'm the CTO and run all the product development, machine and data center operations, which is important because we're in a software-as-a-service environment. You plan the hardware and data center at the same time you plan the software and get to scale out and get the deployment you want. I also run the IT department which is technology-related, but it's where we are going to take the product, decide how we'll build it, architect it and squeeze more performance out of what we have today.

What you're doing now is very different, but you've been known as a community-oriented personality when it comes to business intelligence.

Right, in the BI space, we're always worried about customers, what they're doing, what they plan to do and for the longest time, all we had was sales data. We knew what people bought and we knew what sellers did in terms of promotions or advertising or price points. But if a customer goes to a store and decides not to buy a product, we don't usually know much about that. If we go out and read a person's blog, they are talking about a product or a service, what they liked or didn't like about it and that's hugely valuable information. When it comes to what is going on in consumers' minds, they're already out there expressing that in social media. They're blogging, twittering, on review boards or forums. They're giving sellers the best opportunity ever to go find out what their customers are thinking.

So you're in the business of automating this analysis?

Yes, we build software that goes out and reads blogs robotically, we know what the conversations are about and who's doing the talking. We figure out if writers are influential, if they're positive or negative and we present that all in a software-as-a-service model to a manufacturer or service provider in a dashboard format. They learn what's going on and strategize what to do about it. The company itself has been around for several years, right now we have about 100 customers and 300 percent growth year over year.

It sounds like a new take on the focus group idea.

That's an interesting way to look at it. In a lot of ways we're the ultimate focus group, except we're not working with a designed set of questions. Our work is observational but companies can also use social media to start conversations if they want. They can track how comments flow through networks and how conversations attract people, how they cross link to other communities, so you do get a chance to make it like a focus group if you want.

Is the process more qualitative or quantitative?

It's both, and it starts with unstructured information, things like a comment. Whenever you analyze unstructured information, you get structured results and in the end we have a database and statistics and KPIs and dashboards to display all that.

What do the dashboards look like?

We look at sentiment in the aggregate, whether people are generally positive or negative, the percentages, the change over time. Our customers have these numbers 24/7 and watch the tenor of a conversation move over time. The main dashboard screen shows a summary of the volume of discussion over the last seven days, the 10 most active sites, the 10 most active authors, their aggregate sentiment. It might be that sentiment is 2 percent more positive, the number of sites is lower, but perhaps authors are up. From there you drill into the hot topics or products.

You use the terms "social media" and "CGM" (consumer-generated media) pretty equally in your marketing. Did your folks come up with the term CGM?

The word "social" in social media is important, but so is the fact that these thoughts are consumer generated. I'm not sure who originated the term CGM, but I like to distinguish that there are six types of social media. You've got mainstream media like The New York Times and Wall Street Journal, where people occasionally provide commentary. You have today's blogs as we know them. A third category are the microblogs [i.e. Twitter] which is what blogs were originally thought to be in the beginning. You've got forums where people go to dialogue about specific issues which might include questions or support-type stuff. The fifth type of social media are reviews of products and services, and finally you have the purely social aspect of Facebook, MySpace and the like. We look at those six channels of content and try to pull them all together.

In BI we talk a lot about the point of engagement with the customer, do we know this person, what they bought etc., which sounds more granular.

I'm not sure it's a whole different thing but we're not that well linked at this point. There are people who want to be open and honest but don't want to be sold for their honesty. They want to go to a retailer's Web site and comment earnestly on the pros and cons of a product only to have someone call them at dinnertime and pitch them a product. They want some respect for what they say. They don't mind being argued with, they want to be read and heard but not necessarily sold. We preach transparency in a big way.

Does this tie into Web analytics as we know it?

You do put the two together. You look at sites where conversations are occurring. If I find many influential authors on a given Web site I'll engage Web analytics for page ranks, links in and other information about that site.

You must be very interested in identifying extremely influential personalities like David Pogue who writes about consumer technology for The New York Times. But how do you sort the authorities from the attention grabbers out there on the Web?

Sure, David Pogue is highly influential and draws a lot of commentary. There are haters out there as well that tend to line up in different places. Sports blogs are the worst, but haters usually want to be anonymous and not found, they tend to be inarticulate and tend not to back complaints with facts. The David Pogues of the world spend a lot of time writing, they are thoughtful and back up their words with facts and draw a lot of comments. What you learn is that the guy who has his own blog writing about the same thing as David Pogue writes about wants to be found on David Pogue's blog. He wants to use the same credentials and identity to draw people back to his writing. The people who are the most articulate are the ones who want to be found.

What does all this say about the ways brick-and-mortar businesses are coping with the ascendancy of Web marketing?

Just look at the holiday results around Christmas where Amazon had a very positive quarter compared to big-box retailers like Circuit City who are already out of business. Momentum is clearly going to the Web for certain kinds of products and services. What's emerging is the value of the Web as a business asset in terms of conversations. The consumer knowledge has always been out there. Companies have gone after the same information in other very expensive ways when it's been sitting right there all along.

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