Snooping for better customer service

The title for this post is perhaps less of a blooper than the name RIOT that was given for a software program developed last year by Raytheon that can lay out a detailed picture of people‚Äôs lives by scrubbing data from social media sites. The initial if predictive backlash from privacy advocates was overwhelmingly negative if not riotous. When RIOT's existence came to light, Raytheon responded with a terse statement defending its scope by saying that it "is a big data analytics system design we are working on with industry, national labs and commercial partners to help turn massive amounts of data into useable information to help meet our (the UK) nation's rapidly changing security needs."

Despite the company's testy response the program likely has more use for marketing purposes than any predictive ability for national security as bad actors are unlikely to post their intentions on social media sites.  (For the record, the company claimed that RIOT had "inovative privacy features that enabled the sharing and analysis of data without personally identifiable information being disclosed".)  

A year later the idea of analyzing chatter on social media sites to get a true sense of consumers' view of products and services has gained considerable currency as companies, big and small, are discovering that people are far more truthful and natural when discussing their experiences on social media as opposed to even well-crafted surveys as there is a tendency, formally dubbed the Hawthorne effect or response bias, on the part of most responders to try and gauge the researchers' intent leading to incorrect and/or incomplete responses 

The sheer volume of data on sites from Instagram to FB makes this a challenge according to a recent article in the Financial Times which quotes an analyst at SAS, a business intelligence company as saying that gleaning information from patterns and frequency of sentiment expressed on social media is a pointless exercise; analytics per this view needs to "learn the nuances of language that people use when discussing specific topics". 

The FT report cites the example of LateRooms, a UK based hotel booking site which dropped "Lucy" a made-up character who sent offers to prospective customers which was subsequently dropped after a survey of social media sites found "she" was disliked.  LateRooms also uses Brandwatch, a social media analytics service that enables queries about customers, events and competitors. 

Despite the more nuanced approach suggested in the foregoing it is unclear that merely following consumer moods and sentiment can lead to either better service or even less the creation of new products as the late Steve Jobs made abundantly clear with his oft-repeated quote " people don't know what they want until you show it".  In the hospitality business the inflection point was the idea and creation of boutique hotels, a concept that has revolutionized the industry but one that was originated by a then newcomer, Ian Schrager. 

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Vijay Dandapani

Co-founder and president of a New York based hotel company for 24 years. Grew the firm to five hotels in Manhattan and also developed a greenfield project at MacArthur airport, New York. Speaker at numerous prestigious forums including Economy Hotels World Asia, Lodging Conference, NYU, Columbia University Real Estate Roundtable, Baruch College's Zicklin School and ALIS. President and ceo of New York City Hotel Association since January 2017.