Sentiment Heads

The idea of quantifying online sentiment is powerful and has been growing increasingly popular in recent years. Hedge funds have been formed to trade the stock markets based on data extracted from the Twitter firehose. Market intelligence firms charge companies obscene amounts of money to monitor, analyze, and manage the online conversation around their brands. But all of these tools are based on implicit, rather than explicit signals, and far out of reach of the average consumer or small business.

Silicon Valley startup Swipp is emerging out of stealth today hoping to change this with what it calls the world’s first social intelligence platform. While offering superlatives like “world’s first” is a sure way to find yourself retracting a statement in the future, Swipp is at least tackling the problem in a rather unique way.

The idea behind the product is that each social expression that users share on Swipp’s social platform will contribute to a living sentiment graph. For example, if I live in San Francisco and post a comment that reads,“I hate the rain,” the City by the Bay will get a slightly negative rating for the day. (The topic “rain” may get a more severely negative rating.) All topics are measured on an 11-point scale with five degrees of positivity, five degrees of negativity, and neutral.

Sentiment signals from around the world are recorded, archived, and structured. The result is a searchable social graph that can deliver real-time and historical sentiment data around any topic, and which can be further segmented by location and demographics. As fulfilling as it may be to share your feelings with the world, it stands to be far more powerful to then get a response around how those nearby or far away are feeling about the same topic. Users can also discover how sentiment around a topic has changed over time.

“Our goal at Swipp is to take all the ideas, thoughts, and comments that are currently being lost and bring them together in meaningful new ways that can be used by people, businesses, and developers alike,” says co-founder and CEO Don Thorson.

The platform’s initial knowledge graph covers 10 million topics, a number that will grow as user contributed content. The product will launch in 45 countries in five languages – English, French, German, Spanish, and Portuguese, with more to come, with the full topic graph available in each. The company has also appointed on the ground community “ambassadors” in the UK, Germany, Brazil, Spain, Portugal, Brazil, and France to ensure that topics are properly localized both linguistically and culturally.

The Swipp platform is rolling out today with consumer-facing iOS, Web, and mobile Web apps, as well as a pro version for businesses. Swipp Plus is an embeddable widget that allows businesses to host a topical conversation directly on any Website. For example, CNN.com may post a question about the candidates during a presidential debate. Finally, the company is launching with a developer API that makes it possible to integrate Swipp social intelligence into existing or new third-party applications.

The problem that Swipp, which announced $3.5 million in Seed funding from early Groupon investor Old Willow Partners in April 2012, is hoping to solve is massive. Which is why the company spent two years in stealth getting to this point. It’s the kind of project that one might bring up when confronted with the all-too-common, yet utterly oblivious statement, “Nothing new or interesting is happening in tech these days.”

This said, the company faces major challenges, the most significant being network effects. Swipp becomes enormously interesting and valuable at scale, when millions of users from across the globe are regularly sharing sentiment around a wide variety of topics. But first it has to get there. That’s no easy task.

The Swipp team took the admirable yet risky step of deleting all internal private beta data from the system to keep the permanent sentiment graph pure. The company will suggest several hundred initial topics to get the ball rolling, but after that, it will be entirely up to users. At launch, the app faces the very real possibility of feeling like a ghost town. As Color and other social community platforms have painfully discovered, there are rarely second chances to make a first impression.

Even with this problem solved (hypothetically), the platform must continually wrestle with far larger players like Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, Path, and more for finite resources like time spent social networking and even smartphone homescreen real estate – two elements that are inextricably linked. Just because the end result of a highly engaged Swipp community is enticing, does not mean it can compel users to foster one.

Thorson is committed to keeping Swipp free to consumers for as long as its in existence, and is equally opposed to selling ads, he says. Instead, the company hopes to monetize by selling premium data dashboards built around competitive trending data (e.g. Pepsi vs. Coke), and also offering more granular analytics such as minute by minute trend data. Premium users will be able to receive alerts to changes in sentiment that cross predetermined thresholds.

The company plans to launch event- and brand-based vertical instances of the platform, beginning with one tied to this year’s Super Bowl. Users will be able “to Swipp” (the company hopes this will become a verb) around topics including teams, players, and brands/commercials.

We’ll have to wait and see what user sentiment has to say about this.