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Firms gauge attitudes online

Services track perceptions of people, products

Search services like Google are great at helping people find nuggets of fact on the Internet or in corporate databases. But at Cymfony Inc. in Newton, they're taking on a different challenge. They're searching for attitude.

Cymfony is one of several firms using search tools to gauge peoples' opinions about everything from soft drinks to political candidates. By scouring newspapers, magazines, internal corporate documents, and the Internet, these firms show their clients how their products are perceived and help them plan image-boosting campaigns.

"The goal is to have an automated way to find that through thousands of documents," said Andrew Bernstein, Cymfony president and chief executive.

Cymfony and rivals like Needham's FAST Search and Transfer rely on software that scours databases for relevant information. For example, a car firm might want to look at every newspaper story that mentions its products and those of competitors. These documents are available through commercial databases like Lexis-Nexis. But there is a lot of valuable data on the Internet as well. "You can go to websites; you can go to chat rooms; you can go to message boards," said FAST's vice president of global marketing, John Rueter. "You can actually crawl competitor websites to gather information, as well as stream in news feeds . . . it's a way of gathering a broad amount of information."

Once the information is gathered, the real work begins. The analysts then employ software that uses linguistics and statistics to gauge the tone of an article or a bulletin board posting. "You look at things like adjectives and adverbs," said Lee Phillips, FAST's director of intelligence solutions. "Those give typically an indication of the tone and sentiment and attitude that the writer is taking on that subject."

The results can be graded on a scale from extremely positive to deeply negative. The customer can track which information sources are friendly and which are hostile, and design a response aimed at enhancing his product's image.

FAST's Marketrac system displays an array of documents related to the company's products, along with a visual indicator of the writer's sentiment. An upturned thumb means the article is positive; thumbs down means that the company may want to consider launching a charm offensive.

Cymfony's system displays a "buzz box" that highlights hot-button topics. At a glance, users can see what industry analysts are saying about a product. Or the software can flag comments from important people -- a key government regulator, for instance. Along with this comes a chart displaying the rise or fall of overall sentiment about the product, based on the tone of press coverage or Internet commentary.

Brodeur Worldwide of Boston, a major public relations firm, has used Cymfony for the past couple of years to help clients plan their media strategies. Group manager Stephen Greene said the system helped a small Canadian software company identify aggressive advertising attacks from larger American rivals, and craft an effective response. "It's an element used in near real time to drive what we call rapid response," Greene said.

This ability to fight back fast could be a politician's dream; Cymfony's Bernstein said he approached the presidential campaign of Howard Dean about using his service, but Dean's candidacy collapsed before it could be arranged.

One sentiment surveyor isn't waiting. Biz360 Inc. of San Mateo, Calif., promotes its technology by running a survey on its website, www.biz360.com. The survey tracks the media coverage given President Bush and John Kerry. So far, it has found that while Bush is frequently hammered by negative coverage, he is dominating the news. Kerry's coverage is mostly positive, but there's very little of it.

Whether or not presidential candidates use the sentiment survey technology, other government agents do. Cymfony just landed a $2 million contract to supply systems for use in homeland security and military intelligence.

There may even be a market for the technology among ordinary people. FAST aims to find out. "We have plans for doing this kind of database, larger in scale, for unveiling to the public," Rueter said. The service, due to be launched this fall, will let anybody punch in the name of a car, a politician, or an athlete, then see what the rest of the Internet thinks.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.

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