Cultural trend spotting, a long promised perk of social media, may soon be a common tool for retail practitioners as data analytics firms become more adept at the technique. The obvious goal of measuring sentiment running through online chatter — blogs, online discussions, Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, etc. — is to identify trends before they become commercially influential, thus getting a jump on competition. IBM is demonstrating its skills in this burgeoning area with the recent announcement that it has identified "steampunk" as a style that will have a sizable influence on fashion, design and media in 2013.
The origins of steampunk can be traced to the science fiction of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne and emerged prominently in more recent media such as The Wild, Wild West film starring Will Smith and The Prestige. It is a retro-futuristic interpretation of Victorian era imagery with campy, goth/punk overtones. (Got it? Think Captain Nemo meets Lady Gaga.) The sensibilities of the "sub-genre" are diverse, but often involve cogs, clockwork, frock coats, brass, leather and goggles.
"We first started looking at steampunk around about 2008 — the beginning of 2009. We were starting to see this phrase being used in contexts which were in a different cultural domain from fiction," explained Dr. Trevor Davis, IBM consumer products subject expert, in an interview with RetailWire.
"Birth of a Trend is an initiative that we started to stretch our science and technology to find what I call slow-moving trends that have got commercial viability," said Dr. Davis. "So these are trends with staying power attractive to retailers, brand owners and manufacturers."
Social media analysis must tackle huge quantities of data quickly enough to be practical for businesspeople. There is also the need to apply natural language processing so that, beyond merely pulling search results on keywords, one can recognize when chatter is sarcastic vs. sincere and snatch important comments out of the "background noise."
"The software says, 'Here are the top ten things.' You then bookmark those and watch them for a few weeks to see if they move. The ones that don't disappear, you then build some analytical models around and you track those over time, over geography or as they move across cultural domains."
Dr. Davis refers to "boiling points" or spikes in the social sentiment index that typically occur when the style is reported on in the media. Other sentiment analytics projects by IBM have looked into trends affecting high-end perfumes and food and drink products. Dr. Davis sees a great many benefits for the retail industry.
"By staying ahead of a trend as it develops," he stated in a news release, "a retailer can more effectively control critical merchandising, inventory and planning decisions. Technology can provide tremendous foresight to help businesses differentiate what is a fleeting fad, versus what is an enduring trend."
In which retail sector do you expect social media analytics will ultimately be most useful?