Crimson Hexagon Edges Forward in Social Media Analysis with Big Customers Like Bing

OK, I think both the Boston and Seattle tech communities should pay attention to this startup. Mostly because it overlaps with a number of local efforts on both coasts. But also because Microsoft’s Bing is involved.

The three-year-old startup is Crimson Hexagon, based in Cambridge, MA, and it is the brainchild of Gary King, a Harvard University professor of government. Its basic approach is to use statistical techniques to monitor and analyze social media conversations, for marketing and branding purposes. The company says its main differentiator from other kinds of monitoring technologies—those based on keywords, semantic understanding, or brute-force methods—is its “human-assisted smart technology” that lets customers drill down into the specifics of what people are saying about certain products, for example.

“We let you see true meaning within the landscape of that conversation,” says Scott Centurino, the company’s CEO.

My colleague Wade has followed Crimson Hexagon since the fall of 2008. (The company’s name is apparently a reference to a 1941 short story by Jorge Luis Borges, not Harvard’s color.) Centurino became chief executive as of last April, succeeding Candace Fleming, who was the founding CEO. “Candace was the one who reached out to me. She decided she took the company to the point she was prepared to take it, and was looking for someone to come in,” Centurino says. “What I bring is the operational experience to put in place the things required to get to predictability and reliability.”

Crimson Hexagon plays in an increasingly crowded and competitive arena that includes companies like BuzzLogic, Radian6, Scout Labs, and Nielsen Buzzmetrics, and Boston-area firms such as Lexalytics, Cymfony, and Buzzient. And off the top of my head, I can think of a half-dozen Northwest companies such as Visible Technologies, Marchex, Evri, Appature, Jive Software, and Raveable that are all tackling different aspects of social media analytics, including “sentiment analysis”—being able to tell how many people are saying positive or negative things about a particular brand or entity, say.

Centurino emphasized that his company’s technology goes far beyond sentiment analysis, and—with its latest product iteration announced yesterday—it allows corporate customers to “see the analysis in a variety of ways” in a “significant upgrade” to the user interface. Crimson Hexagon also has massively increased the amount of social media data it is processing—up from a total of about 4 billion posts as of six months ago to adding 2.5 billion new posts every month (for a total of about 20 billion and counting).

The work is starting to pay off for the company, which counts among its customers Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard, CNN, and The Wall Street Journal, plus a slew of large marketing agencies and PR firms. Insights from Crimson Hexagon’s software “have become a key part in developing and executing our marketing strategies,” said Lise Brende, director of marketing analytics for Microsoft Bing and MSN, in a statement. “The analysis allows us to see and understand the nuances of online conversation from our widely varying customer segments, and we’ve been able to learn what’s working and what isn’t in real time.”

Microsoft is certainly tracking the social media monitoring sector closely, and has been eyeing potential acquisitions, from what I’ve heard. A company like Crimson Hexagon still has a ways to go in proving itself and becoming profitable, especially as the price of less sophisticated monitoring tools keeps going down.

The Harvard startup is banking on its ability to help companies deal with different styles of writing across blogs, Twitter, Facebook, and so forth—including being able to handle things like sarcasm, abbreviations, and Web slang. Its software also works for different languages besides English.

“Customers who use those bulk tools very quickly run out of steam. We try to be creative, and have flexibility in our pricing model,” Centurino says. “We know the [return on investment] is out there.”

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