A couple of years ago, I got lost in rural New South Wales because there was no phone coverage, which meant Google Maps wouldn’t work. I made a mental note to buy a TomTom, as old-fashioned satnavs don’t depend on a data signal. So when a tempting deal on a TomTom came up last Black Friday, I bought one.
It was not a great decision. It is telling that the same model is still available at close to the Black Friday price. I had forgotten Google Maps can now work offline, but the surprise was how clunky and antique a TomTom seems today. I was disappointed enough to tweet about it.
So why did I bother to flag up my dud purchase? Chris Palengat, an advertising veteran for Mars and Cadbury Schweppes among others, offered me his theory at his new non-advertising company, Freemavens, in London’s Soho.
He pointed out how selective I had been in the audience I had chosen. The post wasn’t for family and friends on Facebook, but for a tech audience on Twitter.
“When we tell people about a product or brand we like or dislike,” Mr Palengat said, “we do it to strengthen our relationship with them”. I was not so much annoyed with TomTom, I realised, but keen to bolster my own “brand” as a supposedly wise head on tech.
“Word of mouth is categorically the most important influence on what people buy, and most of that is online,” Mr Palengat says. Freemavens’ mission is to analyse word of mouth from social media, but also from Google searches, to help brands make more desirable products.
Furthermore, he believes, once companies make the right stuff, they won’t need to spend on advertising, because the public will do the advocacy for them free of charge. Also, there will be little need for focus groups or market research because it’s all in the public domain — if you can extract it.
Sceptical renegades who have ceased to believe in advertising are not uncommon in the guff-o-sphere that is adland. But Mr Palengat, a Madrid University politics and economics graduate, is less guff-laden and more down-to-earth than most.
A former Saatchi & Saatchi account director, who knows my technology bent, had told me I would find Mr Palengat’s work interesting.
Its 55 staff “scrape up”, as he puts it, data from the repository of social media posts and Google searches, which grows yearly by 3tn datapoints. The anonymised searches are particularly revealing because they are questions people ask the internet privately, rather than with an audience.
Freemavens works in 22 languages and counts Coca-Cola, Vodafone, GlaxoSmithKline, Avast and Levi-Strauss among its clients. Mr Palengat says there are other companies in the same field, but that Freemavens’ approach is unique in that it is wholly based on empathy to public sentiment.
“We believe consumers get a raw deal from brands and businesses. They don’t try hard enough to give them what they want. We want to help them, to use the adage, ‘make things people want, not make people want things’.”
So when, for example, a client wondered if there was a market for a non-dairy version of a popular ice-cream product, Freemaven analysed 200,000 online conversations to reveal that, yes, there was a modest potential market. The ice cream was duly launched.
In another case, Arabic speaking employees scraped social media to solve a problem for a hot beverage company suffering poor sales in Egypt. The problem, it emerged, was that, with salaries stagnant and electricity costs rising, it had become cheaper on hot days to go to an air-conditioned coffee shop than to make a brew at home with the air-con on.
The company did not tell Mr Palengat what they did after being given this insight, but seemed happy to have it.
So the next time you ask on Twitter or search on Google for a better mousetrap — remember Big Mousetrap’s online agents may be monitoring your every click.