What is sentiment analysis & how does it relate to artificial intelligence (AI)?

Mention artificial intelligence (AI) in a business setting and you’re likely to send your staff into a panic fostered by decades of speculation about robots making human labour obsolete. To be sure, the potential range of applications is enormous and indeed, some eagle-eyed folks may have already noticed AI and robots showing up in some industries to handle menial, repetitive, or promotional tasks. A new trend in human resources (HR), however, may have identified the best use yet for AI—sentiment analysis. Here’s why in this case, the robots may well be the best people for the job.

Sentiment analysis is a jargony term that refers to a type of contextual data mining intended to get at subjective thoughts or feelings. By measuring positive and negative language in a survey, from call centre agents, on social media, or from any other source, sentiment analysis can provide deep insight into how your audience truly perceives your business or product.

The collection, measurement, and analysis of enormous amounts of data is always more efficiently handled computationally rather than by hand, but resource allocation is not the most compelling reason to bring in the AI. Indeed, it is the very fact that the intelligence is artificial that fosters an environment of anonymity and veracity.

B2B use of sentiment analysis and AI

There are multiple ways B2Bs can use this type of data. Consider an employee satisfaction survey. Having a deep, rich, and detailed sense of what does and does not work in your workplace culture is extremely valuable to any business owner. After all, satisfaction is connected to productivity and growth, and a lack thereof can be extremely costly. Satisfaction surveys are intended to address this by uncovering problems, but they are less effective if they don’t include sentiment analysis. After all, how can an employee speak out about something that bothers them, especially when they suspect it is their employer who will analyze the results? Most hesitate to be the squeaky wheel for fear it might impact their chances of advancement. Would you be prepared to speak candidly about your workplace experience under these same conditions? And even if you could capture the true opinions of your employees, would you trust human operators to properly interpret the data?

For businesses, there are also external applications. Customer feedback forms or surveys are one great example of this. The real, unedited thoughts and feelings of a customer toward a business or product are extremely valuable as they can identify trends, drive improvement, and help foster deeper engagement.  However, in addition to the problems identified above, companies struggle with low response rates and with uncovering the true root causes of customer issues. This is where AI comes in.

Let’s return to the issue of staff surveys. A business owner looking to capture employee sentiment has a few options. You can use traditional methods but even at best, results will be limited by the closed, cursory responses of the survey design. You can offer anonymity and encourage participation by outsourcing survey management to an external outfit, but this will not eliminate human operator bias or failure in interpretation. Or, you can work with sentiment analysis where respondents can give long-form feedback, and look to AI—robots—to collect and interpret the data, thus closing the major gaps in your existing process.

The benefits of sentiment analysis in a nutshell

Using AI for sentiment analysis can be a great value. You can realistically foster trust around anonymity, as literal robots are reading the responses—the results of individual staff members never need cross management’s desk. This encourages more participation, which gives the AI more data to analyze. Increased data points translate to better analysis of the true meaning—the sentiment or opinion—being expressed, which will result in more specific, actionable strategies for management. Best yet, these benefits apply whether you’re surveying employees or collecting feedback from customers.

There is some irony in the situation—that AI may well be the best way to access the most human of emotions—but isn’t this the kind of improvement the technology was built for? If a robot analyst is what it takes to make workplaces happier, healthier, and more profitable, I’d say AI is living up to its promise.