Measuring Street Cred

Just when I think every market research method has been found, I run into someone like David Holtzman.

Holtzman is CEO of OPION Inc., based in Herndon, VA, whose first product is now emerging from beta test. “It’s based,” he says, “on a set of technologies that let individuals express themselves and businesses get fairly detailed market research without violating privacy.”

Put simply, OPION analyzes existing public newsgroup traffic to find which people move opinion on any subject. Once it finds people with street credibility, it analyzes their other opinions and changes in opinion on the subject in question.

It’s complex software, but the discussions are public and names are never used. If they were, you might have something like “Magic Town,” the old James Stewart movie where a pollster finds a town whose thoughts precisely mirror those of the nation. The magic is lost when the people learn they’ve been used.

How does OPION learn if you’ve got street cred? “If you’re influential and you describe things in a certain way, others will use the same words. You track that back to the source, and the originator will be seen to have strong credibility,” Holtzman told me.

Salesmen use this in an old trick called “mirroring,” he continued. “The best salesmen try to pick up your verbal tics, tapping their fingers like you and speaking like you. After a while, you know they’re your best friend and don’t know why.”

Holtzman, former chief scientist at IBM Internet Information Technology Group (he also worked at Network Solutions), said OPION can catch changes in perception as they happen. “Most polling is retrospective — here’s why they lost rather than seeing the shift.”

“This can be relevant for any product in any market,” he added.

“Your market isn’t just people who bought but people who are influential in purchasing decisions and lurkers who are waiting for the product to change. Our technologies are building products that let companies see the whole market — those who are interested, those who have bought, and those who will — we slice horizontally by interest rather than vertically by demographic.

“The idea of demographically segmenting across the whole world is laughable. If you look at each buyer as separate, you’ll go broke.”

The first OPION product will track the “buzz” about stocks on financial message boards. “This would give hedge-fund managers and brokers the ability to get a leg up.” Changes in how opinion leaders are talking about a stock should be followed by changes in its price.

But the system can deliver all sorts of output. A movie studio might want printed reports on prospective plots, or on the value of stars, or on directors. A packaged-goods company might want to measure the impact of its commercials in real time.

OPION plans to deliver whatever each market wants, whether that’s a piece of hardware, software, or a printed report. It’s going to be another quiver in the research arsenal and, David Holtzman hopes, a magic one.

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