Start-up offers free social media analytics service

Viralheat offers Web users and publishers a limited slice of the data it collects from the social Web for paying customers

Viralheat, a start-up that mines social networks to help companies gauge public sentiment about their businesses, this week announced plans to distribute some of its social media analytics data to users at no charge.

On Tuesday, the San Jose-based company launched Social Trends, a service that allows Web users to gain real-time access to slices of some of the data it collects and aggregates from various social media sites for its paying customers.

Viralheat is also offering publishers a free widget that lets them embed real-time social media analytics tools into editorial content.

The company said that the ESPN sports network has already agreed to use Social Trends to compile and display on its Web site popularity rankings for professional football teams.

Launched in 2009, Viralheat is among a rapidly growing class of companies that mine the social Web to offer services designed to help other companies track the public's opinions about brands, products, services, support programs and more.

The company scours through sites such as Google Buzz, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube for all mentions of a particular customer. It then applies analytics tools to the data to identify the prevailing mood toward a particular topic and to identify individuals and trends that are shaping the conversation.

Viralheat claims several big-name brands as customers, including MTV, Coca-Cola, Microsoft, Oracle and Disney, which is ESPN's parent company.

Viralheat CEO Raj Kadam said that companies are taking advantage of Viralheat's capabilities in different ways. Earlier this year for instance, a major car manufacturer used the service to gather insight into what customers were saying about its vehicles, what sort of problems they were encountering and what the buzz was regarding a specific component in the car, Kadam said.

He said that media companies are using the service to optimize their content by finding the most popular topics under discussion on social media sites. In other cases, the service is being used to track the popularity of politicians, celebrities, movies and other current topics.

In one of the biggest uses of the service, companies are trying to identify the top influencers of users of their brands in order to reach out and engage with them, he said.

Viralheat is just one among a rapidly growing number of social Web monitoring services. Rivals include Spredfast, Radian6, Trackur, Nielsen Buzz Metrics, Scout Labs and Webtrends. Most charge about $300 to $1,000 per month. Viralheat charges less than $100 per month for subscriptions to its service.

Much of the demand for such services stems from the desire of companies to better listen to and communicate with their customers, said Carla Thompson, an analyst at Guidewire Group in Austin. A lot of the demand is also tied to efforts by companies to better control the quality and consistency of their messaging on social media channels, she said.

Social channels have emerged as a major new PR platform for companies, said Thompson, and those that are smart about leveraging social media have already started using analytics services like Viralheat's.

Jaikumar Vijayan covers data security and privacy issues, financial services security and e-voting for Computerworld. Follow Jaikumar on Twitter at @jaivijayan, or subscribe to Jaikumar's RSS feed . His e-mail address is jvijayan@computerworld.com.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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