Cisco Systems (CSCO) is getting less love from investors these days, following five straight disappointing quarters. And yet it's the darling of social-media users, who praise its networking gear and customer service.
The company was one of Silicon Valley's most loved businesses in a report by NetBase Solutions Inc., a social-media analysis firm that looked at 18 billion postings on sites such as blogs, forums, Facebook, and Twitter over the past 12 months.
Cisco ranked second on the list, just below Salesforce.com (CRM) and one notch above Netflix (NFLX). NetBase created the ranking by analyzing the biggest publicly held technology companies in and around Silicon Valley, scouring online chatter for words such as love, like, dislike, and hate. Electronic Arts (ERTS), Yahoo (YHOO) and Apple (AAPL) had some of the lowest scores.
Monitoring and responding to online chatter is becoming more important as customers take to the Internet to voice praise and complaints, says Sandra Fathi, founder and president of Affect, a New York-based public-relations and social-media firm. Companies spent more than $600 million last year for social software to support sales and marketing and customer service, according to Gartner (IT). That figure will top $1 billion by 2013, the research firm estimates.
"Today, for almost any company, online sentiment is absolutely critical," Fathi says. "It affects their sales, it affects their employee morale, and it definitely affects their customer and prospect base."
To assign a score, NetBase calculated the difference between each company's positive and negative remarks, divided by the overall number of those comments. That generated a "net sentiment" score. Companies that had fewer than 10,000 mentions were excluded.
Salesforce, based in San Francisco, has an edge in social media because it helps companies do their own social outreach, part of its role as the biggest seller of Internet-based customer-management software.
Last year, Salesforce began selling Chatter, a Facebook-like approach to dealing with customers. It's now used by 80,000 companies. Salesforce bolstered its social-media lineup in March, when it announced the purchase of Radian6 Technologies for $340 million. That company sells software for staying abreast of contents on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and other websites.
According to NetBase's survey, Salesforce users complimented the company's software, saying it let them collaborate internally and listen to customers on social media.
"The way your brand is perceived isn't so much coming from the messages that you're pushing out of the company, but the conversation about your brand," says Marcel LeBrun, chief executive officer of Radian6. "Every brand now has to listen, put in right processes and technology, to respond where the customer is."
Cisco, the largest maker of networking gear, won praise for its wireless Internet routers, as well as responsive customer service. Positive comments for the San Jose-based company outnumbered complaints 3-to-1.
It's company policy to make use of social networking, and some employees have become Twitter celebrities. Cisco Chief Technology Officer Padmasree Warrior has almost 1.4 million followers—more than Twitter's co-founder, Evan Williams.
"We recognized very early that social media could dramatically enhance how Cisco listens and responds," says David McCulloch, a spokesman for the company. "It's very pleasing to see those efforts are paying off."
Customers of Netflix, the Los Gatos-based movie-rental service, liked the ability to watch films and TV shows instantly over the Internet. Some of the comments that boosted the company's sentiment score included: "OMG, Netflix streaming is fantastic," and "It's a real couch potato dream."
The bottom-ranked companies still had more positive comments than negative ones, just at a lower ratio. For Electronic Arts, the second-largest video-game publisher, complainers accounted for 46,753 remarks, compared with 60,556 upbeat statements.
Many negative comments stemmed from its computer servers, which run online games. Users complained about getting disconnected.
Jeff Brown, a spokesman for Electronic Arts, says the Redwood City-based company has 300 million customers, and its games, including the Madden football series, its FIFA soccer titles, and The Sims, are frequently honored and win awards from industry groups.
"Ask a gamer and they will tell you that over the last three years, EA has delivered a huge improvement in product quality," he says. "Our top priority is the quality of our products and services."
Yahoo ranked second from the bottom. Some people complained that the Sunnyvale-based company's e-mail was slow, or that its search engine and weather forecasts were incorrect. Still, NetBase found 117,566 positive comments, compared with 67,741 negative ones.
Much of the chatter around Cupertino-based Apple, whether positive or negative, related to its iPhone. Some criticized the device for being expensive, while others had complaints about battery life. Others praised its touchscreen and the range of applications available. More than 346,000 people went online to say upbeat things about the company and its products, compared with 196,400 naysayers.
"Emotion is the principle currency in social media," says Jennifer Aaker, a Stanford marketing professor and co-author of The Dragonfly Effect: Quick, Effective and Powerful Ways to Use Social Media to Drive Social Change.
"What people say about your company in social media is often aligned with their emotional response to your company and your brand," she says.