Customers may now expect to be able to interact with a brand instantly on social media, but the recent 10th anniversary of Twitter has prompted a reminder of when more old-fashioned methods were required.
Daniel Winterstein, co-founder and chief technology officer of software firm SoDash, jokes: “If you were annoyed you had to write a letter, that was pretty much it”.
But with social media now an integral part of everyday life, and Twitter alone boasting some 320 million monthly active users, consumers can communicate their experiences, good or bad, in a matter of seconds.
“Any business is about your customers first and foremost and increasingly social media is how people want to do a lot of their communicating with companies,” observes Winterstein.
“Now people’s expectation is, if they’re annoyed with a company they can post a tweet and they expect that company to hear them and respond, and we’re seeing companies are increasingly shaping up to that expectation.”
SoDash is looking to capitalise on this need with its social platform for customer services and marketing, which Winterstein said suits large businesses speaking to a large audience.
A means to “work with social media at scale and do it efficiently”, it uses an artificial-intelligence (AI) engine that “analyses a firm’s messages, separates noise and prioritises customer issues in real time”.
Winterstein started the business after he completed a PhD in AI at the University of Edinburgh, having previously studied maths at Cambridge.
He describes AI as a “really lovely” subject, combining elements of psychology, philosophy and logic, “all tied together with mathematics underneath it”.
He acknowledges that for many people the first thing that springs to mind when they think of AI is Terminator-style killer robots, but he sees a growing understanding of the subject.
It is “already a larger part of our life than many people realise,” with Google an AI company, for example, and he adds that the benefits are “potentially huge in terms of being able to get machines to do more for us” and driving better use of resources. The company started life in 2008, with its first user in 2010, branding itself as SoDash in 2011.
Pursuing “slow but steady” growth, it has grown to work with what Winterstein describes as a “nice set of companies” with current clients including Harrods, Selfridges, First TransPennine Express and the Scottish Qualifications Authority.
It has also just launched a new product, SoGrow, which looks to boost the social media activity of small businesses, which often have much more limited resources, to reach the right audience.
Winterstein says: “It’s about working efficiently and if we can use our artificial intelligence to be listening on social media for them and finding relevant things and pulling that up, and actually taking some actions for them, we can make social media a lot more efficient for them.”
He says the product came about after talking to members of Edinburgh’s start-up community, and hearing that “lots of time people were saying ‘I know I should be doing things on Twitter, but I just don’t have the time’ ”.
So far feedback from users “has been very positive… we think it’s going to be good and we want to roll out more features on top of it”.
The company now has ten staff, from two initially, with an office in Edinburgh as well as premises in Costa Rica, which provides access to the Spanish-language market.
While he may have dismissed the prospect of killer robots taking over the world, Winterstein has come face-to-face with something potentially just as terror-inducing: performing stand-up comedy.
He says taking to the stage really was “as terrifying you imagine” especially whenever he had to start improvising.
While he’s left the microphone behind, apart from occasionally contributing some maths-based material to gigs with The Bright Club, a group combining academia with comedy, some traces of his time onstage may remain in the day job.
Impressing your audience is surely a key part of success on a social media presence, and the firm aims to continue driving this with plans to create extra new products for small businesses, more of which will be coming out through the year.
30 SECOND CV
Born: London, 1977.
Education: London state schools, Cambridge University, Edinburgh University.
First job: Hospital receptionist.
Ambition while at school: To be a scientist.
What car do you drive: Rentals – I only drive when travelling.
Music: Rock and blues.
Kindle or book: Kindle
Reading material: Favourite book is Catch 22. Currently reading Russell Brand’s Revolution and David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks.
Can’t live without: Tea and good company.
What makes you angry: Climate change, injustice, the evil that men do, and the overuse of mayonnaise in sandwiches.
Best thing about your job: Seeing an idea through from daydream to something people use.