How Relative Insight’s clever language tech leapt from Lancaster to New York

11 Oct, 2017

In a world where attention is at a premium, choosing the right words at the right time is crucial. That’s especially true for marketers. Relative Insight is a Lancaster-based startup that helps brands choose the best language to use with their target audience.

If you want to market your smartphone to photographers, you don’t want to say ‘take amazing pictures.’ Instead, you want to say ‘shoot amazing images.’ And if you target young women, talk about ‘wearing’ makeup – middle-aged women ‘apply’ it. These are both real discoveries from work Relative Insight does with clients using its language analysis platform.

The company has its roots in a cybersecurity R&D project at Lancaster University, run in conjunction with law enforcement agencies. They span out a business and took investment from Enterprise Ventures (now Mercia). Isis Forensics (it was a more innocent time when that name was a good idea) focused on finding paedophiles posing as children online.

Through analysing their language, it could profile an individual’s age, gender and other characteristics, even if they were try to pretending to be someone else. I remember trying the tech at the time. It got me bang on, including my interests and personality traits, based on my use of language on Twitter.

Relative Insight
Relative Insight’s website.

Enterprise Ventures brought experienced entrepreneur Ben Hookway into the company as VP of Business Development around this time. He saw potential in areas beyond security.

Now as CEO, he leads the company with its current name, in the world of marketing. It still does law enforcement work, but the real growth area is in the world of London and New York agencies.

How it works

Relative Insight uses all internally-developed tech. It doesn’t rely on any third-party APIs. The tech analyses as much of the language used by a target audience as possible to see what makes it unique.

To extend the example we began with, when Nokia wanted to market its Lumia smartphones to photographers, Relative Insight pulled in language from DSLR user forums. Comparing the way people wrote there to general consumer electronics customers, they came up with the kind of words that would connect most with the target audience.

“There are lots of ways to find out who to talk to. We’re an extra data layer of how to talk to those people,” says Hookway. He describes using the wrong language for your target audience as “the linguistic equivalent of your dad at a disco – you’re doing the right thing but not it’s working.”

Social media is an important source of data for Relative Insight. Hookway says that too much social analysis in marketing is focused on searching for what agencies think is important. “You’re going to find what you look for – doesn’t mean its significant, just that it’s there.” Looking into not what is being said, but how it’s being said, is far more valuable, he argues.

It can be a powerful approach. Relative Insight did work with Twitter to target ads at people who share the same linguistic characteristics. Hookway says they got five-times better results than with traditional demographic targeting.

Transatlantic life

Relative Insight is working with agencies on both sides of the Atlantic, and Hookway finds himself splitting his time between the North of England, London and New York City.

Relative Insight is now one of Unilever’s default analytics tools, says Hookway. Havas and Disney are among the startup’s other customers. Hookway says that being part of a programme at R/GA’s New York office has really helped.

The R/GA Marketing Tech Venture Studio selected eight companies worldwide for a summer 2017 programme that connected them with agencies that are part of IPG. “It’s helped us develop our value proposition and plans with their clients like Samsung, Nike, and Diageo,” says Hookway. “It’s our bridgehead into Manhattan.”

And Manhattan is where Hookway sees Relative Insight’s greatest growth potential. “We want to add more brand customers and increase our footprint in NYC. We want to expand substanitally before we look at being acquired. I think it would more likely be a technology buyer than an agency buyer, although we’ve had interest from both.”

Meanwhile, in Lancaster…

Far from the bustle and hustle of Midtown Manhattan, Relative Insight does all its development work in Lancaster. Hookway says he intends to keep it that way. That’s in part because of the close relationship the company still has with the university that gave birth to it.

Lancaster University turns out good quality marketing graduates, and Relative Insight employs some of them as language analysts. The company also assists with MBA and marketing classes.

Flush from a recent ‘seven-figure’ funding round led by Maven through the Northern Powerhouse Investment Fund, Hookway says the company has plenty to be getting its teeth into on the development side of things. It’s scaling its backend, and also developing ‘insights on tap.’ This will mean people can quickly look up, say, how young people talk about music.

Relative Insight
Relative Insight and Maven celebrate their recent investment deal.

There’s a lot of work going into revamping the UX and product design of the Relative Insight dashboard. Hookway says there’s more they can do to make it easy to use, and guide users through what conclusions to draw from the data it spits out. They’re even looking at building in the ability to change the language of ads automatically on the fly.

The rise of voice interfaces is another challenge and opportunity the company is embracing. “We’ve done some pretty advanced analysis work on voice transcriptions,” says Hookway. “DFS were the innovators in this area, looking at how to approach customer conversations in terms of strategy and specific communication by analysing historic data.”

Whether you’re in North Lancashire or New York City, Relative Insight is a startup to keep your eye on.

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