Michael Howard, CEO, Nichefire

Nichefire describes itself as human intelligence powered by artificial intelligence (AI). The market research firm uses AI to gain insights from social media so it can supply clients with answers to their tailored business questions. Cincinnati Future spoke with Michael Howard, co-founder and CEO of Nichefire about the company and its goals.

Tell us about yourself.

Howard: I was born and raised in Cincinnati. I studied marketing and information systems programs at the College of Business at University of Cincinnati (UC). While there, I started my own consultancy, doing web design, social media strategy and digital marketing. After graduating, I met my current business partner, Khalil El-Amin. Together, we founded a digital marketing company focused on small businesses in the Cincinnati area called Newmark Solutions.

One of the things we learned by running that company is there’s a ton of data that companies have to manually analyze. The idea we spun out of that was Nichefire, where we try to streamline a lot of that time-consuming work.

We brought in a few advisors to support us and got a few friends and family to contribute to a round of money that helped us get started. We brought in a third co-founder named Steven Brown.

What did you do when launching the company?

Howard: We spent the first two to three years just doing a lot of research. We talked to 200 or 300 different marketing professionals in this space to learn more about some of the key business problems they encountered. We quickly learned that competitive analysis was a huge issue. There is a ton of data out there and we wanted to provide a more streamlined way to analyze that data.

Our objective became to analyze online conversations between a user and a brand. How are people are discussing brands with one another? We’re now focused on becoming a hybrid business model, where we facilitate the collection of all this data from all sorts of different online resources and then build out an AI framework for deciphering what it means.

What kinds of input do you offer clients?

Howard: We build an AI framework out of their business questions. Then we supply reporting to those clients to plug it right into whatever business intelligence solution they’re using. Sometimes we just pass along raw data.

With what kind of industries do you work?

Howard: We primarily work with highly competitive industries, those that are more business-to-consumer (B2C) focused. For instance, financial services is a huge market for us. U.S. Bank is one of our largest clients right now, and we collaborate with them on competitive intelligence and cultural insights. We also work with consumer packaged goods and insurance retail companies.

How does the tech work?

Howard: We’ve established a pretty sophisticated data collection system, so we tap into a whole bunch of different application programming interfaces (APIs). Also, we’ve established partnerships with other groups that help us funnel in different data sources, such as forums, blogs or search data.

We use a diverse set of data sources to help paint a strategic picture of the environment. We tackle disparities between each social data source — because you can have a vocal minority, where about 80% of the conversation online is being done by about 20% of the people. We evaluate social media trends across all of those different conversations. That helps us make recommendations for our clients.

Then there’s the AI side. We started off as a SaaS but had other stuff we wanted to do that was too overwhelming to incorporate into software. So we built out a wireless AI back end with a research framework that can look at the contextual data that comes in or even image data.

That lets us categorize the data based off of, for instance, a conversation about sustainability or the environment. We can categorize that data for brands in that space.

What are your future plans for the tech?

Howard: Right now, we’re in the process of building more prescriptive and predictive indices using some historical data. For instance, we’re working on analysis that will more or less look at cultural trends as they emerge. We’ll use machine learning methods to cluster conversations together and evaluate the trend of those clusters as they emerge. Then we can develop predictions based on some historical data.

What are the advantages of being in Cincinnati?

Howard: Cincinnati has a good networking base. There’s a lot of marketing spend here with brands such as P&G, Kroger, and Fifth Third Bank. A lot of major corporations have their roots here.

However, I have to give a shout out to HCDC. We started our first office there, and it was one of the most encouraging environments. They offered resources ranging from legal expertise to access to programming. Just being in the halls there exposed you to different coaches and businesses. I have a lot to thank HCDC for.