With nearly two-thirds of American adults (65%) using social networking sites on a daily basis, the quantity of comments online is increasing at an exponential pace. Usually, customers head to social media sites as a first stop on the road to evaluating a purchase of any kind; and 66% of people trust opinions posted online—even by total strangers— according to Nielsen.

Social media's importance in the sales/marketing funnel is by now undisputed, but visibility into the insights each platform can provide is often clouded by meaningless metrics. With data pouring in from dashboards, are you sure members of your marketing team are taking the time to determine the importance of those insights, and do they even know where to look?

Here are three ways your team should be using social insights to guide major marketing decisions.

1. To Understand Your Audience

Gaining 1,000 new followers on Twitter looks great on paper, but it doesn't necessarily move the needle for your brand. But creating positive, organic conversation can. Understanding your online audience means looking beyond the surface layers of retweets and shares.

Instead of focusing on what is being said about your brand, focus on who is saying it. How does your engaged audience compare with that of your competitors, and how do they self-describe? These audiences tend to write their own personas (literally); often, their Twitter bios contain their defining characteristics in 140 characters or less.

For example, Dollar Shave Club, the popular male-focused razor delivery service, realized 26% of social conversation related to it was stemming from a female audience in 2016. Stats like that should spark a conversation about target audiences, and using social media can give you a picture in real-time of the audiences you are reaching, as well as what is important to them.

2. To Spot Trends Within Target Segments

Once you understand who your audience is, the next step is to get to know them a bit better. Marketers need to understand what is happening on social media within their target markets—and what it means for their brand if they want to stay abreast of the next big trend coming down the pike.

Affinity groups, or the segments of your audience that share a common interest or background, are often overlooked. These groups tend to be more fluid than traditional buyer personas. The interests of an affinity group change and transform based on trends and events within their area of interest.

For example, identifying an affinity group with a shared love of the Harry Potter series at its core can lead to marketing insights based on the trending topics within this group. What was the overall sentiment of the group versus other groups after seeing the latest movie? Are they excited to buy Harry Potter themed merchandise? Do they see any gaps in Harry Potter products available in stores?

Social media is a place to identify the kinds of topics are important to your brand's audience segments, and incorporate those topics into your content strategy to bring any fringe followers into the fold. Just be careful not to exploit their interests or sensitive social issues. Public brands often face social scrutiny when jumping on the trend-jacking bandwagon.

If not careful, marketers can easily slip into appearing exploitative about their customers' conversations. Take, for example, Gap and American Apparel's 2012 tweets, which capitalized on chatter surrounding Hurricane Sandy. Although meant to remind shoppers to stay safe, the content angered customers who saw the move as calculating and thoughtless.

3. To Determine the Success of Marketing Campaigns

Social data can also be harnessed to dig into brand perception associated with specific marketing initiatives. Tracking keywords affiliated with your most recent branded campaign is a good start, but grading sentiment is where things start to get interesting.

Say, for example, you recently landed a huge (i.e., expensive) celebrity endorsement. Odds are your team will want to evaluate ROI. Use keywords associated with the celebrity paired with branded keywords to measure volume. Then, pull out common phrases and grade sentiment from positive to neutral to negative to paint a full picture of the social landscape your recent big buy is helping create: Is the reaction completely positive? How much conversation is this celeb driving compared with previous campaigns? And, more important, are new audiences being brought into the conversation?

2016 was the year of celebrity-founded activewear brands. From Beyoncé's Ivy Park and Kate Hudson's Fabletics to Calia by Carrie Underwood and Impact by Jillian Michaels. Fast fashion companies were popping up left and right. When you compare the brands by looking at key conversation drivers associated with the celebs themselves, Ivy Park pulls away from the pack as the clear winner. While 73% of Calia conversation was driven by Carrie Underwood, Beyoncé drove only 11% of Ivy Park's buzz, showing the brand stood on its own—separate from the celebrity co-founder. This type of insight is invaluable when determining whether your brand will stand the test of time (and the criticism of the Internet).

Bottom Line

Many tools are available to pull useful social media data for your marketing team, but nothing is more valuable than simply looking beyond your brand's scheduled posts and direct mentions. Dive into your list of followers and start getting to know them. Set up Twitter lists to segment your audience. Research the trends across each segment, and respond accordingly.

Social media is the world's biggest, fastest, most honest focus group. Don't let that feedback fall on deaf ears.

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Three Ways Your Marketing Team Needs to Use Social Insights

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image of Jen Handley

Jen Handley is co-president and co-founder of Fizziology, where she works with film, TV, talent, and brand clients to help them understand audience reactions to marketing and products, and devise research-based strategies.

LinkedIn: Jen Handley

Twitter: @JenSVH