If you’re a typical CEO, you’re probably wondering what the hell all of these social technologies like Twitter are useful for. A question I get from a lot of leaders is: “How can we use social to make money?” Actually, the more frequent question is: “Why do these social things have such stupid names?”

Many CEOs only encounter the downside of social — the disparaging YouTube video or the irrational Twitter attack on the company’s brand or products. I’ve got personal experience here — Forrester was recently the subject of a small Twitter tantrum based on inaccurate information. So it’s easy to understand the skepticism and the questioning.

Trust me though — social networks contain utility that your company will use to get ahead. I’ll be posting some examples in the near future.

But for the moment, let’s stay focused on one specific way that you will use social to make money — something I call Social Sigma. While Six Sigma is a discipline for improving products through better process, Social Sigma is about improving products through social feedback. It’s about using social networks as a means for customers (and potential customers) to continually critique, analyze, and offer suggestions about your products. It’s a powerful tool for continually increasing the value of what you make.

I see three elements of Social Sigma:

1) Listening — closely monitoring social channels to pick up faint and strong signals from the marketplace about your products. Zappos and JetBlue, have dedicated staff for this task. Here’s the secret: Many companies gather and resolve complaints using social, but they don’t mine product data and get it to the right place at the right time in the company. Valuable Social Sigma data ends up on the cutting room floor before it ever reaches product managers or R&D staff that could use it.

2) Soliciting feedback — actively using social channels to engage customers in the act of creating or improving a product. Credit Mutuel in France and Domino’s Pizza in the U.S. have made product leaps through programs they ran on social networks. Credit Mutuel improved their banking services, while Domino’s built a better pizza. I’ll have more on these guys in a later post. There’s a simple way to get feedback flowing: have a place on your site where people can give you their ideas.

3) Marketing — clearly communicating to customers that the company is listening, making changes based on feedback, and responding. In other words, making sure that the world knows that the company isn’t faking it — it is closing the loop. Toyota is doing just that here.

And now for the CEO caveats. Social Sigma will take guts to pursue — this is not for the faint of heart. You will be exposing your defects, flaws, and problems to the world and actively discussing them in public. But hey — people will discuss your products whether you are there or not. It’s better to be there.

A second caveat is around execution. Social Sigma is not a one-way communication like a press release. You’re initiating a continuous, real-time, fast interchange with hundreds or perhaps thousands of customers. Don’t get involved in Social Sigma unless you’re ready to uphold your end of the conversation. In other words, operationalize your Social Sigma effort, with staff, budget, planning, and a strategy. Social Sigma done badly will do more damage to your brand and company name than if you’d done nothing.

I’ll be following up this post with some case studies that will show Social Sigma in action. In the meantime, what do you think — how will Social Sigma unfold? What are the risks? Who has done it well? What companies have done it badly? I’d love to get your thoughts.