We work with a lot of different types of marketers at Forrester, and we always customize the recommendations we deliver to different clients based upon their unique situations and needs. But over the past few years there's one piece of advice I've found myself giving nearly every company I work with: "Hire a listening vendor."

I love listening platforms and the social data they create; it's a powerful source of information that, used correctly, can make marketers and their programs more effective. But not enough marketers are taking advantage of these benefits.

No matter what type of company you work for — indeed, whether you work directly with social media or not — you should be using social data right now to:

  1. Develop your messaging. If you want to create messages that resonate with your audience, you need to know what they care about. Many of our past Forrester Groundswell Award winners have used private listening communities to craft their marketing messages; increasingly, we're seeing companies use data from public social media to guide their messaging as well.
  2. Source your creative. We know that consumers trust what they hear from other consumers more than any other source of information — why not use listening platforms to identify positive social content that can be included in campaign creative? I've even seen a UK bank, First Direct, use social sentiment data in an outdoor advertising campaign.
  3. Improve your media plan. You probably already have a few staples in your online media plan — the sites and networks that consistently perform for you. But social data can help you find new sites to add to your buy. For instance, Microsoft was surprised to find people talking about its computers in forums dedicated to fishing and cars — but it quickly added those sites to its plan.
  4. Identify your key influencers. In Empowered, Josh Bernoff and Ted Schadler pointed out that consumers in the US created more than 500 billion peer-to-peer impressions about brands and products. Social data can help you identify (and then reach out to) the most vocal and influential of those consumers — either one-by-one or by finding the forums where the most influence is taking place around your brand or category.
  5. React to your consumers. You can't fuel a positive conversation about your products (or get involved in a negative one) unless you find those conversations first. Listening platforms can help you quickly find both the good and the bad so that you're in a position to react.

But there’s one use of social data that drives me crazy: Increasingly, I’m seeing marketers and agencies turn to this data to measure the brand impact of their social and interactive marketing programs. (In fact, more than 80% of listening vendor customers say they use social data to track their brands.)

I know it’s tempting. If you’re already making the investment in a listening tool, you want to stretch the value you’re getting. And given that brand surveys are expensive and time-consuming, and that the listening tools all offer sentiment analysis, it must be a good idea to use listening to measure brand impact — right?

Wrong — for a number of reasons. First, because social data by definition only measures what social content creators are saying — and that's almost always a small and biased sample of your target audience. Second, because social data is based on unstructured and non-comparable inputs: You rarely know for sure which of your products or marketing campaigns social comments refer to, nor do you know on what scale people are expressing their opinions. And finally, because most vendors' sentiment analysis simply isn't very good: Even the most optimistic listening platforms admit that their sentiment tools too often misclassify comments. The bottom line is that using social data to measure your brand simply doesn't make sense.

What do you think? Do you use social data in the ways I mentioned above — or for some other purpose? Do you think that social data actually is a good way to measure brand impact? Have your say in the comments below.