Often, social media is the domain of our marketing or customer service departments (or both). But while social is an essential tool for these purposes, the data and insights gleaned from social networking can have a big impact on your businesses’ actual product or service. The key? Asking for and listening to customer feedback, which can be used to inform your product decisions. In doing so, you not only gain useful feedback, but your customers also feel you’re listening to their concerns — a win/win situation for any business.

You’re probably already using social listening as part of your strategy to identify what’s being said about your company and address problems before they have a chance to become viral sensations. So why not use these same tools to compile feedback that could inform your business as a whole?

One of the biggest success stories for this kind of social listening is Domino’s Pizza, which has used the wide reach of social feedback to collect customer reports on its food quality, which the business then used to improve its offerings. “Social media was a big arena for us to get a lot of that feedback,” Chris Brandon, the company’s director of communications, explained in an interview with DBusiness. “It wasn’t just classic research methods, like focus groups and surveys and those things. It was actually getting out there and hearing from people.”

By listening to customers on social channels through its Pizza Turnaround campaign, Domino’s did turn the business around, with stock prices up over 700 percent since 2010, with big growth in both sales and stores. While we can’t promise that all social feedback will produce such dramatic business results, taking the time to listen to your customers on social channels and cultivating a successful social test group can have big business impact.

Can Social Media Replace Focus Groups?

When it comes to collecting customer options, social media has some advantages and some disadvantages over a more traditional focus group environment. Social media is fast, allowing you to collect immediate feedback on anything you want, and, depending on your social following, the number of responses is likely to beat out a traditional focus group or survey.

However, you have to remember to take socially collected data with a grain of salt. Depending on the network you’re on, it can be tough to tell who you’re talking to, making it difficult or even impossible to try to collect a random sample of participants or gauge the opinions of specific demographic groups. Further, the nature of social interactions means you’re probably getting a fast answer to a single question rather than an in-depth response. Quick feedback might be poorly thought-out, be unclear, not address the question you were trying to ask, or simply reflect a follower who was in a bad mood when they saw the question in the first place.

Despite these potential downfalls, businesses are definitely making good use of this kind of social insight, some of them on a big scale. Take a look at Lay’s, which is currently running a “Do Us A Flavor” contest where social followers are asked to submit chip flavors, which everyone can vote on. Even though the company is giving out a big cash prize, it may be a small price tag for that much consumer-approved research and development.

Asking the Right Questions

You can — and you should! — gather data about what social media users think of your company and your products simply through social listening. However, to gather data about a specific subject, you’ll want to ask questions. The way you pose those questions can have a big impact on the responses you gather or even lead people to answer a certain way or another.

Because your data is only as good as the questions you ask, you’ll want to take time to ensure you’re asking the right ones. Make sure your questions are clear to avoid any possible confusion. You may also want to avoid yes/no questions, as they encourage a simple response without digging into how or why your followers feel that way. It may help to test your questions on people in the office, or even asking what kind of social feedback they’d be interested in hearing, to make sure you’re asking just the right questions before you send them out to all of your social followers.

As to where to ask these questions, we suggest using the network where you have the largest active follower count. While different social networks do reflect different demographics which could influence your results, asking on the network (or networks) where you have the most active fan-base is likely to get you the most responses. Depending on the questions you’re asking, you may find that singling out key social followers or influencers to ask questions of can help you get better answers or more in-depth feedback.

If your initial effort hasn’t produced the responses or number of responses you hoped for, don’t be shy about revisiting the subject or asking follow-up questions. Though you won’t want to saturate your social feed with this kind of content, a rephrased question, a question posted at a different time of day, or a question with an eye-catching visual attached can garner more responses. Though the company is asking a silly question, you can see how Oreo makes use of compelling visuals to encourage responses.

Your followers are likely to appreciate their opinion being asked, especially if it’s taken seriously by your business. To that end, be sure to keep your followers up to date on what comes of their feedback. If you’re still struggling to get responses, offering some kind of incentive for participation, even if it’s a small one, can also encourage your followers to stop and leave a comment instead of just scrolling by.

Turning Data into Decisions

Soliciting for information is only the first step: once you have the customer feedback you wanted, you have to make sense of it and decide what to do about it. Tools and software can help you compile the responses to questions as well as gauge the overall sentiment on a subject, but you’ll also want to look through responses for notable comments. Comments that add particular insight to the conversation are worth highlighting for decision-makers, who are likely to find the feedback interesting even if they don’t have time to comb through all of the responses themselves.

If you’re asking questions to inform your social strategy, it’s easy integrate feedback into your social plan whether it’s on your own or in consultation with a larger social media team. However, if the feedback you’ve collected doesn’t relate to your department, you may find yourself needing to sell the value of this social feedback to colleagues with less social expertise. If you need to win someone on the team over, it will likely be easier if you start with a question or issue you know they want further information on or enlist them to weigh in on the questions you pose. Asking questions about low-impact issues can also help prove the worth of this feedback by limiting the risk involved by listening.

Whatever the case, taking the time to make the data easy to parse, even for individuals without a social media background, and highlighting specific, actionable feedback can make it easier for staff in other departments to understand the value of social insight.