By Catriona Oldershaw, Managing Director, Synthesio UK,

There are plenty of articles and blogs that give businesses sound advice about the importance of being present on social media. For the most part businesses have taken note of this advice, setting up some form of social media presence on Facebook and Twitter, and even moving towards integrating social channels into their customer service. However, the vast majority of companies still fail to maximise the full value of social media as in most businesses it is still not taken seriously except, of course, when something bad happens. (In fact, a major crisis is often the catalyst that finally makes a business take social seriously — such as KLM and Iberia Airlines with the Icelandic volcano eruptions in 2010, and Citibank with the mortgage crisis.)

The reality is that social media is much more than a talking shop for relaying positive company news or trying to head off potentially damaging issues with customers. Social media platforms offer an invaluable and almost inexhaustible source of consumer trends and customer insight. If this information is used correctly it can inform marketing policy, business strategy and product development.

Currently, social media is generally managed in medium and large sized companies by community managers sitting within the marketing or customer service teams. In an ideal system, the marketing and customer service teams communicate and social media becomes an avenue for both complaints handling and proactive communication. This system for the most part works well but is usually the sum of how businesses integrate social media, when really it should just be the beginning.

Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, blogs and forums form part of the biggest focus group the world has ever seen. The web contains a treasure-trove of real-time information and insights into the experience of being a customer, including typical moments of frustration and delight. This revelation will come as little surprise to community managers. However, the senior management team or indeed other departments of the same company, often have little access to the types of social insights their community management teams are exposed to on a daily basis.

The problem is that many companies have taken to ‘siloing’ social media, leaving reams of customer information and product or brand feedback sitting within their ‘social’ teams. Few companies proactively analyse, distribute and act on the data they have at their fingertips to reveal underlying trends or insights that could improve their products, services, customer support or marketing effectiveness.

The first step on the road to getting full value from social media is the crucial C-level buy in. Unfortunately, most senior executives only pay attention to a company Twitter feed when something goes wrong. To make sure the insights, both positive and negative, from social media can inform company strategy, analytics reports should be reviewed regularly at senior management level. Measuring and KPI’ing teams on metrics that measure online reputation — such as SRS (Social Reputation Score) - should become as important to the company as Net Promoter Scores and other measures of corporate health, including the share price.

To ensure that the analytics reports provide the full picture it is essential to have monitoring and analysis software that can readily pick out trends and segment data by sentiment and demographics. After all, the beauty of social media is the wealth of information it provides, however, this information is fairly useless unless you can break it down and extract trends.

Further insights can be gained by disseminating social media reports throughout a company. Employees working in areas far removed from the social media coalface can bring their personal experience to bear and provide additional information and context. Conversely, employees may also be able to use social media information to inform their day to day work.

Of course, C-level buy in and in-depth analytics reports will count for little if they do not produce tangible actions. Actually using social media to change business strategy is a leap that many companies are too cautious to take. However, the reality is that the value of social media is directly correlated to how seriously a business takes it. Those companies that are able to breakdown departmental silos, and place the digital Voice of the Customer truly at the heart of their business, will reap huge rewards.