Many large businesses these days make use of social media when it comes to customer services, but they could be doing a lot more with all the data that comes out of services like Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn.

As Social Data Week approaches, we talked to Susan Etlinger, an Industry Analyst with Altimeter Group, about her recent report Social Data Intelligence: Integrating Social and Enterprise Data for Competitive Advantage. The report focuses on enterprise-class companies who put social media to use in conjunction with other data within their organization to give themselves an edge over the competition.

Etlinger explains, “there are blind spots in every organization. There are things that don’t rise to the level of an 800 number call (Ed: a free call to a customer service number) or a news story that people say on a daily basis. They might say about a hotel that they didn’t like the towels or they wanted free WiFi, or they might say about a restaurant that they didn’t like the food.

“There’s an example that Visible Technologies likes to talk about with Kraft and the redesign of a salad dressing, and they redesigned the bottle at the same time. They were listening to see what people were saying about the salad dressing and they found that people were cutting their thumbs on the bottle because they had re-engineered the little sanitary strip that goes around. People were putting up Tumblr blogs and tweeting pictures of their thumbs.

“If they’d never have seen this, they’ve never have known because a lot of people won’t call an 800 number and say ‘Excuse me I just opened a salad dressing bottle and cut my thumb’.” Etlinger notes that this approach can be used for everything from finding evidence of piracy to cost-saving across an organization.

The ‘cave painting’ stages of understanding social data

However, it’s early days for making really smart use of social data, especially within large companies. Etlinger points out that the sample size for her report, which focuses on enterprise-class businesses, was very small for this reason.

Social media is still very much the domain of marketing and communications teams in these types of organization. What’s more, social data is largely unstructured and hard to analyze. How does a brand get to know what people are saying about its products in images or video, for example? It’s much harder than in a straightforward text-based post. What’s more, social data is often ‘big data'; – there’s lots of it, it moves quick and comes in a variety of forms. “It’s a big mess,” Etlinger says.

“We’re in the ‘cave painting’ stages of making sense of this data,” she continues. “People see things, but it’s very anecdotal. You can get lucky – for example, DirecTV does a good job of looking proactively for problems on social media and responding to them. So for example, they’ll be looking to see that someone in the Pittsburgh area lost their TV service; was it connected to their system at home or are other people in the area experiencing the same thing?

“Even the companies that are doing a really nice job of trying to find those signals and make sense of them, they have to put so much effort to do so, because the tools just haven’t matured to the point where it’s easy and it’s normalized with other data. We have a long way to go.”

Social Data Week – get involved

Susan Etlinger will be speaking at the Social Data Week event in San Francisco about how organizations can turn social data into intelligence. She’ll go into detail about the maturity stages of a socially aware organization, prioritizing metrics, integrating social data with other data sets to understand customer journeys and more.

Social Data Week is a global series of events taking place in September. Two anchor events will be held in San Francisco and New York on September 16 and 20 respectively, while local events and hackathons will take place around the world.

The San Francisco event boasts speaks including author Guy Kawasaki, Altimeter Group’s Brian Solis and GetSatisfaction’s Wendy Lea.

In New York, you’ll get to hear from the likes of entrepreneur Gary Vaynerchuk, Dachis Group’s Jeff Dachis and News Corp CTO Paul Cheesbrough.

Earlybird registration for both events is still open  (Sign for NYC here, and San Francisco here).

Social Data Week is organized by DataSift, a company that has made a business of helping others make sense of the vast quantity of of information we create on social networks each day, and The Next Web is a media partner. If you’d like to hold your own Social Data Week event, you can contact the team via the website.

You can follow along with what people are saying through the #sdwk13 hashtag or following @socialdataweek on Twitter.

➤ Social Data Week 

Image credit: KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images