What if someone told you that you didn’t know who two thirds of your customers are on social media? It’s a question social media expert Alexandra Samuel has been using to disrupt the way businesses think about social and their customers for the last couple years at Vision Critical.

Recently Alexandra co-authored a report with Vision Critical Founder and President Andrew Reid whereby they teamed up with three global brands to look at how their customers behave on social media by tapping into their customer intelligence platforms. Through this work, they found that 85% of what company hears on social comes from less than 30% of its social media audience. This often creates a skewed perception of not only who your social audience is, but your entire customer base.

To be successful, every marketer needs to have an accurate portrait of who their customers are on an individual level and en masse. Marigold Engage by Sailthru’s VP of Business Development and former Radian6 exec, Ed Sullivan, will be joining Alexandra for a webinar to explore the data marketers need to look at to better understand customer preferences, the best ways to look and interpret that data, and what social media insight you need to uncover in order to be effective.

We recently caught with up Alexandra to gain perspective on what she is seeing in the social and customer intelligence realm. Check out what she had to say in this Q&A and make sure to RSVP for the webinar with Alexandra and Ed!

SAILTHRU: There’s a lot of talk about this phenomenon of the invisible audience in social media. When did you see this really come into play and how did you start to address the issue in the early days?

ALEXANDRA SAMUEL: It was pretty clear as soon as we started to take a direct look at how people were using Facebook and Twitter a few years ago. There was an enormous population of customers who paid attention to brands on social media who just weren’t posting. In particular, we were struck by how many of the people who are not posting are using social media every single day. That right there tells us why it’s so crucial for brands to understand these individual customers.

How did you start discovering who those people were?

ALEXANDRA SAMUEL: For the past two years, we’ve been doing a series of experiments where we work with our customers and their insight community members to see if they would be game to share their Facebook or Twitter data so that we could gather insight into their social media behaviors. We combined that information with imported social data on those same people. From there, we were able to dig in and start to understand the differences between invisible customers and the people who are more socially active.

In the Vision Critical report you co-authored “What Social Can’t Tell You About Your Customers,” you talk a lot about the different types of social audiences—enthusiasts, lurkers, dabblers. Do different types correlate to different values? For example, are enthusiasts more important than the rest of the audience, despite comprising a small percentage of actual customers?

ALEXANDRA SAMUEL: Enthusiasts are certainly important and useful in spreading content on social media. They’re not as important as we typically think or as is suggested in social media strategy guides. The whole idea that enthusiasts are important is based on a model of the social media universe where everybody is desperately looking for their friend’s opinions; that we all want to see what our friends are sharing and doing, because we are all “sheep”.

It turns out that only my fellow enthusiasts and I are sheep. What’s distinctive about enthusiasts versus lurkers is that enthusiasts are way more socially embedded. Yes, they are out there influencing and sharing, but they also care more about what other people think. They listen to their friends more, they listen to their family more. They are much more likely to ask their friends and family opinions on things.

Lurkers are doing less sharing, but they are also just not as concerned with what everybody else thinks. They don’t ask their friends and family before they go shopping. They don’t feel like they need to share their opinions with friends in the way enthusiasts do.

It’s important and useful to reach these enthusiasts and get them to talk about how they’re engaging with your brand or sharing your content. If you reach a lurker, they might like what you’re sharing but they’re probably not going to post it themselves. From that perspective, you know it’s a multiplier effect when you reach enthusiasts.

But you can’t be sure that what enthusiasts are spreading is actually going to interest those lurkers. Lurkers are not as open to being influenced, and they also care about different things. I think it’s a matter of looking at how the different pieces of the puzzle fit together.

Why do you think so many marketers today are lacking insightful data from social media? Do you think it’s a lack of available technology? Do you think the data many have gleaned from social media analytics has proven not to go deep enough (for example, sentiment analysis)?

ALEXANDRA SAMUEL: Most people who work in social media–and I would have included myself three years ago–feel like they’re drowning in data. You’ve got all these analytics reports: Klout scores, Facebook “likes”, Twitter mentions, etc. You could look at numbers all day long.

What folks don’t necessarily realize is that all those numbers are only telling them about a third of their universe. The main reason people aren’t getting the data they need is because they don’t realize the limitations of the data they have. That said: It has not been easy to get the insight we’ve been looking for. It’s been REALLY hard to do this work in a lot of ways, and it took a lot of experimentation.

How can brands today use customer intelligence platforms like Vision Critical to improve both their social media marketing and marketing strategy as a whole?

ALEXANDRA SAMUEL: I am now completely and fully convinced that marketers aren’t going to get what they need directly from social media analytics. I was actually kind of a skeptic when I joined Vision Critical. I read surveys like anybody else, but at the time it was 2012 and I thought people will tell you everything you could possibly want to know on social media. I thought, why are companies still doing something so old school as asking people survey questions? I’ve realized how extremely untrue my belief was.

I’ve helped A LOT of different brands use social media to build engagement, but there’s a big difference between using social media to engage your customers and using social media to understand your customers. I’ve really come to believe that you can’t use social media as a primary channel for actionable customer intelligence. It’s definitely part of the picture. In order to understand your customers in a representative way you need to be drawing on a more rigorous and representative picture of your customers.

Kristine Lowery, Content Marketing Manager at Sailthru.