Editor’s note: Ben Zeidler is director of research and analytics at digital marketing agency Tenthwave Digital, New York City.

Marketers are eager to learn what they can from social content, now the trendiest and fastest-growing marketing discipline. Native advertising in social media is projected to reach $4.3 billion in 2015 and a whopping $8.8 billion by 2018, according to eMarketer. And Korn Ferry reports that 80 percent of marketing executives expect increased spending on content marketing – nearly one-in-four executives report that 25 percent of overall marketing budgets were earmarked for social media in 2014.

As brands and retailers commit real money to social content, they’re discovering a valuable side benefit: they can wring customer insights from social conversations. By capturing customers’ honest (often unguarded) thoughts, brand teams inject an authentic, reliable voice into marketing strategy. The more marketers can learn directly from customers, the more intelligent their strategy – which can make all of the brand’s interactions more effective, from social content to the store shelf.

Marketers know that there’s great potential for consumer insights in the sheer amount of social data that’s created on a daily basis. Every share, click, tweet and photo is a speck of data but when they’re aggregated and then attached to individuals, a rich, detailed image of the consumer emerges.

Savvy brand teams use this to keep the entire marketing strategy on track. And while it’s daunting to harness the chaos of social media to answer broad brand-strategy questions, all it takes is the right tools.

Here are six common questions that brands are asking about their marketing as well as the social tools needed to find the answers.

1. How can I find out what consumers think about X – fast?

Flash surveys: a snapshot of attitudes in real time. Quick, specific, targeted and cost-effective.

  • Situation: An automotive company with strong logo awareness wants to test two new taglines to sit underneath the logo on commercials and billboards. They want to see which one resonates more among their core demographic (men ages 35-54). And they needed the answer by the sales meeting on Friday.
  • How it works: The brand team decides what elements to test, crafts the question with the agency and then fields the survey to a targeted audience from the survey platform’s menu. Responses arrive in real time, so the team and the agency can start making decisions as the data rolls in. Once collection is complete, the data can be cut a number of different ways.
  • How we’ve used it: A client had to decide between two package designs that executives had been debating for weeks. A flash survey gave them real-world, real-time data to settle the argument. The winning design? It has become one of the brand’s top sellers.
  • Social tool examples: Google Consumer Surveys, SurveyMonkey Audience

2. What do consumers say about my brand when they don’t think I’m listening?

Social listening: Track how consumers act around your brand, unobtrusively.

  • Situation: An airline just went through a merger and the marketing team wants to see how it’s being perceived and talked about on social spaces. The airline is known for its customer service and the team wants to see how (and if) people are talking about the quality of its service since the merger.
  • How it works: Define the marketing question – is it reputation, share of voice, competitive launches or cultural context around the brand? The brand team and agency craft careful queries to capture specifically what they want to know among the billions of conversations – and to exclude what isn’t relevant. Once the query is refined, social listening platforms help review data by volume, sentiment, context and other variables.
  • How we’ve used it: For clients who want to time a product to launch when people are talking about the category, social listening helps to hit consumer discussion at its peak – or just before – to beat competitors to the conversation.
  • Social tool examples: Radian6, Crimson Hexagon, Infegy

3. I have thousands of e-mail addresses. How can I ask these customers what they’re thinking?

Custom surveys: Tap your CRM database to ask very specific questions – about the brand, lifestyle, demographics, attitudes or competitors.

  • Situation: A major retailer has hundreds of thousands of e-mail addresses but very little insight on these customers’ shopping habits beyond its data on their transactions. The new CMO wants to start fresh – by first understanding what current customers are looking for from their online shopping experience at his stores and elsewhere.
  • How it works: The brand team defines specifically what it wants to know and crafts a questionnaire with either multiple-choice or open-ended questions. The survey is coded and deployed; once all responses are collected, the data is cut and analyzed. Surveys do best at 10-15 minutes in length with a small incentive toward the end (but not so large that it attracts coupon or sweepstakes hunters). Responses usually take one week to collect but can happen more quickly if the base is especially passionate about the topic.
  • How we’ve used it: To help a client embark on a complete overhaul of its Web site and loyalty program, we fielded custom surveys to get a 30,000-foot view of what people loved, hated and wanted – not just from the specific brand but from cooking and caring for family.
  • Social tool examples: SurveyMonkey, MarketTools

4. Are consumers really paying attention to my Web site? What kind of content works best?

Google Analytics add-ons: Distinguish true engage time from idle time and see which content actually drives engagement.

  • Situation: A publisher notices that the most-read pages are not the ones that are most e-mailed or shared. She wants to know which pages are actually driving the most engagement in order to communicate that to advertisers.
  • How it works: A simple piece of code is attached to the site and activity is recorded as visitors browse or interact with the site (rather than simply having it open on their desktop). Data filters through an easy-to-use dashboard.
  • How we’ve used it: This works as a regular component of brands’ content marketing. As new content goes out, we monitor customers’ engagement – and use that to refine future content.
  • Social tool examples: Chartbeat, Crazy Egg, Kiss Metrics

5. How are we doing on social? And, um, how are we doing compared to our competitors?

Social benchmarking: Track brand and competitive campaign and content performance on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, YouTube and LinkedIn.

  • Situation: A major bank has lots of data on what its customers do when they’re logged into the bank's Web site. When customers are on the bank’s social properties, the marketing team feels blind to the experience. The team wants more data around social engagement so they can tie social media back to content and customer activities on the Web site and better integrate the bank’s overall messaging strategy.
  • How it works: So simple it’s boring: load up the brands to track and get daily/weekly/monthly reports on user activity on those brands’ properties. Unmetric’s sector benchmark feature gives a holistic view of a brand’s social strengths and weaknesses.
  • How we’ve used it: This works to give clients a richer picture of how their brand is perceived against competitors on social media, using metrics of qualities that go beyond fans and Likes.
  • Social tool examples: Unmetric, Simply Measured, Zuum

6. Is it me or a meme?

Open source data: Track the volume and timing of keywords across all digital

  • Situation: A packaged goods company is looking at its site analytics and notices that one of the top 10 searches on the site was for something that the marketing team has never heard of. The team needs to determine quickly whether this topic is unique to its site or part of a larger cultural or industry trend, so the brand can properly react.
  • How it works: Enter a keyword query into the trends tool – be specific or broad, depending on the context of the keyword to the brand. Teams are then able to compare queries, set geography, track activity as far back as far as 2007.
  • How we’ve used it: Home cooks searching for recipes on a food brand’s site kept using a keyword that the team didn’t recognize. Turns out it was an exotic ingredient that was just starting to get press in foodie magazines like Bon Appetit. Sure enough, it became a major food trend over the following year.
  • Social tool examples: Pew Research, Google Trends

The beauty of social research tools is that most of them are relatively cheap (even free – thanks, Google!) so marketers don’t have to invest very much to get started. That makes it easy to test and learn – and hard to ignore the perpetual cascade of data, straight from consumers themselves.