How much weight should your company place on what you see and read about your company’s product or service in social media? The easy answer is a lot. But according to the New York Times – as well as, well, me – you need to do a whole lot more to have a complete and accurate picture on how your company stacks up in the eyes of your desired audience.

In my old political days (before the advent of social media) there was an irrepressible tendency to over-react to talk radio caller opinions and letters to the editor, often wrongly assuming that the views shared in those forums were universal, indicative of voter sentiment or at least might lead voters to a given position. More often than not they were far from universal predictors. That forced us to dig deeper and do polling, which always told a more complete story.

In the social/digital age much the same holds true today. Here are three quick reasons why you need to leverage social media as a sort of early warning system for potential trouble spots:

The online world can be a negative place

Let’s face it: social media is where a lot of people go to vent or to criticize. It can be a pretty negative place. So while those negative comments about your company’s product or service are absolutely a potential trouble spot that should be immediately addressed, it is important not to over-calibrate on broader strategy until you know more. The online world largely over-samples a negative interpretation of almost anything and you can’t shift gears just because some online actors are calling you out.

You need to go one level deeper

Social media is terrific at surfacing potential issues. But you need to go offline too. The tried and true tools of qualitative measurement – focus groups – and quantitative measurement – polling – are required to get a better, more balanced assessment of what your target audience is thinking; what motivates them and what they want from you. Take what you see online when assessing audience sentiment in social media and test it to find out whether you have an issue that will compel action or not. But don’t act on big strategic shifts until you know more.

Audiences probably won’t be swayed by facts anyway

As marketers we are trained to believe that emerging narratives have a profound impact on our audiences’ choices. There is some science to suggest that may not be true. I often have people ask me to explain to them what we all witnessed in this past presidential election cycle; that New Yorker piece probably does it best. It turns out humans tend not to believe facts because we interpret them in the context of our core beliefs. That works by subconsciously accepting “facts” that conform to those beliefs and rejecting “facts” that don’t. So there is scientific foundation to my counsel not to over-react to social media posts. Your audience is likely are not being directionally influenced by what they read online anyway – unless they happen to agree with what they’re reading. And if they do, you aren’t going to win them back anyway.

The bottom line? Social media is an incredibly important and extraordinarily powerful medium. As a company you probably need to be in it. But it, like everything, has its flaws.

It is crucial to temper any analysis formed from interpreting social media behavior with qualitative, more personal assessments with target audiences. Social media can be a great predictor of emerging successes and failures – and represents a crucial, actionable front line warning system of incredible scope and power. But don’t lose sight of the need to dig deeper to get a fuller picture before you shift your company’s product or service strategically.