When I meet with companies about their interest in social media, one of the key questions is “What’s the target audience, and what kinds of social media services are they consuming?”.

It’s a straightforward question because it is important to know where you should be telling stories, having discussions and focusing your time and effort.

What never ceases to surprise me is how so many companies have no clue about how their customers, potential customers, suppliers, partners, investors or even employees are using social media. No formal or informal surveys had been done to determine whether the target audience is using social media and, if so, any particular services.

There doesn’t appear to be anyone looking at analytics information to see if any social media services are driving Web site traffic.

Instead, there’s a huge information void. This means two things can happen: a company can invest the time to discover social media usage among its target audience, or it can take an educated guess while creating a strategic and tactical plan for social media.

In most cases, the latter option is selected due to time constraints, or the sense most people are likely using a particular platform (e.g. Twitter, Facebook) so there’s a good chance their social media efforts will hit the target audience. In other words, companies are taking calculated risks rather than taking the time to prepare themselves.

When you think about how companies operate other parts of their businesses, and the research that goes into making strategic and tactical decisions, it is surprising social media decisions happen with less information.

It may have to do with immaturity of the market, or perhaps a reluctance to spend money to do research on a new initiative with uncertain returns. Hence, there may be a less enthusiasm to spend money on research.

In an ideal world, companies would know the social media services being consumed by their target audiences. This lets them embrace the right social media services and, as important, deliver the right content and information.

This is a better approach than throwing a plan into the wind on the hope it manages to resonate with the right people. Sometimes, it works. But in some cases, a company’s social media efforts will flounder, which causes a lot of frustration because so much work and money have gone into it.

The reality, however, is a company could have given themselves a better chance of success by simply doing some research before they got started.

What do you think? How important is it to do research in getting ready for social media?

(Note: This post originally appeared on the Sysomos blog.)