“Social media is a waste of time, it’s full of people talking about what they had for lunch.” It’s a familiar refrain from the social media sceptics and to an extent they’re right, depending on whom you follow. But one person’s ordeal is another person’s opportunity, so if that’s your view you could be in danger of missing out.

What the ‘digital dinosaurs’ don’t realise is the huge amount of information that these informal, and apparently meaningless, posts can reveal about people. People who might be, or could become, customers. Tapping into these free insights could be really useful for businesses.

A photo of someone’s lunch, their holiday, their pet or even a ‘selfie’ will show you where and what they eat, their preferences and something about their lifestyle. All of these snippets make up part of a bigger jigsaw and social media posts are now being widely used to monitor trends, including disease prediction.

It’ll also reveal their networks; who they know, who they talk to and what matters to them. Hugely valuable information that could help with product development, marketing, social media strategies and much more.

So, how can you tap into these online conversations? 

Start by identifying the keywords, hashtags and topics that people are using. Input these into free monitoring tools like Tweetdeck or Hootsuite to see what people are talking about. You can then use these insights to identify what people really care about and what you can do to help foster and inspire conversations of real value.

From here, you can see what kind of questions people are asking about your area of business. Consider what they might need to know and how you can be useful to them by answering their queries. Make life easy for the customer and they’ll talk about you, recommend you and tell friends about their experience.

Using a free tool like those above, and Social Mention or Google Alerts, means you can listen for mentions of your business. By actively listening to all variations and spellings of your name you might spot trouble early and be able to intervene before it spreads out of control.

Here are a few things to consider before you start:

Out of hours response

Evenings and weekends are the busiest time on social media, so you can’t afford to switch off completely. Listen out for customers mentioning your business and act quickly. People expect a response within an hour on social media and the faster you respond, the more positive your customers will feel about you. If you listen you can act quickly and show you care. Nobody likes to be ignored, especially when they have a problem.

Delve deeper with social analysis

Proactive search on social platforms will allow you to spot opportunities and keywords for your updates. Add the relevant business keyword, like plumber, for example and you’ll find people looking for, or offering, help and advice. The following search in twitter always reveals something:  “Can anyone recommend” or “does anyone know” or “looking for” plumber.

Listen to your competitors and influencers

Follow brands and businesses outside your usual sphere. What are they doing and what are people saying to them? You may well spot ideas that you could adopt, adapt and improve for your own business. Create a private Twitter list and add businesses you’d like to monitor. You can then see their tweets without having to follow them and without them knowing you’re listening.

Listen to what influencers are talking about. Remember there are influencers in every sphere of business not just the celebrity faces. Follow experts on niche topics, bloggers, people with a passion and a hobby. Follow more people and spend time listening, rather than simply broadcasting your thoughts. Check your Twitter mentions and start engaging with these people.

Finally, listen to yourself to see what you sound like to your followers. Would you find it interesting, helpful, and relevant? Would you want to engage and share updates with your friends. Always ask yourself before posting anything – why should anyone care?

If you’re ever in doubt about the power of social media, remember, you can make a career out of talking about what you had for lunch. By sharing her story and recipes on her ‘Deliciously Ella’ blog, Ella Woodward is now a best-selling author and has built a great business. Bon appetit.

For more insight from Sue follow her on Twitter @suellewellyn.

You can also read Sue’s previous column on using social media to build, maintain and increase trust .