When it comes to solid returns from social media, it's long past the point when it was enough to claim your company's domain name on Facebook and Twitter and post occasional dispatches to try and increase followers.
To keep tabs on what Wisconsinites are saying about food trends and his restaurants, Joe Sorge, owner of the Milwaukee-based Hospitality Democracy—a group of five restaurants with gross revenue between $5 million and $10 million—relies on HootSuite, a social media management system that allows him to monitor a handful of social profiles in one place.
Hootsuite's geo-located searches filter results according to distance, so Sorge is able to see Tweets and Facebook messages of people in the area. This keys him into the positive and negative things customers are saying about his brand, such as his burger-and-beer establishment AJ Bombers; exploring food trends keys him into what new products could sell well. Sorge's top keywords: "AJ Bombers," "burger," "bacon" and "custard."
"I may see that people locally are excited about a certain type of custard flavor that's being offered in another part of the country," said Sorge, who once created a bacon burger with peanut butter for a Foursquare customer who was clamoring about the flavor combination. After comments about it gained attention on Foursquare, the "Barrie Burger" quickly became AJ Bomber's third highest-selling item—and it wasn't even on the menu. "If I see a positive sentiment around it, then I find a way to fit it into my own menu in my own way," said Sorge.
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Sorge also uses Hootsuite to keep an eye on competitors, learning what locals are saying—good and bad—about other restaurants.
1. Don't be a social media spectator.
According to a new report from marketing research firm Demand Metric, almost two-thirds of organizations—64 percent of which are small businesses—are using social media analytics. Three-fourths of the study's participants say that their executive decision-making is influenced through intelligence gained via social media. Still, that means somewhere between one-third and one-quarter of small businesses are still leaving a lot of social media money on the table.
"Organizations that are essentially social media spectators—they make periodic posts and are doing virtually no analytics—are getting a fraction of the value from their social media efforts," said Jerry Rackley, chief analyst at Demand Metric.
Apple recently paid more than $200 million for Topsy, a social media analysis firm that, among other things, analyzes Twitter sentiment. Before it was one of tech's latest buzzwords, sentiment analysis aided legal librarians in tracking content and, more recently, helped enterprises "do triage on customer-service queries," said Matt Mullen, a senior analyst with 451 Research.
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The first step in learning from what people are saying about your business is to "take control of the consumer conversation," said Travis Tillotson, managing director at Humanele.com, a Manhattan firm that specializes in human sentiment analysis accuracy.
To do so, companies should set up a general protocol on how to monitor and respond to social media threads. After researching which review forums your customers are spending time on—there's no reason to loiter on Twitter if your core audience flocks to Pinterest and Instagram—firms can use free tools, like Google Alerts, to monitor company and brand mentions or HootSuite to search specific phrases across a handful of social networks.
Unless a small business is monitoring thousands of comments a day, "you don't have to hire a company and spend several thousand dollars a month," said Tillotson. "If you're relatively Internet savvy, you can manage it yourself," tapping customer conversations like Sorge does to uncover important trends.
2. Encourage feedback.
Followers of a company's social channels may also make a good sounding board for testing out the viability of new product concepts. Jon Olinto, co-founder of the fast-casual b.good burger chain in Boston—the company, with more than $10 million in annual revenue and 13 locations in New England, is known for using locally sourced meats and produce—regularly reaches out to constituents on Facebook, Twitter and email to get feedback on items the company is thinking of launching.
When b.good posted a new smoothie recipe that used agave syrup as a natural sweetener, it elicited several responses from Facebook fans highlighting health concerns about the way that some agave is produced, prompting Olinto to swap it out for another ingredient.
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The firm is also working to eliminate Coca-Cola products from its restaurants and replace them with more homemade drinks and soda from companies like Maine Root, which uses non-GMO ingredients. The move was overwhelmingly well received on b.good's social media channels. "The sample size wasn't huge—out of 250 comments, 248 said, 'Go for it and get rid of Coke,'" said Olinto, noting that the response prompted more intensive customer research (via an emailed survey). "But that actually means something to us, that maybe we were doing the right thing for our customers."
3. Exploit the negative.
The biggest mistake small companies make when it comes to interacting with customers on social media: Ignoring—or, worse, deleting—negative comments. "That's a knee-jerk reaction; it's putting up a wall between you and your customers," said Liz Jostes, co-owner of Eli Rose Social Media. "It's saying, 'I don't want to hear from you, and I'm not trying to solve your problem.'"
Olinto sees negative comments as a way to convert a customer. When someone complains via Twitter or Facebook about service at b.good, Olinto or his marketing manager responds as soon as possible, apologizing publicly. The company then tracks down the person's email address—direct-messaging the person via Twitter or asking a Facebook follower to send it along—and emails them a digital code the customer can redeem in-house for a free burger or drink.
Kyle Cassano, co-owner of Sacramento Marketing Labs, a digital marketing agency, said that responding publicly in a thread "is almost as valuable as reaching out to the person."
4. Choose your battles.
No matter how meaningless or mean-spirited a negative review may seem, it still warrants a response. Big issues—things that relate to a company's overall brand or reputation—require a direct response like a phone call or email, said Don Sorensen, founder of Big Blue Robot, which helps firms improve their online reputation. "The last thing a company wants is a firestorm of back-and-forth arguing over an issue."
But if the feedback is on a smaller scale—a problem with shipping or a minor product defect—it's "fine to address those directly in social media," Sorensen said.
For people who complain about small things like sauce flavors, AJ Bomber's Sorge sends out a quick apology and ends the conversation. "One of the most difficult things for me to get my hands wrapped around as [my company] has grown is that everything I do isn't for every customer," he said. "There are some things people just don't like, and that's OK."
For particularly fiery Yelp reviews, Humanele.com's Tillotson recommends quickly researching the commentator; if the person has a history of complaining against other companies, engaging in a heated exchange of words in a public domain like Twitter—which reflects badly on a company's image—it isn't worth anyone's time.
"The general rule is to just leave those alone," said Sorge. "Don't feed the trolls."
—By Maggie Overfelt, Special to CNBC.com