Sometimes we can't see the forest for the trees. If you have been using social media for your business for any length of time, it's very easy to get caught up in the day-to-day stuff and forget about the real reason that you are there, which is of course to gain customers (if you didn't know that part you need to re-evaluate something).
This is also true for the person or small business that is trying to learn about and wade through the social media scene as a newcomer. The "gurus" can get you lost and confused pretty easily, trying to master the next "killer solution" to online marketing, but the basics are always the same: be nice, be responsive, and pay attention.
Pay Attention to the Obvious
If you were selling newspapers on the street corner and someone walked by and asked "Do you know where I can get some information about the news today?", you would look at them cross-eyed and then tell them that they were in luck - you just happen to have what they need right there. The same thing happens on Twitter and Facebook (and other networks) every single day, yet many businesses either disregard the comments or don't see them in the first place because they aren't using a good social media platform that tells them what is being said in places other than their own stream.
The fact is that social media is a way to read people's minds. This isn't just hyperbole. Particularly with the rise of the short online statement or question (I'm looking at you, Twitter), people these days express things out loud to the world that in the past would have only been a passing thought or a mention in a conversation with their neighbor.
Did you say shoes? Well, well.
I'm not sure why I always seem to come back to shoes as the example when I talk about a hypothetical company. My theory is that I am always drawn subconsciously to the excellent example of Tony Hsieh and Zappos, or that I can't seem to extricate Al Bundy and Married with Children from my memory. Either way, shoes it is, again. Let's say that you are a company which sells footwear (see how I'm trying to exorcise my demons there?), and you are monitoring the web for potential clients. You see a comment from someone on Facebook which says "Time for some new shoes. Goodbye, heel."
Again, from their standpoint this is just throwing their immediate thought into text, because social sites have programmed them to do so. From your perspective however, they are the person asking about the news, and you are holding the newspaper. The only trick is that you have to engage them, not just let the opportunity pass. How you do this is up to you, as long as you follow basic etiquette. Asking them if you can help is fine, commenting on their status in a non-salesy way is fine (as long as you are subtly getting the point across that you sell shoes). The first thing that pops in my mind is sending them a coupon to their inbox with a personal message, something like "Hi, I noticed that you are having shoe issues. Hate to hear that, maybe this will help." Chances of getting a new customer? I'd say fairly good.