Social media is unpredictable.

Why? Because people are the engine behind social media and people are unpredictable. That makes it hard to decide what kind of comments you should listen to through social media, and what you should ignore.

Marc Gordon, a Toronto-based small business expert, says that it’s important for businesses and organizations to draw the line between contacts and audience. While Facebook friends, email marketing, and LinkedIn connections are permission-based, Twitter followers and Facebook Likes aren’t.

He compares the latter to the audience at a crowded theater: “Anyone could be in there,” he says, and your business is the movie. Consequently, you never know who’s throwing the popcorn.

More than 200 million tweets are posted every day, and there are 800 million people on Facebook. So what should you listen to?

1. Positive Comments. After a big event or product release, or just a great customer experience, you’re bound to hear a lot of positive comments. Don’t feel obligated to respond to every single person’s tweet or post. Instead, try posting a universal thank-you on Facebook and Twitter to show your appreciation. Don’t forget to pay attention to positive trends — if it seems that one strategy is getting people engaged more than others, find out what it is that you’re doing right and keep doing it!

2. Negativity. Social consumers aren’t shy about posting complaints in public places when they’ve had an experience they didn’t like. Remember, feedback is a gift. Shinnon Fakhri, the marketing communications specialist for Little Sprouts, winner of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce’s Small Business of the Year Award, says it’s best to respond to these unfavorable social media comments. “Never remove negative stuff,” she says. “Otherwise, it looks dishonest, because somebody somewhere saw it and noticed that it’s gone.”

There’s a benefit to responding to negative comments: A Harris Interactive survey found that one-third of customers who posted a negative remark and received a response from the company posted a positive review afterward. Around the same number of those customer deleted their original remark.

3. Industry News. The whole point of social media is that it’s an ongoing conversation. If you see an interesting piece of news that concerns your industry, jump into the ring with your two cents. Lots of businesses and organizations tend to hang back as spectators at these junctions, but social media favors the talkative. Citing news stories can be a great alternative to creating original articles as well, especially for the time-starved business owner.

4. Your Audience. Marc says that a business needs to decide what it values the most on social media – contacts who you already have a working relationship with or your more passive audience of Twitter followers and Facebook likers. “If you’re a real estate agent, contacts are more valuable than an audience,” he says. “But a restaurant may want to reach out to an audience, instead.”

Whatever the case, the two groups that you should always listen to are customers and industry peers. Paying attention to their conversations will offer you access to a wealth of relevant topics that can act as catalysts for change and inspiration.

Customer, client, members, and supporter feedback, experience, and thoughts have always been muses for businesses and organizations. With social media, you have a better way to listen to them than ever before.

What does your business or organization listen for on social media? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.