Social Media Week in Chicago has been a cacophony of events, speakers, conversations, and cocktail hours, all geared toward making online social networks work for you—personally and professionally—rather than against you.

Yesterday, I listened as Erik Qualman, author and expert on “Socialnomics”, talked about who is using social media, which companies are reaching their customers effectively through digital channels, and how to avoid epic foot-in-mouth disease during a customer service crisis.

He offered a number of pithy observations about who uses social media, and why, how, and when they do:

    • 50% of the world is under 30 years old. And a huge number of them are online. So talk to them.
    • Social media is basically word of mouth marketing—which is traditionally hard to achieve and harder to measure—on “digital steroids.”
    • Consumers are enormously excited about their new-found ability to “eliminate multiple individual redundancy.” Why spend time researching a restaurant/cruise line/golf course/sensory deprivation tank when your friends have already done the work for you?
    • Social media is so attractive because it’s instant (and nearly unavoidable)—instant gratification, instant connections, and instant help—with navigating Valentine’s Day, for example:

    • Every employee should be able to help field questions and resolve issues. So far, the Red Cross, Dell, and Zappos are really the only companies where this is the case.
    • Real engagement with customers looks like this: listen, interact, react, sell. It’s really that simple.
    • If you make a mistake, fess up. Nokia learned this the hard way.
    • Use customer feedback to spark creativity. Wheat Thins did this terrifically.

The moral of the story seems to be a age old one in the world of sales and customer service: in order to attract and retain loyal customers, you have to win their trust. And to win their trust, you have to give them your respect.

And that sounds like a fair trade to me.