I was just in Chicago to attend the Alterian Engaging Times summit. The attendance was great, and there were some impressive brands represented including Dave & Busters, Western Union and many others. The theme of the summit was the rise of social marketing and how to best engage customers.

The keynote address was given by Stan Rapp, an industry veteran – and quite a character to boot. I really liked a lot of what he had to say – but I think the most valuable part of the message was related to companies doing things “to” their customers, doing things “with” their customers and doing things “for” their customers.

Doing things “to” your customers are the typical horror stories that get posted all over the Internet. A company didn’t take care of me, made a mistake or just plain didn’t make me feel that they valued me as a customer. I know I’ve had that recently myself with such brands as Marriott, DirecTV and AT&T.

Doing things “with” your customers are ways that you engage the community. For example, Alcatel Lucent donates use of their campus for the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life every year in Plano. This makes you feel good about the company, and it makes you feel connected.

Doing things “for” your customers are incentives and/or other special things you can do to provide value. For example, Nike provides information on running events and posts run times for users in training. American Express provides services for making hotel reservations and concert ticket purchases. Chik-Fil-A provides all sorts of free meal options when you engage with the brand (including dress like a cow day).

I think one of the simplest things that a company can do to move into this “for” group is just listening. Best Buy had a great idea with TwelpForce which is a program where Best Buy listens to Tweets and provides instant support / feedback. How often do you find yourself trying to call customer service, send an email or post to a company’s web site and not feel like they understand your questions / comments  / complaints? The simple first step of acknowledging a customer and responding to them really moves a company dramatically up that chain.

David Williams, Merkle’s CEO, often challenges with the question on how you can spend a large advertising budget in social media. For traditional media, it’s as simple as buying print ads, direct mail fliers, radio and TV commercials. Part of the answer, I believe, is moving from a unidirectional medium to bi-directonal. To do that, you need to integrate your online systems (i.e., web-sites and customer information systems), your support systems (i.e., call centers) and your marketing tools (i.e., campaign management, micro-sites, social presence, etc.) In this new world, it isn’t about buying lots of eyeballs – it’s about crafting the message and engaging in a conversation. It’s not a one time investment, it’s a long term investment that really changes the game.