From the book "Likeable Social Media" by Dave Kerpen

Social media sites and tools are ever-changing. But there are certain principles that remain timeless.
If you truly want to delight your customers and become a more likeable brand, here are six principles that I found to be absolutely indispensable:

#1: Listen first and never stop listening

As tempting as it may be to join the conversation, keep in mind that communication is 50% listening and 50% talking.
Your customers want to be heard and social media provides a channel that really allows you to listen on a large scale. Some (free) ways to listen on social media include:

  • Google Alerts
  • Technorati search blog
  • Twitter search
  • Facebook search
  • YouTube search
  • TweetBeep

For more advanced listeners with a higher volume of conversations to listen to, consider using paid listening platforms such as Meltwater Buzz, Parature, Radian 6, Sysomos and Vocus.
Remember to not just search for your brand name, but also for your competitors’ names and words and phrases that your customers use.

#2: Be authentic

As organizations grow large, they develop processes and models to enhance efficiency. Unfortunately those processes also make it difficult to be personal and authentic when dealing with customers.
Social media provides an opportunity to reverse this trend and actually ‘be human’ in dealing with customers. Some ways to be authentic include:

  • Be an “improv show,” not a musical—brands need to think less about putting on a show for their customers and instead focus on building an excellent team that is flexible, able to go with the flow, responsive and engaged.
  • Develop an authentic voice—consider what your brand or organization is all about. Think about how you can convert your mission statement or About Us page into a conversation piece. Let the world know your company’s personality while showing that you truly care about your customers.
  • Just be real—drop the PR-speak or legalese from your organization’s communication. If you sound robotic or scripted in your social media conversations, you’ll turn off customers. Let people hear your real, human voice in all of your interactions and they will trust you and even buy from you.

#3: Provide value—for free!

The more valuable content you can share with your fans and followers, the greater the trust and reputation you’ll build with them.
Share your expertise without expectation or marketing-speak and you’ll create an even better name for yourself. Some ways to provide free value include:

  • Start a blog to share resources, advice and tips that your prospects will find useful.
  • Write white papers to solve customers’ problems.
  • Create ‘how-to’ videos.

And don’t worry about giving away too much information. It’s rare that you could give away so much information that people could afford to do everything on their own. In any case, they’re not the experts, you are—and eventually they’ll need your expertise to help them solve their problems.

#4: Share stories (they’re your social currency)

Every brand has at least one story to tell. Social media (especially blogs and online video) allow you to share stories with your customers, prospects and the world. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • How did your company get started?
  • How did you survive the toughest times?
  • What kind of funny or interesting things have happened involving your customers or staff over the years?
  • Which employees’ lives have changed as a result of working for you?
  • Which charitable organizations has your company or its staff supported?

Remember, stories humanize brands and make them ‘talk-able’ online and offline. And they can be told by anyone—customers, employees or management. They just need to be real.

#5: Admit when you screw up, and then leverage your mistakes

Being able to say “I’m sorry” when you make a mistake goes a long way toward making up for your error. Companies are made up of people and everyone makes mistakes.
Here are some ways to say that you’re sorry:

  • Have the highest-ranking person (or another executive) at the organization say it through a brief online video.
  • Use the appropriate social media channel to respond quickly when a bad situation arises.
  • Don’t stop at “I’m sorry.” Apologize individually to each person’s complaint and continue to follow up.

By responding swiftly and showing that you care, you can take a serious mistake, turn it around and end up with an even stronger reputation than you had before!

#6: Consistently deliver excitement, surprise and delight

On social media, you’re not just competing with your real-life competitors; you’re competing with all of your customers’ friends and the brands they’re connected to.
So the way to stand out is to create as many “Wow!” moments as possible. Here are some ideas:

  • Provide unexpected value—try listening to conversations that are not necessarily about your company and then respond to questions not directly aimed at you. For example, Best Buy developed Twelpforce to answer people’s Twitter questions about electronic products.
  • Create situations to bring people closer to your brand and strengthen that emotional connection. For example, Cisco Networking Academy delights their Facebook audience by actually allowing select customers to become administrators of their fan page (they have over 260,000 fans!).
  • Sometimes a personal, unique response from a real person at a big company can really “wow” people, even more than the coolest contest or giveaway.
  • Use surprise conversations. When the New York City Department of Health created their “NYC Condom Campaign” in late 2009, they used Twitter to search for people talking about “going out partying” or “looking to hook up” and then surprised them by responding with funny tweets such as “Pick me up, I’ll keep you covered,” or “Don’t leave home without me.”

Ask yourself how you can create conversations and situations that make people smile, while generating surprise. Remember, if you can truly reward your fans and followers, you’ll be able to energize a huge group of online advocates.