The Social Media Marketing World Conference is the largest of its kind and was held last week in San Diego. The two-day conference brings together marketers of all kinds from owners of small businesses, professionals from non-profits, to employees in huge corporations and, in my case, a Creative Director from an agency. The days were filled with sessions on every topic from Facebook Advertising to employee advocacy and the nights, because it was a conference for marketers, were full of parties and beverages (the opening night party was on a battleship!).

Having just come back from SXSW in Austin, it was impossible not to compare the two conferences. SXSW is much bigger. It’s twice as long and requires a dozen facilities to house the hundreds of sessions that go on at each hour. Social Media Marketing World’s organizers took advantage of the smaller size to make the conference a little more user-friendly. All the sessions are in one location, the magnificent Manchester Grand Hyatt in downtown San Diego, and the proximity means that conference-goers spend less time traveling between sessions so that more can be squeezed into the day.

There are a dozen or so sessions per hour so even while you can’t go to everything there’s less FOMO about all the other sessions you’re missing (also, the conference does an excellent job of giving every participant the video of each session, something SXSW does as well, but with Social Media Marketing World, going back and watching missed sessions is more manageable than SXSW’s overwhelming amount of content). The conference is also much more focused on organized networking, setting aside times and areas that were exclusively used for meeting people. The networking aspect was much more valuable than the sessions which were, as all sessions are, hit and miss.

When they were right, they offered immediately actionable takeaways and inspiring theories at their worst, they were less useful and provided more basic information (which could be, keeping things in perspective, useful to some and I’m sure there were others who found the sessions I learned a lot to be rather basic).

Of course, you have to expect a certain amount of intellectual scattershot from a conference that was attended by professionals mostly in their 30s or older all trying to figure out what teenagers will be doing next month.

However, throughout the two days one idea kept creeping into the sessions and keynotes I attended (besides wearing suits and shorts, which I saw a lot of and cannot get behind) and it was the assertion that customer service is the new marketing. More than real-time marketing or targeted ads, responding quickly and pleasantly to just about every comment, tweet or post was the prevailing theme of the conference.

I learned that 41% of people who post online complaints expect a response within an hour but the average response time for online complaints is 4.99 hours. A lot of social media marketing is ahead of trends before the industry adjusts, so a brand that takes advantage of the fact that the market is taking 5 times longer than what people are looking for represents a tremendous opportunity.

Instead of ignoring or fearing online complaints, responding to each one, every time, no matter how ridiculous, allows a company to make lemonade and show the entire world how good they are at customer service. In the very near future, the price will no longer be the determinant factor in much of our buying decisions; customer experience will be (for many of us, that’s the case now).

This idea kept coming up in different forms and, again because this was a conference for marketers, different buzz phrases. “Customer service is the new marketing.” “What it takes to deliver a world-class experience online is no different than what it takes in person or on the phone.” “Caring is scalable.” I spent much time surfing the internet (I also did some actual surfing, which was great) for resources on building processes for online customer service and ways to empower our weirdos here to do our best work. Conferences are a fabulous way to do two things: Learn new things and get encouragement for the things you’re already doing. Social Media Marketing World did an excellent job of both.