Monday through Friday, my company ShortStack sends out an email to thousands of our subscribers with that day's blog post. On a typical day, we get around 20 bouncebacks from subscribers who have set up autoresponders to notify senders that they're out of the office. Most of the bouncebacks come from people who are on vacation. But sometimes there are messages like "I'm recovering from surgery" or "I'm on maternity leave" or "I'm at a conference."

We used to ignore these emails, but recently we started responding to some of them. We send along well wishes for the most part, but sometimes we share a link where the recipient can "order" a free company t-shirt.

Of course we still get a few autoresponders for a second time, but we also get a heck of a lot of happy thank you notes when these folks return to work. We've also gotten a handful of really nice shout-outs on social media. Responding to autoresponders, as funny as that may sound, taught me a few key lessons about where to look for PR opportunities:

1. Constantly be on the lookout for ways to "surprise and delight"

Once you start actively looking for way to surprise and delight your customers, you'll realize the opportunities are infinite. If there's one company from which I've learned about the value of spontaneity, it's MailChimp. They're constantly looking for the littlest opportunity to make one of their user's day.

I got to witness one of their small acts of delight back in November of 2013 when one of my employees, Chelsea, excitedly told the office she got an email from Palmer Houchins, MailChimp's brand manager (who I like to think of as their Chief Surprise and Delight Officer). In a Facebook post, MailChimp promoted a book one of their employees had written. Chelsea made a comment on the post and the next day she got an email from Palmer who wrote, "I noticed your comment on MailChimp's Facebook about John Foreman's Data Smart book. We have a few extra copies of the book around the office, and we'd be happy to mail you one. Just send me your mailing address, and we'll get it in the mail to you." Beyond having an amazing product, this is one perfect example of why MailChimp has so many loyal customers.

2. Create opportunities for your business to do amazing, special things for your customers and fans

If you're not happening upon opportunities to delight and surprise your customers and fans, create your own opportunities. You might remember in 2010 when Amy Jo Martin, the founder of Digital Royalty, worked with NBA legend Shaquille O'Neal to start "Random Acts of Shaqness" on Twitter. They created this opportunity for themselves and as a result made headlines around the world. Another great example of a brand creating their own opportunities is when Zappos and Gary Vaynerchuk both sent pizza to twitter user @mehwolfy in Reno, Nevada.

The story goes like this: @mehwolfy tweeted, "I'm hungry. I bet @zappos isn't going to do s#!$ about it." Another Twitter user chimed in saying, "@mehwolfy careful. I heard @zappos ordered some people a pizza once." @mehwolfy then responded, saying, "There's no way @zappos would send a pizza to 533 Lander Street, Reno Nevada 89509. @garyvee might though." This twitter conversion prompted both Zappos and Gary Vaynerchuk to send pizza to Twitter user @mehwolfy. Could Zappos and Gary have ignored the tweets? Sure. But because they didn't, they were able to surprise a fan, create some excitement in the Biggest Little City, and most important, create a positive association with their brands. A handful of people will undoubtedly help keep that story alive when talking about the importance of listening on social media.

3. Deliver human responses, always

When we respond to our subscriber's autoresponders, we don't copy and paste a pre-crafted response and send it off. We respond in a way that any human would. If we respond to someone who was on maternity leave, we tell her congrats! If we respond to someone who was on medical leave, we tell the person we hope they get well soon.

What we found, not surprisingly, was that people respond really well to genuine human interactions. And when interactions like this come from a brand, they're often surprised--in a good way. I can recall in 2013 when it was announced that the company MediaTemple was going to be acquired by GoDaddy. As soon as the news broke, MediaTemple started to get a lot of backlash on Twitter. One Twitter user. @thekevinjones, tweeted, "I'd hate to be a customer or twitter support for @mediatemple today." MediaTemple's response was perfect. They said, "@thekevinjones We're still happy to be here! #sendcoffee *NH."

So Kevin did just that--he sent coffee. MediaTemple responded two times more with the most humble, human responses. You can read the whole story here , but the point is: MediaTemple had a real conversation with one of their Twitter users and it made an impact. As Kevin pointed out, "They didn't try to sell me on their acquisition and they didn't pitch me on their product. They just spoke with me. They treated me like a person, not a user. At the end of the day, that's all I want."

Sometimes in can be difficult to be human, considering so many of us work in a mostly virtual world. But it's not impossible. When is the last time your business did something to surprise and delight a customer and/or fan? Let me know what you did and how the person responded in the comment section below.