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July 24, 2009

Amazon Buys Social Media… I Mean, Zappos

So there I was yesterday afternoon looking for a column idea (as anyone who follows me on Twitter knows), when out of the blue came this: Amazon buying Zappos for $850 million, give or take. While most of the business stories I’ve read so far have covered this as an online retail story, with Amazon getting its, um, foot in the door of apparel with the acquisition of this renowned online shoe store, to many of us this is a social media story. To a greater extent than almost any previous company, Zappos is the story of a company built on social media.

When I asked for comments on Twitter yesterday about the role of social media in building Zappos’ brand, I got two responses almost immediately which actually turn what I just said on its head a bit:

From George Nimeh (aka @iboy), managing director at Iris Digital in London: “SM didn’t help build the brand. SM is their brand … because SM is about people, and therefore intrinsically customer centric.”

And then, from Communispace CEO Diane Hessan ( @CommunispaceCEO): “SM didn’t build the brand. Tony [Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh] & co understood HOW 2use SM 2embrace their customers-vs others who use the SAME tools & get 0.”

So, let’s not call Zappos a company built on social media exactly, but a company that saw social media as a platform it could leverage to bring to full fruition a unique, customer-centric culture. That’s a mouthful, but a more accurate description. As Hessan said to me in further correspondence: “At the end of the day, it’s almost never about the technology.”

In fact, if you look at Zappos’ customer service approach from end to end, one of its key tools isn’t Twitter — even though hundreds of company employees use it — but this thing called the telephone, which may rank as the original social platform. What comes through each platform is the message that the customer comes first.

When I contemplate the Zappos brand (I’m not a big shoe buyer, so therefore, not a customer), what comes through is this: I first heard of it through social channels, probably Twitter, and mostly because I saw recommendations to follow Tony Hsieh, who now has more than a million followers. (Take that @aplusk!)

Which makes sense, because Zappos has never really marketed in the way most of us perceive marketing: as messages pushed out in one direction, in the hopes that people will pay attention to them. (It actually feels odd to me that the company launched an agency review recently. Agency review? Talk about kickin’ it old school!) But until now, at least, Twitter has been one of its mass media, as have its unleashed customer service reps — who can talk to customers for as long as is necessary — and its word-of-mouth.

Using social tools, Zappos has built a mass brand, using thousands of incremental actions to achieve reach. As should always be the case, its broad use of social tools comes straight out of its culture, expressed as ten core values that include “Build Open and Honest Relationships With Communication” and “Create Fun and a Little Weirdness.”

In fact, the biggest concern I’ve read so far about the company selling to Amazon is that it will destroy Zappos’ culture. (All sides promise that it will continue to operate independently, and retain its distinctive focus.) But in reading the early comments about the deal, it’s almost as though Amazon wants a bit of Zappos’ social media stardust to rub off on it.

“Zappos is a company that I have long admired and for a very important reason,” said Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, in a video to Zappos employees. “Zappos has a customer obsession which is so easy for me to admire. It is the starting point for Zappos. It is the place where Zappos begins and ends. And that is a very key factor for me. I get all weak-kneed when I see a customer-obsessed company, and Zappos certainly is that.”

Remember that old Nike commercial where Spike Lee, in character as Mars Blackmon, says, “It’s gotta be the shoes”? Well, with Zappos, it’s gotta be the social.

Catharine P. Taylor has been covering digital media and advertising for almost 15 years.