A tale of Zappos, Twitter and the Future

April 1, 2009

Let me tell you a story, and it all starts with me needing to replace an old pair of my favorite boots that were literally falling apart. And if you squint your eyes even a little bit, I think you might just see a big part of the future of marketing.

Given what’s happening in this country right now, it’s only reasonable to be purposeful about any purchase decision. So, as I was headed out the door one morning, I said to my wife, “Hey, I think I’m going to order a new pair of Blundstones from Zappos today.” My wife, Ann, who orders a good percentage of our kids’ shoes from Zappos, informed me that if I ordered by 10am, I’d have them the next day. So I ordered … hopeful. And five days later, my boots had still not arrived.

Though this order was my first with Zappos, I was disappointed. I wanted my boots. So on my way to work one morning, I Tweeted this (by the way, follow me on Twitter):


I had heard that Tony Hsieh, the CEO of Zappos was active on Twitter and I wrote this as much as a test to see if they would respond, how quickly and in what way. The threat of Endless, Amazon’s shoe store, was an extra worm on the hook. Well, within about an hour, I got a notice that I’m being “followed” on Twitter by Tony. Yes, the CEO.

By the way, to “follow” someone on Twitter is something akin to “friending” someone on Facebook. If you aren’t familiar with Facebook, the rest of this post is going to read like total nonsense. I forgive you if you quit reading now. Some of you may ask why I’m being so basic about these technologies. Reality is Facebook has about 175 million users and I know a lot of smart friends — and marketers — who are not among those 175 million.  And I think I just heard that Twitter is at something like 7 million. That means a lot of people who could use the background info. Pardon this aside if you are not one of them).

Within an hour, I got a message from Tony telling me my boots should arrive that day. To make a long story short, we exchanged “tweets” that day and eventually emails about the source of my frustration and ways I thought they might improve their customer experience.

Zappos has built a reputation as a service company that just happens to sell shoes. How did that happen? I think that’s the moral of the story. Tony and his team monitor in real time what people are saying about them on Twitter and in the blogosphere (it probably won’t take long for them to find this post). Is that marketing? Certainly not in the traditional sense, but it’s working.

Direct Marketers have spent the better part of the last two decades talking about “1to1” marketing, and “customer relationship marketing” (CRM), but it always seemed to me that it was still essentially one way dialogue. Yes, marketers have access to a lot of rich data and laser/digital technology allows marketers to do some amazing “personalization.” But in the end, it is still essentially a company talking at a customer or prospect and only becomes two way if the customer/prospect chooses to respond to the query — usually to buy something.

Well, with the advent of newer digital technologies (like Twitter, for example) the customer really is in the driver’s seat.  They’re starting these conversations every minute of every day.  The smartest, most progressive companies are finding ways to engage and respond — and win the hearts and minds of people along the way.

Which path are you on?