At this point, you’d have to be under a rock not to have heard the news. Amazon bought Zappos for $807 million in Amazon stock, plus about $40 million in cash and restricted stock.
The real question, though, is why are we all so surprised? Both companies are at the top of virtually anybody’s list in customer service, with a fiercely loyal base of repeat customers. They’re both online retailers who emphasize value in offering the broadest selection of quality products. They’re both innovative and dynamic businesses that value their employees and customers foremost, inevitably leading to value for their investors and shareholders.
Oh, and when it comes to ease of site navigation, shipping (free at Zappos; free at Amazon for purchases $25 or above and free for members of Amazon Prime), return policies, and pretty much everything having to do with brand experience, they excel. They arguably set the standard for anyone else, whether online or brick and mortar, and regularly raise the bar on themselves.
Besides making customer satisfaction a key purpose of any business transaction, both Amazon and Zappos demonstrate a keen appreciation for engagement of their customers. Both retailers offer the opportunity for buyers to share their experiences with product purchases. These days, most marketers realize that customer feedback mechanisms, including product reviews, are critical to a shopper whose purchase decision is heavily influenced by peers, friends, and the experience and recommendations of other buyers – whether good or bad.
To its credit, while Amazon acts as a virtual hub for independent merchants and small businesses to promote their wares online, even those businesses are subject to customers’ rating of their experience with products purchased and fulfilled outside of Amazon. So in effect, Amazon protects and preserves its brand reputation and credibility as putting customers first, even when third-party sellers on its site disappoint buyers with a lame experience.
Not to be outdone, Zappos takes pride in delighting its customers, period. Stories abound of customers receiving free – and unexpected – overnight delivery, leaving a glowing impression of the purchase experience, and ultimately the Zappos brand (full disclosure: it’s happened to me twice). I spoke with a Zappos customer service specialist who was disarmingly pleasant and enthusiastic in her role, and who wisely advised me on the generous sizing of a particular shoe style I was ordering based on prior customers’ experience with this product. She was dead right about the fit, and I’ve never forgotten the call. I’ve retold the story hundreds of times. Oh, and I ended up returning the shoes… which seems insignificant, and thus often forgotten. Yet the part about overnight delivery and free return? That part I remember. It’s what brings me back again and again.
When it comes to customer engagement via social media channels, these two brands truly get it. Amazon has multiple Twitter feeds announcing everything from daily deals, free music downloads, special sales, coupons, to books and more (such as @amazonmp3, @kindlenews and @AmazonBookClub feeds, to @amazongames). It even boasts an unofficial consumer feed promoting products on its behalf (@AmazonHotDeal). How’s that for social media evangelizing?
Similarly, Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh (@Zappos) is a popular Twitter user, and has managed to not only attract more than a million followers of his frequent, insightful, down-to-earth, and often funny tweets, but he’s made communication via Twitter and SM pervasive to Zappos’ culture among his staff (including the COO’s @zappos_alfred, @Zappos_Service, @Zappos_Pipeline, @zappos_helpdesk, @Zappos_Tweetup, and even @zappos_spouse and @ZapposFans).
The distinguishing quality about both Amazon and Zappos as brands is that the customer almost always wins. So ultimately, what’s most surprising is that this partnership didn’t happen even sooner. Or that it caught so many off-guard. Either way, something tells me this online retail hook-up is just the beginning of a wonderful union, for better, and for richer — for both brands, and their growing world of customers.
Having watched the unfolding of news and events following the election in Iran, Twitter has won my renewed respect. Simply put, it brought truth to power. In a more compelling and impactful way than its ever done before. And clearly, in a way that no other channel or mouthpiece for factual information can match – in both its sheer volume as well as in its eyewitness accuracy of the often-gruesome details. This is true whether considered from a historical perspective, or even in the real-time 24/7 news-cycle that we expect and demand of our media sources today.
Our international neighbors can no longer gain a propaganda advantage by seizing control of traditional media channels to influence or stifle information on activities and developments within their borders. Not with the proliferation of computers and cellphones among the masses, even among those formerly most oppressed. And especially given the ease with which we can broadcast anything and everything, whether text or images and video, from applications readily accessible and available via any desktop or mobile device. Technology trumps ignorance, and in this case, repression and perhaps outright fraud.
Like many, I’ve questioned the true, measurable value of Twitter, from a marketing and business perspective at minimum. Clearly, some companies are in fact managing to derive significant benefits from the messaging platform. Dell’s recent announcement that Twitter users have spurred $2-3 million in sales for the computer manufacturer is a convincing case-in-point. Small businesses have optimized heavily social media such as Twitter to attract new customers (see Naked Pizza). For others, it’s a virtual customer service channel, or effective tool for monitoring buzz and consumer chatter on their brand or products.
But the Iranian election has vaulted Twitter’s utility as a real-time communications tool to unforeseen heights, and bestows true credibility for any remaining doubters. Twitter’s myriad uses include its evolution into a subversive media channel for distributing or receiving critical information, and much like the growth of the World Wide Web from its infancy, through reliance on an army of grassroots citizenry who sustain and support its use and expansion. A global grassroots communication infrastructure available virtually round-the-clock, at no cost to those who seek to gain or participate in the content exchanged among users. Including for the U.S. government, whose Department of State relied on it as a primary source of intelligence on post-election developments in Iran. And for traditional media outlets, like CNN, which a recent Daily Show segment parodied for its unfettered use of Twitter feeds to replace actual reporting and investigative content after the Iranian government’s crackdown on media.
Twitter continues to push the envelope in evolving the role of media in society. In the beginning, its advantage was its immediacy of reporting news events, though the Mumbai bombing and Hudson River plane landing incidents are in the distant past – in Twitter time anyway. Back then, media and public detractors carped that 140 characters were insufficient to provide a meaningful, or sometimes even factual, account of these significant news events. Despite the downsides, Twitter remains a powerful tool for communicating news instantly and from the ground. Who would have thought that only months later, the public and media alike would depend on Twitter as the single functioning news source for this defining moment in international politics.
As noted by a panel of reporters and media during the well-attended “140 Characters” Twitter conference in NY this week, even the media concedes that the “Twitter effect” often improves their performance and their final product. If nothing else, it succeeds in getting people to take notice and pay more attention to the world around them.
I daresay Twitter is starting to grow up. And though it’s taken some getting used to for a skeptical Twitter user of a couple of years now, I’m feeling a bit like a proud parent. Here’s hoping we’ll continue to see similarly inspiring uses of social media, whether for more effective marketing to new customers, or for plain ole’ communication sake. Tweets have finally come of age.