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May 5, 2008
Listening to Zappos

I’ve become enamored, lately, with Zappos.com, the online retailer, and not just because I’ve purchased six pairs of shoes from them in the past year. As of Sunday, May 4, 2008, they’ve got 252 employees out of 1600 on Twitter.com. (That’s up from 168 employees, less than a week earlier.) I’m following at least 100 of them.

Zappos appears to have eclipsed Dell, H&R Block, Comcast, JetBlue and other name brands on the popular microblogging platform, in terms of its number of employee-participants. But all of these companies are demonstrating the value of participation and conversation in this particular corner of social media. Say what you will about the peculiarities of Twitter (or Pownce or Jaiku), the platform is inherently conversational. What’s truly important is that Zappos and the other brands are listening.

Are you? Are your brands?

Marketing = Listening.


Having 15% of your employees plugged into one social media platform might not impress—maybe you’re concerned with productivity. But Zappos has aggregated them all, demonstrating a larger corporate agenda towards participation, towards conversation, towards listening. Makes sense, since Zappos is “powered by service.”

Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh told me, “Beyond being able to pay our bills and make our financial goals, we're not actually that focused on getting customers to shop and purchase from us whenever possible. Instead, we're interested in forming lifelong, meaningful relationships with our customers, so the more engaged our customers are, the more likely that will happen.”

If you don’t count Hsieh (who follows 3,639 people), the other top 19 twitterati at Zappos follow an average of 283 people apiece. In other words, Zappos has 19 employees listening to 283 other human beings (read: customers). That’s a lot of listening/learning/customer service potential. Can you say the same of the employees of your ad agency or marketing team?

“Our number one focus as a company is our company culture. We believe that if we get the culture right, most of the other stuff will fall into place on its own, including our employees providing great customer service. Twitter has been a great way of getting our employees to connect with each other in ways they weren't able to before, which helps improve our culture,” said Hsieh.

Let’s take this idea a step further. I wonder when I’ll first see a resume that states, “following 250+ people on Twitter.” (In case you’re wondering, it actually takes a bit of effort to follow that many people.) When will the skill of listening share equal footing with the ability to speak—especially for those in marketing and advertising?

Listening is work.
Listening is active.
Listening is doing.

By listening, we learn. And thus, we discover the hidden gems, the inspiration with which to speak more effectively, more persuasively. Listening tells. Listening enables.

And in listening, we also learn when not to speak, we learn the marketing value in simply shutting up (hat tip to @rorysutherland.).

Zappos also gains an advantage in having a sizable potion of its workforce with ears tuned outward when it comes to public relations and customer service. More ears means more awareness and a greater chance of catching errors or mistakes before they fester and blow up.

And let’s be clear—it’s not just about an immediate financial impact. Hsieh said, “In the short term, there's probably not any meaningful financial impact (to having 200+ employees on Twitter). It's all about creating a deeper relationship with our customers for the long term.”

If conversation truly is the future of marketing and advertising, then Zappos is showing us the modern construct: Many ears, many mouths, many conversations from many different parts of the organization with many different constituents.

Next month I’m going to take this subject a step further and propose a methodology for measuring and putting value to examples like this one. Is there a fiscal corollary for having 252 employees on Twitter? Could a branded social media program improve the stock price of a corporation, and if so, how would it be measured? I’d very much appreciate any questions, ideas or insights you care to share.

In the meantime, let’s continue the conversation. Follow me @tbrunelle.

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As a writer, creative director and drummer, Tim Brunelle started in advertising in 1993 after receiving a B.A. in Jazz from the University of Cincinnati. Since then, he's worked with TBWA/Chiat Day, Heater/Easdon, McKinney & Silver, Arnold Worldwide, OgilvyOne, Mullen and Carmichael Lynch. Tim now works for his own entity, Hello Viking.

Tim has provided strategic and creative leadership to A.G. Edwards, Anheuser-Busch, Brown Forman, Goodyear, Harley-Davidson, Porsche, PricewaterhouseCoopers, and Volkswagen.

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