3 Marketing Lessons From Zappos’ Social Media Team

In every MBA program, starry-eyed students are likely talking about Nordstrom as the lodestar for customer service. There’s no end to the case studies and lore about bronze statues of returned car tires and impossibly empowered employees.

What’s clear to me as someone looking to deliver value to clients through social media, and as I found when researching my book, Zappos is to online retailing what Nordstrom is to brick and mortar. Obsessed with the customer experience, Zappos has woven a customer focus throughout everything they do. Their legendary use of social media is no exception, and if we as marketers are willing to shed a bias or two, there are three surprising lessons from Zappos that can transform how brands and agencies derive value from our social media investments.

1. Forget the technical capital. Think social capital.

Clay Shirky said something in a 2009 Ted Talk that forever changed the way I approach social media (and marketing as a whole): It isn’t the technical capital that matters. It’s the social capital.

Social capital is the value that comes from social groups. Not leads or brand awareness. And building social capital is a leadership skill, not a marketing one, based largely on a democratized group structure delivering consistent reciprocity. 

In other words, value in social groups comes by way of connections, not conversions. Zappos knows this, which is why their social media efforts pivot around customer care: that place where customers and brands are on the same playing field, solving problems.

Zappos’ former Senior Director of Customer Loyalty Rob Siefker told me that then-CEO Tony Hsieh called him into a meeting room one day and said “Hey, I want you to create a corporate Twitter account and start interacting with customers online and helping them out.” Tony and Rob didn’t hatch a plan to engage people in the customer journey. Just build relationships and solve problems.

They execute on this, in part, by not hiring marketers with technical skills (capital) in social media. “Everyone knows how to do social media,” Rob told me. He looks instead for people who understand what it means to “go above and beyond. We ask about this in interviews: ‘Do you remember a moment when someone went above and beyond?’ Because how would you give it if you don’t know it?”

2. Them, not us.

Most brands see social media as a channel, like a mailing list or advertising audience, and we go about (futily, in the vast majority of cases) trying to convert the people who’ve gathered there. Thing is, people come together on social media for reasons very different than what most brands try to intercede with. Social media users are sharing longboarding videos and swapping living room design ideas (and are literally in a different headspace). Brands are, at best, interrupting all of that.

When I first asked Rob why Zappos uses social media, his answer was point blank. “Zappos customers use it,” he told me, rather flatly. “All we do is decide if we want to be in that space. Customers called us, but we didn’t invent the phone.”

Amy Gilmer, another former Zappos social media team member, told me “It’s their space. We’re just on the bus.”

Social groups are constructed for very different purposes than a brand’s desires to transact. Receiving value from them starts and ends with the understanding that it’s the group’s space and rules. Not yours. Any brand that thinks they’re in charge will find itself on the outside looking in. With the ROI to prove it.

3. Reciprocity leads.

Because we’re hardwired social creatures, we know what makes relationships work: Reciprocity is what keeps you coming back to the most meaningful relationships in your life. We give, satisfying our need to help others, and we get, meeting our need for support.

The social sciences back this up. As one group of social capital authorities put it, social capital is about consistent reciprocity built through horizontal structures. This is one reason why customer care–not marketing or sales–performed on social media is such fertile ground in which to sow social capital seeds.

People are clamoring for your brand to help them, not sell to them, on social media. ​​In Conversocial’s The State of Digital Care Report, 81 percent of respondents said that their expectations for online customer service are higher year over year. And the percentage of respondents who said an “issue being resolved in a single interaction” is a must-have online? 100 percent.

There are two social media teams at Zappos. A Customer Loyalty Team (CLT) focused exclusively on customer care and another that “builds relationships and…create[s] weirdness and … fun” (as close to marketing as Zappos comes on social media) as Amy put it, and the separation of the two teams is key to their success. Zappos can maintain its service orientation without asking its CLT to double up with marketing, and the relationship/brand team can do their weird and fun thing away from the problem-solving in customer care.

“We have the space to play and have fun,” Amy told me. “And it opens up a lot of doors to do a lot of things.”

Zappos can perform the kinds of activities social media marketers drool over because of the trust and democratic relationships they intentionally build and earn on the CLT social team. And while neither team claims to lead the other (in keeping with Zappos’ flat corporate structure), it’s clear that the CLT owns the community curation. Zappos Customer Service Manager Kelsey Walsh told me her team “looks for trends, challenges, and [sends them] to the marketing team.” Amy told me her relationship/brand-focused team “is constantly checking in with the CLT social team, on a daily basis…so what we put out there resonates.”

I’m convinced that following leadership principles of building social capital, as mastered by Zappos, and tossing aside our long-held marketing beliefs, is the only path toward building social communities that thrive.

The opinions expressed here by columnists are their own, not those of

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