It worked for Zappos. It probably won’t work for you.

Zappos* is a successful company with a well-publicized, aggressive employee use of social media.  In fact, it may be the most famous social media model in all of blogdom. They have 13 blogs, 50,000 videos and their employees tweet like rabbits in heat.  It’s worked for them and it’s a wonderful case study. I get it.  But it’s probably the wrong model for most companies.

And here’s the point where the waves of Zappo-sniffing social media purists come crashing down on me.  So be it.  This is dangerous stuff.

It is relatively safe to blog and tweet about shoes.  But in many companies, the risk of an all-employee social media free love policy will far outweigh the benefits.  For many important companies all it will take is one Twitter-induced SEC violation, a leak of vital competitive information, or a national defense breach, and the hammer will come down on the use of social media forever. Policies are usually made to deal with the lowest common denominator.

Is this a leadership issue? Not necessarily. There are irresponsible people everywhere.  There are disgruntled employees even in the best-managed companies.   Where corruption can occur it will occur. Welcome to the human race.

So what’s the answer?

Under the following conditions, the Zappos model might be ideal:

  • Company culture supports employee engagement
  • Company leadership understands the model
  • Customer base is active on the social web in a meaningful way
  • Benefits outweigh risk of security breach

If just one of these conditions are not met, the free love policy cannot work.

That’s not to say that social media won’t work in some form with almost any company if there is appropriate training, role clarity, effective policy and boundaries. But you have to fit the tactics to the strategy — and the culture — just like any initiative.

A marketing leader has to make effective decisions based on what IS, not on what you WISH for. You can’t “will” a social media effort to work in your company just because it worked in the Zappos corporate culture.

For an excellent and thorough perspective on the need for effective and appropriate corporate social media policies, I recommend Kent Huffman’s recent post on the subject.

OK, your turn. Let ‘er rip!

*If you are unfamiliar with the Zappos social media model, Jeff Bullas has written wonderful case studies on this company:

All posts

  • I was under the impression that Zappos built their business on relationships and the use social networking tools is how they develop those relationships.

    If you have ever helped relocate a call center, and I’m sure you have Mark, you know that a key component is that the community has a lot of friendly people to attract as employees. The company can train the rest of the skills, but they can’t teach personality.

    To bring this back to Zappos, they hire friendly people who know how to interact online. Those people are probably young, in entry-level positions, and getting their first taste of corporate culture at Zappos. What’s the mystery and why wouldn’t it work for others? Remember, it is a call center, retail model, not a manufacturer.

  • Having a solid social media policy for good online behavior and defining areas of non-disclosure is important, but never make the mistake of thinking that doing so will inoculate your company. All the policies in the world will not stop willful maliciousness or carelessness. They only give the company a defined path for what to do afterward.

    What really sets Zappos apart and allows them to be so deeply engaged in social media is not so much their policies, but their specific corporate culture and the strength of their team. That’s a model that can definitely be implemented across other businesses and industries. It’s just very hard to do. 🙂

  • Excellent perspective!! Love your posts 🙂

    My belief is – it all starts with engagement, on a one to one basis. It also takes TIME, to nurture and fortify the relationships, and of course, you need to be consistent with your strategic objectives.

    It begins with personal branding, and may be applied to enhance corporate branding and other initiatives. So, my nagging question becomes – How do we scale SM for global brands?? Would love to know your thoughts.


  • Mark

    @ Linda – This is a great perspective. Yes, of course it would work for others, especially in retail. Thanks for the contribution!

    @ Rachel — Well said. I agree 100%. Culture can make or break it. But I see so many ignore that fact, which is the point I’m trying to drive home here.

    @Prince — Love Raspberry Beret. : ) How to scale for global brands? Nike, Coke and others are paying legions of people far smarter than me to figure that out! I’m a student too!

  • Well written post Mark and I agree that the Zappos use of Social Media doesn’t suit most companies. I think that the 10 year culture development of Zappos and the emergence of social media was a “Opportunity Meets Preparedness”” scenario. Cheers Jeff
    PS The Zappos stories made good fodder for readers though! 🙂

  • It wouldn’t surprise me if they had a massive training system in place and plenty of coordination and policy. Appearances can be deceptive.

    I’m certain that very quickly social media work will become the terrain of one or two people within a company. The workplace is still going to divided up into tasks and roles. Even if we’re tweeting in the private sphere, I don’t think we’ll see people doing it en masse as part of their job. Policy and standard work trends will get in the way. For the time being, at least,

  • Excellent writeup and very timely for me personally. Other than a static Facebook page that presents nominal risk it seems that the policy must involve regular review of activity at a senior level of a management to monitor what is being said, how it is said and as a reminder to those implementing a social media plan that a real level of oversight is occurring. I am not pointing this to startups or small business (although they probably need this as well). But major global brands and F1000 companies would seem to need not only policy but proactive management for this to even allow a program like this move forward, as well as ensuring program success and limiting risk and liability to the company.

    I’d love to hear from other commenters on the level of engagement at senior levels, as well as frequency of review, as to what I am talking about here.

  • Excellent story. The key to Zappos model is the highly energized customer care reps who relentlessly pursue customer engagement and satisfaction. Zappos even offers the reps who complete their training program $2,000 to leave! Unbelievable. Their culture is second to none.

  • Mark

    @Jeff, Yes, ultimately the cases were useful! Seriously, great job with them.

    @Jon – Agree. I think that is the way it will go for many companies, a variation of the corporat communications department.

    @Marc An interesting point. For very large companies, there is also the added expense of training employeess and monitoring activity. Will it be worth it? For many industrial companies, no.

  • Agree, Zappos is a social media success story. Their long search for an ad agency seems a bit ironic. Will the combination of social media and traditional marketing make a significant difference? If they can match their approach with the way their customers learn about and purchase Zappos’ products….. perhaps.

  • Mark,

    I totally disagree with this statement – “Zappos* has built their company and reputation on a well-publicized, aggressive employee use of social media.”

    Zappos was founded in 1999 by Tony Hsieh, a serial entrepenuer. He previously sold a company Link Exchange for $265M to Microsoft. He sold it to them b/c he was unhappy with how the culture developed. Read about that here:

    The interview explains that with Zappos, Hsieh wanted to make sure that he didn’t make the same mistake again, so from the beginning he always made company culture a high priority.

    They have a formalized definition of their culture into 10 core values:

    So to relegate there success to “well-publicized agreesive use of social media” sells them way short. They are one of today’s great company’s. Their leader understands that the single most important thing today is an engaged and empowered workforce that truly cares about their customers. Their use of social media, is in my view, an extension of this committment to WOW their customers.

    All that said, I am in agreement with the premise of your post. As I have said before, if you have horrible customer service now, you will continue to have horrible service after you open your Twitter account or create your Fan page…Significant organizational changes in culture and structure are required to use social media effectively.

    Maybe we are saying the same thing, I just felt compelled to defend Zappos a bit as it wasn’t something built overnight through tweeting.


  • Excellent point that marketing leaders must make effective decisions based on what they have to work with. Kind of the old ‘hope is not a strategy’ — clearly, the level of commitment to significantly raise the quality in the call center to this level is huge.

  • Doesntmatter

    Really? I have been buying all of my shoes from Zappos for at least 5-6 years and have been an affiliate selling Zappos products just as long. I am unaware of their social media. I have never read one of their blogs. How long has Twitter even been around? Maybe they had a lot of growth because of recent social media ( among other things), but they were “built” in many other ways.

  • Mark

    @ Mark B — Thanks for comments. I’ll have to watch how the ad agency thing develops.

    @Doesntmatter I agree, of course there are many reasons for any company’s success.

  • Mark

    @Jeremy In hindsight, my opening comment “Zappos has built their company and reputation” is incorrect and I agree with your points. Sometimes when going through the drafting process obvious sentences like this become invisible to me as I concentrate on other aspects of the post. Zappos is a well-managed company with much to admire and I will change the tone of the opening sentence to reflect this. Thank you for pointing out my mistake.

  • Hmmm, great observations, Mark. But, maybe what Zappos did will work for others! Jeremy highlighted their expertise in customer service which has been partially delivered via social media technologies. The policies need to be unique to each company given their specific circumstances but excellence in customer service is something we can all learn from. Adding social media channels to a solid customer service strategy should be something any organization can benefit from.

  • What’s fascinating to me in all the in-depth, provocation (which I always get when I jump in late to the party) is whether a social media policy exists and who’s in charge. “Employees tweeting like rabbits in heat” makes me cringe as a public relations practitioner. Who’s controlling the message? Critical when so many are given free rein — kind of frightening when you add it up.

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