Staying on Message

How companies are leveraging social networking sites to their advantage

As a fast-growing online retailer of shoes and other apparel, Zappos.com is a power player when it comes to using social media such as Facebook and Twitter to engage with existing and potential customers. Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh has nearly 1.3 million followers on Twitter, and the company's official Facebook page has almost 21,000 fans.

Rather than using these channels to pitch products or sell its brand, Zappos focuses more on building personal relationships with customers by talking to them about the company's culture and values. "It really is about who we are as a company rather than what we sell," says Aaron Magness, director of new business development at Zappos.

"We let our customers see our culture and decide if we are somebody they can relate with. It breaks down the barriers of consumer vs. company and becomes more about a consumer buying from a friend," Magness says.

Zappos is among a growing number of companies using social media to engage with customers, suppliers, business partners and employees in various ways. Most are not as far along or as sophisticated in their use of such media as Zappos appears to be. In fact, many are only beginning to dip their toes in the social media waters, and the return on these investments is still unclear.

What few dispute, however, is the tremendous reach of social media outlets such as Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, YouTube and LinkedIn and the potential those sites hold for fostering more interactive, and sometimes closer, relationships between companies, their customers and other constituents.

Magness readily admits that in Zappos' case, much of its growing presence on social media has been organic in nature rather than the result of any strategic, long-term corporate plan. Zappos' use of Twitter, for example, began with employees tweeting one another about places to eat or the hottest parties to go to, and the use evolved from there, he says.

Today, Zappos has a dedicated page for Twitter on its site where nearly 500 of the company's 1,400 or so employees tweet regularly about what they're doing at work. The site also aggregates all public Twitter mentions of Zappos -- the good, the bad and the ugly -- and presents them in a single location. The company's Facebook page, meanwhile, features videos and pictures of company picnics, employees at work, office humor, motivational messages and much more.

There are no policies specifying which employees can or can't post on such sites or what they can say, Magness says. Instead, posters are left to use common sense in deciding what they want to say about the company. So far, at least, that laissez-faire attitude has worked just fine.

The informality and transparency has engendered what Magness believes is stronger customer loyalty. "To customers, we are not just a faceless corporation. They know our CEO as a person as opposed to someone hawking goods," he says. And the interactivity enabled by social media has also allowed the company to spot and respond to customer issues faster, he says.

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