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The CEO of Zappos Tony Hsieh has 1.8 million followers on Twitter. In many marketing circles, he is something of a Twitter god, using the Twitter feed to promote Zappos and his way of thinking about business (as expressed in his book, Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion, and Purpose ) to his many followers.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I saw a TV interview with Hsieh, in which he said he dislikes the term social media. In fact, he dislikes it so much that anyone who uses it around him at Zappos owes him a dollar.

It’s not just the use of the term social media; it’s the whole idea of it. “We have never had a strategy for Twitter or Facebook. . . So many companies are chasing the social media hype, thinking it is a great way to connect with customers when they haven’t even gotten their telephone interactions with customers’ right. Or if you are a bricks and mortar store, you need to get that interaction right before you worry about the other stuff.”

Fundamentally, Hsieh says, Zappos doesn’t think about itself as a high tech company and rather prefers to take a high touch approach. This is why Zappos puts so much emphasis on its call center and encourages a bond between the customer and the call center rep. “Everyone is trying to figure out how to get their brand to stand out. We think the telephone is one of best branding devices out there.”

At the core of the Zappos call center strategy, according to Hsieh, is P-E-C: Creating a “personal, emotional connection” between the call center rep and the customer. Emotional connection is a critical idea here. There is a growing body of research to suggest that emotions are central to people’s sharing of stories and word of mouth.

And this is the key lesson to learn from Zappos. It thinks about itself as a “social company” and treats its customers as friends–as in real world friends– first. Hence the company’s desire to create a bond between the rep on the phone and the customer. It also thinks of itself as a word of mouth company. Sometimes social media fits in, often not. But it never leads. Why not?

Aaron Magness, head of business development and brand marketing at Zappos, explained it this way in a recent conversation: “When you look at successful marketing in social media, for the most part what it’s around is discount, coupons, offers, things like that. That’s not the Zappos brand. We don’t offer coupons and we don’t discount. As great as Twitter is, it’s sort of limiting. You have a better job at telling the story in print than you do in 140 characters. So I don’t know if it has the same impact or reach in as authentic way.”

Perhaps it’s for this reason that Zappos now does a fair amount of advertising, including a heavy presence in magazines. You read that right. Zappos, darling of the social media world, still believes in print. Zappos use of “traditional” media also extends now to TV, which it uses to get across the point that it is a diversified retailer that also sells clothing in addition to shoes.

Zappos doesn’t engage in Facebook campaigns with the goal of winning fans. In fact, Zappos makes it rather hard to be a Zappos fan. You can’t do it from the Zappos website. You have to actually go to Facebook, search for the page, and then push the like button.

“We know that if we had two million fans, our reach would be many times more than what it is today,” Magness told us. “But what we also know is that it would be rather diluted. Our fan is someone who has been on Facebook and searched us out. All those Facebook consultants will tell you what the true value of a fan is, when it comes down to it, I don’t think people really know. So as opposed to risking our authenticity we’d rather just stay true to who we are and keep plugging away.”

A major lesson here is not to confuse the industry story with the consumer one. The marketing industry is fascinated by Zappos in part because of its early adoption of Twitter. The customers who keep it in business learn about it because of the great word of mouth it receives for its customer service; and, because Zappos truly thinks about them as friends — in the conventional sense of the word.

About Ed Keller

Ed Keller, CEO of the Keller Fay Group, has been called "one of the most recognized names in word of mouth." His new book, The Face-to-Face Book, was recently published by Free Press/Simon & Schuster. You can follow Ed Keller on Twitter, Facebook and Google+, or contact him directly at



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