Thursday, July 23

Picking Channels: Amazon And Zappos

Not everyone understands why Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos chose YouTube and Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh chose a blog post to break yesterday's $807 million* acquisition while reportedly ignoring mainstream media on the front end, but I think I do. Hsieh all but says it in his post.

"Over the next few days, you will probably read headlines that say 'Amazon acquires Zappos' or 'Zappos sells to Amazon'. While those headlines are technically correct, they don't really properly convey the spirit of the transaction," Hsieh wrote.

Less obvious in the statement but demonstrative in example, the Bezos video is even more telling. Take a look.

Still unsure? Both Bezos and Hsieh have a story to tell. And neither of these stories would overshadow whatever the mainstream media might happen to ink about the deal. In effect, intentional or not, Amazon and Zappos may have demonstrated why social media sometimes means more message control, not less. Or did they?

Social Media Meets Message Control?

Sure, there absolutely were news releases sent out and none of them include the more colorful quips about home-based power grids and purchase ding dongs as seen on the Amazon video. They do, however, carry quotes aligned with the direct communication via the Zappos blog and Amazon's YouTube video.

Ironically, while both the reflective and visionary are apparently confined to singular sound bites, the details of the purchase price are all over the map. Amazon released $807 million. Most reported $847 million. And TechCrunch estimates $920 million. Some of the numbers can be easily attributed to stock fluctuations. Some cannot.

Much more interesting than the numbers is the simple idea the mainstream media was initially left out. In doing so, the companies seemingly have more control over the message as most mainstream media seems content to run with what was provided.

ZD Net seems a little less impressed, taking the time to answer its own questions since nobody else is willing to. Fast Company has written all sorts of amusing things about the communication, which means they may be less than amused. Meet The Boss even sent out a news release that it had some sort of exclusive interview with one of the elusive CEOs. The story, however, doesn't really seem to measure up to what it was reported to be.

Even The Wall Street Journal has a mash up of what everyone else seems to be saying. All the while, no one seems to have direct contact with the sources.

Social Media Tends To Be Messy.

Do people really think the initial story, broken on public channels, was designed as an externally transparent internal communication to the employees of both companies? Weird.

It seems more likely this was a public communication designed for anyone who was interested in hearing it (with Bezos and Hsieh being the most interested) while establishing what Amazon and Zappos want the message to be. Is that a good thing?

I haven't decided. I like both companies well enough. We have good enough relations with Amazon, and its nice to know Zappos will still keep its home in Las Vegas (for now, anyway). I also have to admit that both the notion of internal communication shared with the public first or the idea that corporate posturing without probing questions from the media gives me goosebumps.

After all, this bit of communication clearly demonstrates that social media, for all its praise of being open, two-way communication, could take a turn to being completely closed if the public allows it. Given that the public doesn't really care about the deal (not until it affects purchases) and those who did mostly offered a quick "congrats" and moved on, it seems like the public absolutely will.


Rich on 7/23/09, 12:21 PM said...

More words:

For another opinion, visit Valleywag. Most participants consider the announcement transparent.

Beth Harte on 7/26/09, 6:11 AM said...


I think what we saw was a very public display of PR 2.0 in practice. Amazon and Zappos delivered their messages to ALL of their constituents. Look how short the IR release was compared to Tony's e-mail note or Jeff's video. To me, that speaks volumes. Investor relations and releases are meant to share the business deal facts with investors/analysts and that's it. They don't allow for all constituents to be addressed or included. I don't own Amazon stock, but I am a loyal customer. I care less about the stock price, but I do care about how things will change for me as a customer. As a customer, Tony's/Jeff's messages worked for me...I like that I was directly included.

And, I didn’t see the IR release being wildly passed around on Twitter...what’s that tell us as communicators?

I think all the speculation (not investment-wise, journalist/blogger-wise) is because this is probably one of the first times that we've seen a deal this large utilize PR 2.0 and by-pass normal communication channels (Company >> Journalists/Bloggers >> Publics).

I think the lack of control and messiness is in the speculation of everyone else because they are reading into how the deal was broken (just like we are doing right now). I'd say some folks are probably pretty miffed that they were by-passed in this process because it potentially takes them one more step closer to becoming obsolete if they don't evolve...and that’s where social media might be seen as “messy.”

The fact is Tony/Jeff chose the PR 2.0 channel, now it's incumbent upon them to *personally* continue to do the legwork and to engage in conversation with those who write about or comment it. Jeanne Bliss had a post on MarketingProfs Daily fix about the deal and Tony did take the time to respond...that’s PR 2.0 in action.

Personally, I think Tony and Jeff set the bar very high for the next round of CEOs that have something very public to say. They've also set the bar high for the PR industry and professionals.

Beth Harte
Community Manager, MarketingProfs

Rich on 7/26/09, 11:05 AM said...


Thank you for such an interesting perspective.

I might be able to agree with you that despite being touted as an employee communication (which makes the distribution choice seem so very, very odd), it could have very well been a disguised customer communication that didn't reach many customers or provide any real details that customers really care about. But if it was a customer communication as you suggest, then with the exception of select social media stakeholders, mainstream media detractors, and a few snubbed media channels that ran it anyway (some to make fun of it), it seems to me that the message was largely ignored (55,000 views is nothing, especially with select viewers watching it several times in order to report on it).

Still, there is one thing about the perspective you share, which is very popular among publics with a deep stake in social media, that bothers me...

Do you really believe we can isolate mass distributed communication to consider only select publics important despite the fact the communication reaches and impacts all publics?

Everything we know about communication would suggest the opposite. Either all publics are considered and equally important by a company or bypassing most of them would suggest that none of those publics are important to them. Communication doesn't happen within a box.

I also I might also re-clarify that the message "we're wonderful" was very controlled; only the accuracy of select details within the message were messy. Specifically, those details were inaccurate. And as they were spread, they became more inaccurate.

As I said, I like Amazon and Zappos. But if this is an example of the future of communication, then consumers will not win in the end. It sets the stage to speak to select choirs and let the rest guess.

All my best,

Beth Harte on 7/27/09, 7:57 AM said...

Hi Rich,

"Do you really believe we can isolate mass distributed communication to consider only select publics important despite the fact the communication reaches and impacts all publics?"

No, I don't believe that at all. First, I am not sure why you jumped to that assumption...I am very open about my views/opinions on PR/PR 2.0. Second, I do believe that companies and profesionals do believe that. Why do you think there are so many silos when it comes to communicating? IR, PR, Client Relations, Employee Relations, Governtment Relations, etc., etc. Silos don't work because once a piece of news hits the Internet there is no control over how it is shared or who reads it. It's just like sharing a magazine or paper. Just because it's in the Financial Times doesn't mean a stakeholder - not shareholder - won't read the article and react to the information presented. And yet, so many companies have that mindset...FT is only read by investors/shareholders. Communications/PR/IR folks need to understand that (if they don't) and need to understand how to deal with all publics... Maybe it's just me, but I am from the school of being a Jack/Jane of all communication areas. Specialization is too limiting...and all of the analysis of the Zappos/Amazon situation is the perfect example of Communicators/PR folks thinking inside the same ol' corporate communications box.

I didn't say that Tony's email was customer communication. Yes, Tony's email was to employees, but it reached me, a customer, because it was shared with me on a channel that I frequent, Twitter.

How do we know that this news shared on Twitter didn't make it's way to a lot of Zappos/Amazon customers? I am thinking it did. Just not via the traditional methods. And I am thankful for that because I had the news before it was written about. I didn't need the WSJ to tell me about it to make it "official." Other Zappos/Amazon customers told me.

Seems to me you are defining "messy" as not fitting into your definition of how this should have been handled. We are no longer living in that media/PR 2.0 has drastically changed how we communicate. Zappos and Amazon have never followed the standard "rules." Amazon was one of the first companies to implement reviews. Almost every Zappos employee is on Twitter. Why would we expect them to start acting 'corporate' now?

I guess we won't agree on this one Rich, but I appreciate the opportunity to share my thoughts and get your perspective on the situation.

Beth Harte
Community Manager, MarketingProfs

Rich on 7/27/09, 10:50 AM said...

Hey Beth,

I really didn't jump to any assumption. I asked a question, which I'm glad you answered because I always did see you as leaning toward integrated communication.

Still, I guess we will see this case study differently because it seems to me that the message and its distribution are isolated to specific silos as opposed to integrated. The only semblance of PR 2.0 seems to be the tools used to distribute it. However, based on your original comment, I am glad to hear there is an upswing in their follow up with most people.

I am a bit confused how 'anything' could not fit into my definition of how this should have been handled. I didn't really offer any real solutions on how this could have been handled. That would have been a very different post. All I really offer here is that the importance of the news might have been better shared a little personally with employees and that I wouldn't have excluded media.

Instead, this post was more about reaching beyond this specific case and asking how other companies might interpret it. For example, what if companies stopped speaking to the media and the only "messages" were delivered to consumers? How would that change the message? And given the number of ethical breaches we see every year, would that be a good thing?

But of course, there are several communication topics that could be raised from it. Glad you presented one of them. Glad Valeria Maltoni raised a different one.

All my best,


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