Zappos is the Amazon of shoes, marrying deep selection with discovery tools. The company combines a highly functional and easy-to-use interface with extreme customer service. It has expanded from shoes to selling clothing, jewelry, eyewear, and even housewares. In 2008, the 10-year-old company's gross sales exceeded $1 billion. Zappos describes itself not as a retailer, but as a customer service company that sells things, and one of its core values is "fun and a little weird."
Brian Kalma is director of user experience and web strategy at Zappos.com.
As head of user experience and web strategy, it is Brian Kalma's job to cultivate the fun while making sure customers can find the perfect boot, blouse, or blender. Kalma joined the company in 2003, to head the image processing and photography department. On his watch, the company has continued to innovate, testing -- and sometimes abandoning -- new features.
Its most recent twist is a beta version of My Zappos, which lets people save items to a personal closet, share them via Facebook or Twitter, and get comments from friends.
iMedia: As head of user experience and web strategy, how do you interface with other marketing execs at Zappos?
Brian Kalma: User experience isn't technically in the marketing group, it's a standalone group. We have a director that handles search, affiliates, etc., and a brand team that handles identity work. Our team has to be keenly aware of what's happening in direct marketing, and, from a brand perspective, we have to make sure the site looks and feels like what we want the brand to look like. Keeping an open line of communication is probably the biggest area of operations we can improve upon, making sure we are a unified, aligned group. It's tough, but I don't think the solution is putting us into one big ball of a group.
iMedia: What is a typical day in your job like?
Kalma: I almost always start my day by looking at the previous day's site performance, making sure nothing alarming is happening, just a basic analytic check. I manage the team, and have a weekly touch-base meeting. More often, it's making sure I'm communicating with the merchandising group, the customer loyalty group -- putting it all into the washing machine, making sure everybody's needs are being translated into a positive experience. I wish I could sit and do design work -- I have passion for it -- but we have a team for that. I try to be a conduit for information instead.
iMedia: What are the challenges for online retailers in this economy?
Kalma: Improving your brand. Right now, there are lots of price-sensitive shoppers. We're not a discounter, we're full margin. Our challenge is making sure that the emotional connections with our customers are secure. In hard times, people will stick with companies they know and trust.
iMedia: I think your free shipping in both directions makes people feel more comfortable about ordering from you.
Kalma: We invest as much money in customer service -- that being one piece of it -- as massive companies do in advertising. That's what's going to get customers to try us. It's a huge expense but paramount to what keeps customers loyal. There's no better time than now to prove how much you want to please the customers.
iMedia: Zappos was a very early adopter of social media. For example, you've always let customers rate and review shoes.
Kalma: When we started our onsite tools, there wasn't the thought that it was social media. It was just useful. A lot of the stuff that happens on our site, it just made sense. It was not about a social media strategy.
iMedia: So, as head of web strategy, what is Zappos' web strategy?
Kalma: We're experimenting with a lot of things. Now that Twitter and Facebook are big, we're trying to give people tools to integrate with them better. We're also trying to capture the emotion that happens when you shop offline and translating it into the online experience. A lot of brick-and-mortar retailers who come online try to create fancy Flash applications to replicate this emotion. I think the emotion is derived from interacting with people while you shop. "Does this look good? Does that not look good?" The question is, how do you bring that online -- literally? We created My.Zappos.com to find out if the direction we're going in works. Our goal is to still let people browse, with a single sign-in to allow them to share products with their friends. It's a little clunky right now, but we're learning a lot.
iMedia: What are some early insights from the beta?
Kalma: People don't like to go too much out of their way. That means we need to find a better way to integrate not only with the social media sites people use every day but also our site. I don't think people want just another place to go to.
iMedia: How easy is it in such rapidly changing times to create and adhere to a web strategy?
Kalma: Everyone always talks about strategy as a big, long-term thing. We approach strategy by understanding what our business needs are today and what we think they'll be tomorrow, and then we come up with a quick and dirty plan. We don't have some master document that says, "Here's the strategy. Stick to it or else." We have to immerse ourselves in the industry and anticipate changes before they happen. Our really bright CEO is immersed in it, and we have an empowered group of employees who are all active agents for us in the social space or wherever. The thing that suffers is documentation. The thing that benefits is advancement of our product. I can live without proper documentation if it means the product succeeds.
iMedia: How does Twitter fit in with your overall marketing efforts?
Kalma: Out of around 1,400 employees, we have 439 actively on Twitter. We aggregate all our employee tweets and all mentions on Twitter.Zappos.com. We aggregate all our brands' mentions, as well. It gives us an internal portal to see who's involved. We're trying to find the right way to bring all the conversations relevant to our brand to one area. By no means is it a final product, but it's certainly the start of something.
iMedia: How quickly can you start something like that?
Kalma: It depends on the initiative and the level of complexity. If it's very complex, we will move more slowly and get project management involved. If it's something relatively low-risk, like Twitter... That idea was conjured up in a cab. From the time Tony [Hsieh, CEO] and I talked about it until it went live was probably a week. It's taken on iterations since then. We partnered with another company for Explore.Zappos.com. The technology was already there, we had to provide a product feed. That was up in a matter of a few weeks. The key is to identify what's big, what's not big, and really go after low-hanging fruit. If the feasibility is there and the possibility of reward is high, we'll jump in and see if it works. If it shows signs of hope, we'll nurture it.
The beta site is obviously a huge project with 100 or so people involved, and a much slower process. It needs to go through more rigorous QA. We're working on improving the internal and external APIs, so eventually, we can build on top of the data set more easily.
iMedia: What medium in the early days was the biggest boost to awareness and traffic?
Kalma: General search. Search and affiliates have historically driven the most traffic for us. As we've gotten better brand awareness, we've seen improvement in direct and organic traffic. SEO remains king in many things we do.
In the future, awareness will come from things that are considered non-traditional channels now but to me are traditional: being active in the social space, and effective and accurate PR. There's also emotional PR -- things that don't seem like advertising, like having over 1 million followers on the Zappos Twitter feed. We'll probably have more Twitter followers than we will customers at some point. That's incredible PR: people who are willingly choosing to follow you. That's the power we haven't understood yet in business.
iMedia: Do you expect to see any ROI from social media?
Kalma: I don't need to see an ROI in social media now, because I believe it's going to evolve and become something wonderful. The fundamental belief we have is that it will become more powerful than any kind of advertising you can do. I'm not saying we don't want to see a return, but if all we focused on was the return on investment, we'd lose our authenticity, sacrifice the brand, and lose the PR value. There's a certain level of intent with some of the things we do, but not with all of it. Our intent is to find out what works and what doesn't.
Susan Kuchinskas is a freelance writer.
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