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Anne Auer
Kelley School of Business

Last modified: Thursday, September 25, 2008

Students learn the benefits of Twitter from Zappos CEO and professor

Sept. 23, 2008

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Barack Obama twitters; and so does Tony Hsieh, CEO of, the world's largest online shoe retailer. Now some Kelley marketing students and their instructor are adding their "Tweets" to the mix. "Twitter" is a recent social network phenomenon that allows people to send 140-character text messages about their activities to a network of followers. It has taken off as marketing and public relations tool, with more than two million accounts currently registered.

Tony Hsieh

Tony Hsieh, CEO of

Print-Quality Photo

Tony Hsieh has become well known for his company's successes and for twittering with customers, employees, and anyone else who cares about free shoes and whatever Hsieh happens to be interested in. He was on campus Monday night to speak to about 300 undergraduate marketing students from the Kelley School of Business at the Indiana Memorial Union's Wittenberg Auditorium.

Since its founding in 1999, Zappos has grown to more than $1 billion in revenues. Under Hsieh's leadership, the retailer has developed a reputation for its stellar customer service, part of a business model that focuses on building customer loyalty.

Hsieh, a Harvard MBA with previous experience in venture capital and Silicon Valley startups, explained to Monday's audience that the Zappos brand is about the very best customer service. The result is that 75 percent of Zappos' customers on any given day are repeat customers. Hsieh believes that achieving that level of customer service requires a strong workplace culture that values great customer service.

What does great customer service entail? How about free shipping both ways, a free surprise upgrade to overnight shipping for most customers, 365 days to return unworn shoes, and a commitment to transparency. That transparency is achieved a number of ways -- for example, through a customer service number that is posted on every page of the Zappos web site, and which is answered 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

The company's commitment to twittering among employees and with customers is another way it promotes transparency. After Hsieh started twittering, his employees followed. Now about 425 of them are sending tweets to customers. Not only does this allow Zappos employees to respond almost immediately to queries, it also gives customers a sense of what it's like to be a Zappos insider. They also maintain a company blog, Zappos TV, and a Facebook presence.

Hsieh's talk was sponsored by the Center for Education and Research in Retailing, which is directed by Clinical Assistant Professor Theresa Williams. "It's important to expose Kelley students to innovative thinking and ways of doing business," she said. "And from culture, to hiring, to training, Zappos is unconventional. It shows students there is more than one way of doing things."

The talk came about after John Talbott, a visiting lecturer in the marketing department, met Hsieh at a retailers conference and was convinced to follow his Twitter stream. Soon Talbott became convinced of the value of Twitter as an instructional tool, as well as a marketing tool.

Talbott created his own Twitter account and told his students about it. He was surprised to find that they had never heard of the service. "The one constant that students can anticipate in their career is that technology is going to keep changing and they will have to adapt," Talbott explains. "Being willing and able to keep up with advances in technology is vital."

Now Talbott has about 130 followers for his Twitter stream, mostly students in his marketing classes. When he sees or hears something related to his class, he sends out a Tweet. Students often respond and continue discussing amongst themselves.

Jenny Walter, a junior interior design student minoring in small business management, signed up for Twitter when Talbott introduced it to the class. She says that Twitter is useful because it keeps students engaged. "Professor Talbott will post interesting articles on marketing, or give us an extra credit assignment, so we're thinking about what is going on outside of class. It's also helpful to be in touch with our classmates."

Jaime Ness, a junior history major with a business minor who is also twittering for Talbott's class, noted "Even though it's a big lecture class, getting messages from Professor Talbott through Twitter makes it more personal."