How these Web 2.0 companies build good relationships to build their brands

By Brian Morrissey

May 13, AdWeek

NEW YORK For Tony Hsieh, CEO at Zappos, meeting up with a customer at a bar in midtown Manhattan was perfectly natural. Most execs with 1,600 employees and doing over $1 billion in annual sales would probably pass on having drinks with an individual customer, but Hsieh is not your typical CEO. In the past week alone he had given away shoes on Twitter, sent out an open invitation to a company barbecue and solved a service problem a customer left in a blog comment. If this seems exhausting, Hsieh sees it as part of a larger strategy to build Zappos into a brand on par with Virgin.

"We think our brand is going to be different because we want people to feel there's a real person they're connecting with, whether it's when they call us or through Twitter or any way they come in contact with us," he said.

The path Zappos is taking has been forged by some of the Internet's top brands, like Craigslist. It's part of a newer crop of companies, including T-shirt phenomenon Threadless, handmade-craft site Etsy and review destination Yelp, quietly building powerful brands online on the strength of communities. For these companies, community is not a tactic or marketing plan line item, but core to what they do. It means being hyper-responsive to customers, laser focused on usability, unapologetically human and OK with customers determining the course their businesses should take. The bonus: When they take off, these brands don't need to do much in the way of advertising, instead letting their customers spread the word.

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image: Forging strong communities is a key for marketers looking to build brands online. (By AdWeek)