For years, Amazon.com has been a flawless on-line marketer.
It has an easy-to-navigate website, the search function is intuitive and fast, products are almost always in stock, lower price alternatives are displayed, targeted recommendations for additional purchases show up when customers buy a book, shipping is reliable and problems get resolved quickly. As a result, its public image, media perception and customer loyalty keeps it a case study on how to promote and run an internet business.
Until this past weekend, that is.
That’s when, somehow, Amazon stopped ranking books with gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered themes along with those titles dealing with issues involving disabled people. So, every titillating book with a gay theme got booted along with a title by Ellen Degeneris and critically acclaimed fiction like Brokeback Mountain got dropped from the rankings.
Customer rankings are important at Amazon because, like the New York Times best seller list, highly ranked titles get purchased more frequently.
But in trying to deal with the problem and assuage GLBTG and handicapped customers, Amazon stepped in it big time and now it can’t get the shit wiped off its shoes.
2009 Problem, 1979 Response
When members of social networking sites began spreading word about what was happening at Amazon, word spread like wildfire. The web was all a-twitter – pun intended – with people wondering what lay behind the retailer’s action.
Rather than dealing with the public’s questions and concerns in a straightforward, honest manner, Amazon began tap-dancing like an AIG executive caught not returning a multi-million dollar bonus for wrecking the economy.
First, Amazon refused to respond. When it did, it blamed a computer glitch. Now, a spokeswoman for the book seller tells The Toronto Star the problem came from a cataloging error. Along the way, the bookseller actually tried blaming the French. That’s not a misprint; like Iraq war zealots in 2003, The Toronto Star quotes Amazon as saying it’s all the fault of the French.
So, I suppose from now on Amazon will sell Freedom Postcards.
The French? Is Amazon serious? As Deanna Zandt wryly observes, this is like the pimply-faced, gawky and awkward high school kid who can’t take gym class and never talks to anyone insisting he has a girlfriend “but she lives in France” to explain why no one ever clapped eyes on her.
The fact is that, when faced with a serious PR predicament for the first time in its corporate life, Amazon’s strategy to deal with a 2009 problem is to use a 1979 response. It also shows why, no matter how “kewl” a corporate behemoth tries to act, under pounding iPod, the stylish jeans and brand new Nike’s beats the heart of just another John Thain type.
Never Do This
Like the GOP hiring Stepin’ Fetchit Michael Steele as its chairman so it would have a hip African-American just like Pres. Obama, Amazon misses entirely what is going on around it where everybody else lives. The genius at internet book selling turned into an inter-tube idiot that came across like its PR was being run by former Senator Ted “Tubes” Stevens in reacting to the uproar coursing through an educated, well-off, tech-savvy segment of its book buying public. In short, Amazon appears as if it doesn’t have a clue how the on-line world changed since launching its first website about 100 lifetimes ago – at least as measured in web time.
For openers, the web is instantaneous and truth moves faster than fiction. Worse, by not actively getting in front of the fiction, it becomes almost impossible to have the truth heard.
Moreover, users of social networking sites such as MySpace, LinkedIn, Twitter, and the others just don’t care what a high-powered PR firm says in a news release. Amazon turned to their suede shoe advisors for help but it used the wrong people at the wrong time. People don’t believe flacks and they especially don’t believe statements when a company under fire trots out some stentorian “authority figure” for a 90-second sound bite on YouTube in an effort to wash over the problem.
Amazon ended up winging it as things spiraled out of control and it is still trying to repair the harm it inflicted on itself.
As it turns out, Amazon’s customers are a lot savvier than the people in the company’s corner offices or its high-priced media relations pros. They never grasped the new reality: When a 900-pound gorilla trips, it falls with a thud heard throughout the jungle. From a case study on how to be an online retailer, in less than seven days Amazon became a case study on how not to deal with a crisis.
Which may be why, if all else fails, Amazon figures it can blame the French.