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Social Media Marketing Is an Oxymoron

Zipcar and its zippy, failed $7,400-a-Week CMO

January 22, 2013 By Denny Hatch
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In 2004, we started noticing snappy little red and blue automobiles parked all over Philadelphia with the PhillyCarShare logo on the door. [See the first image in the mediaplayer to the right.]

This transportation is available by the hour or by the day. We've talked to people that use the service and like it just fine. If a family's driving is di minimis and economizing makes sense, getting rid of the family car and using PhillyCarShare is certainly one way to go.

Three years later, Zipcar arrived on the scene in direct competition with PhillyCarShare. It became a blip on my radar when I noticed a few of their vehicles parked not only around town, but also claiming prime real estate in our public parking garage.

The Avis Acquisition
On Jan. 2 this year, it was announced that Avis ("We try harder") acquired Zipcar for $500 million. Two paragraphs in Dennis K. Berman's Wall Street Journal column—"Zipcar: Startup Genius, Public Failure"—intrigued me:

Zipcar was a prodigious money-loser over the years. Funding its growth around the world, it never once turned an annual profit, losing cumulatively about $55 million since 2007. And the entry of rental-car behemoth Hertz Global Holdings, Inc. made its task all the more costly.

The odd thing is that Zipcar came very close to perfecting its technology and customer experience. Its problem was that it just couldn't find a cost-efficient way of luring ever more members.

The last sentence above threw down the gauntlet to this old-time direct marketer. Acquiring customers (share of market) and getting them to spend more money (share of wallet) are what I have been doing for the last 50 years.

I sniffed blood. In this digital age, the place to start was the online marketing of these two companies. First, a page from the PhillyCarShare website.

Overview
PhillyCarShare is a car sharing organization that gives you access to cars by the hour, whenever you need them. Once you become a member of our community you can choose from over 250 cars parked around the city. Rates include gas, insurance, maintenance, roadside assistance, and 24-hour helpline. You can shop at Ikea with a pickup, get fresh groceries in a Prius, or meet clients in a Nissan Altima. You can even sign up your company for travel convenience on the job.

Using PhillyCarShare is simple:
• Make your reservations online at www.phillycarshare.com or by phone at 215-730-0988.

• Search by vehicle location, specific vehicle types, or amenities.

• Unlock the car using your personal key fob.

• Start the engine and drive away!

What are some of the reasons people join? Read on!

The copywriter tells the story in just 131 words. The crossheads are bold and in dark green. The type is black on white and easy-to-read. Short words. Short sentences. Short paragraphs.

The rest of the website has testimonials, instructional videos, rates, etc. This is a thoroughly professional, no-nonsense presentation of features and benefits. A model website!

In 2011, PhillyCarShare was acquired by Enterprise CarShare, which operates in cities and college towns in 30 states.

Zipcar Gibberish
As a marketer, I hate seeing a logical business not flourish because it is unable to attract enough customers. With that in mind, I went to the Zipcar website and discovered it broke every rule in the book.

For starters, the landing page has an automatic slide show with a series of photographs of the Millennial Generation—kids in their 20s and 30s—having a simply wonderful time.

[See the second and third images in the mediaplayer at the right.]

The headlines are gibberish.

ZIP IT OFF THE LIST.

DON'T JUST ZIPPING
SIT  THERE.

UN-ZIPPING-BELIEVABLE.

ZIP OUT OF THE BORED ROOM.

ZIP OFF THE GRID.

At bottom right is the drawing of a cow with black $ signs on its side and the caption:

refer friends,
get moo-lah.

Other Zipcar silliness: the "Zipster" landing page. [See the fourth image in the mediaplayer at the right]

"Do not say anything in your headline which is likely to exclude any readers who might be prospects for your product," David Ogilvy wrote.

This gaggle of Gen Y photos and hip headline hooey were a clear message to all prospects that Zipcar has no interest in dealing with anyone over 40.

The broken rules:

  • "Avoid the 'hard-to-grasp' headline—the headline that requires thought and is not clear at first glance." —John Caples
  • "Some headlines are "blind.' They don't say what the product is, or what it will do for you. They are about 20 per cent below average in recall." —-David Ogilvy
  • "Your headline should telegraph what you want to say—in simple language. Readers do not stop to decipher the meanings of obscure headlines." —Ibid.
  • "On the average, five times as many people read the headline as read the body copy. It follows that, if you don't sell the product in your headline, you have wasted 80 percent of your money. That is why most Ogilvy and Mather headlines include the brand name and the promise." —Ibid.
  • "Cute and clever simply don't work." —Nigel Rowe 
  • "Your job is to sell, not entertain." —Jack Maxson
  • "Don’t use puns. They rarely translate to the reader’s context." —George Duncan

Who Was Responsible for This Zip Nitwittery?
I went to Zipcar management team and could find no one in charge of marketing. So I ran a series of Google searches. One name kept turning up: Rob Weisberg, 40.

Weisberg's Background: B.A in Psychology and a Certificate in Business Management with a concentration in Marketing from the University of Rochester. Following an agency background (Grey Direct, Brann Worldwide), Weisberg fetched up as President of Multimedia Marketing for Domino's Pizza.

On Jan. 4, 2010, Weisberg became Chief Marketing Officer of ZipCar under the following deal:

Annual Salary:         $275,000

Signing Bonus:             50,000

Moving Allowance:        30,000

Annual Bonus (40%):  110,000

                                $465,000  (plus stock options)

Ex the signing bonus and moving allowance, Weisberg was a $385,000-a-year guy.

In the course of his employment, Rob Weisberg worked diligently to make himself a mighty presence in the world of social media marketing. His specialty: Placing Q&A stories in such trade publications as DMNews, AdAge, and GOOD.

A sampling:

CMO Q&A: Rob Weisberg, Zipcar
PRWeek:
Zipcar already has significant outreach to consumers via social media. Is that the dominant way you connect with consumers or are other channels effective? Should we also add something about traditional PR?

Weisberg: Social media is certainly an important part of our communications mix. We actively monitor the space and engage our members in a dialogue via Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, Yelp, LinkedIn, and other social media —Bernadette Casey, PRWeek, Aug. 1, 2011

The capstone of Weisberg's career at Zipcar was this press release:

• zipcar wraps up first "the ultimate ziptrip" social media contest
social media initiative proves successful for zipcar brand, increasing brand following and member interactions

Reaching out to over 80,000 Facebook fans, Zipcar encouraged their members to tell them in 750 characters or fewer what they would do on an all-expenses paid trip to one of the 16 North American cities where Zipcar operates. The contest garnered responses from nearly 5,000 fans, which Zipcar narrowed down to 50 semi-finalists ...

Through the duration of the contest, Zipcar's "The Ultimate Ziptrip" Facebook tab was viewed over 53,000 times and the contest was shared by over 2,500 people. As a result of the initiative, Zipcar acquired an additional 9,200 Facebook "likes" and continued to expand its social media network.

"We're thrilled with the results of our first Ultimate Ziptrip contest and were very pleased with the high levels of member interaction it provided. We know that our members are tech-savvy, heavily involved in social media, and love to travel, and we thought this contest would be a great way to engage with them," said Rob Weisberg, Zipcar's chief marketing officer. "Our members went above and beyond in the videos they created, and really showed their passion and enthusiasm for the Zipcar brand." Zipcar via PR Newswire, June 27, 2012

Seven weeks later this $7,400-a-week social media marketer was out of a job.

Four months later, Zipcar—the "prodigious money-loser" that "couldn't find a cost-efficient way of luring ever more members"—threw in the towel and sold out to Avis.

Takeaways to Consider

  • To be successful online, advertisers must slavishly learn and follow the direct marketing rules for print that go back 800 years—offers, copy, design, etc.
  • "Times change. People don't." —John Caples
  • In terms of ROI, a Facebook "Ziptrip" contest for existing "Zipsters" is: Zip. Zero. Nada. Bupkis.
  • According to comScore, a firm that tracks online activity, e-commerce soared 16 percent from last year, to nearly $39 billion this holiday season. But advertising from social networks appeared to play only a supporting role. I.B.M. researchers found that on the pivotal opening day of the season, Black Friday, a scant 0.68 percent of online purchases came directly from Facebook. The number from Twitter was undetectable. Could it be that folks aren't in a buying mood when hanging out digitally with their friends? —Stephen Baker, "Can Social Media Sell Soap? The New York Times, Jan. 6, 2013
  • Social media marketing is an oxymoron. You cannot monetize a giant cocktail party.

 


 
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