- The Washington Times - Monday, August 22, 2011

By Gary Vaynerchuk
Harper, $24.99, 256 pages

At a time when the economic outlook is grim and we daily brace ourselves for bad news from the volatile stock market, reading Gary Vaynerchuk’s “The Thank You Economy” is a welcome break. Mr. Vaynerchuk, an award-winning entrepreneur, reminds readers that American innovation is alive and well and - with his intriguing guide to developing strong consumer relationships - can get even better.

He writes that “no relationships should be taken for granted. They are what life is all about, the whole point. How we cultivate our relationships is often the greatest determinant of the type of life we get to live. Business is no different. Real business isn’t done in board meetings; it’s done over a half-eaten plate of buffalo wings at the sports bar, or during the intermission of a Broadway show.

“It’s done through an enthusiastic greeting, with an unexpected recommendation, or by offering up your cab when it’s raining. It happens in the small personal interactions that allow us to prove to each other who we are and what we believe in. … Now imagine you could take those interactions and scale them to the hundreds, thousands, or even millions of people who make up your customer base, or better yet, your potential customer base.” Read: social media.

But a quick aside here. Mr. Vaynerchuk believes that “social media” … is a misnomer that has caused a boatload of confusion. “[W]hat we call social media is not media, nor is it even a platform. It is a massive cultural shift that has profoundly affected the way society uses the greatest platform ever invented, the Internet.”

His mission pivots on the premise that a business is only as good as its engagement with social media, and he illustrates his observations with case studies and plain high-octane zeal, enthusiasm that doesn’t include Wall Street. Citing an article from the Harvard Business Review, he writes, “[E]ven when it was clear that an industry was about to be rocked by massive changes, Wall Street analysts primarily gave a thumbs-up to company strategies that relied on old technology, and seemed to ignore or minimize the validity of more daring attempts to take advantage of new technology.”

And for Mr. Vaynerchuk, new technology is the name of the game. He shows how companies that used YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, Foursquare, etc. to forge personal relationships with customers on a massive scale with untold speed, came out the winners. Others were simply left behind.

To illustrate, he tells the story of Zagat. “Zagat was the original consumer review destination, the ‘burgundy bible’ for foodies, a twenty-year old brand that never should have had to fight for relevance or survival. Yet because it was so slow to recognize that customer expectations and desires were changing, the company has had to roll up its sleeves and start swinging to defend itself. … To get a feel for the battle they’ve been waging, all you have to do is compare their timeline with those of one of their biggest competitors, Yelp.”

In a nutshell, in 1999, Zagat charged for access to its website while when Yelp got started in 2004, it did not. In 2008, Yelp releases the Yelp for iPhone app. The application is free. That same year, Zagat releases the Zagat to Go iPhone app. It costs $10.

Then there’s the story of the rapper 50 Cent and Pierce Ruane, a geeky Canadian teenager who on YouTube called 50 Cent a “media whore” for promoting Vitamin Water and sex toys. “When he added ‘What else is he going to do - 50 Cent diapers for your little gangsta?’ Ruane received almost a million hits.” And what did 50 Cent do? “Rather than ignore the kid , or even take offense, 50 Cent flew him to New York City and posted a new YouTube video of the two of them hanging out together. … 50 Cent has gotten some negative press for bad behavior, but with this one move he humanized himself, and probably made a lot of people feel better about thinking he’s cool.”

So perched between sections titled “The Power of First to Market” and “It Takes Just One Customer” are such nuggets and many others. And again and again, as the narrative rockets forward, Mr. Vaynerchuk drives home his advice about how to turn customers into advocates.

This is a worthy book and fun to read, too. Applicable to enterprises of all stripes, here is a pithy takeaway: “Culture changes and business has to change with it or die.”

Carol Herman is the books editor at The Washington Times.