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How REI Put A Bow On Social Marketing And Wowed Customers


As marketers, we talk a lot about real-time response and true social agility. But very few brands were able to master the art. So is agile marketing a myth?

A lot of brands struggle with agility in marketing: thinking on their feet, coming up with original and fully custom responses, being innovative in the way they influence conversations. Marketers are used to running campaigns that take three to six months to produce.

Real-time community response is not hard. If you have time to answer a tweet or a question on Facebook, you consider it a job well done. A satisfied customer is a repeat customer, so that's great. But to break through the noise, marketers have to master the art of not only real-time response but the art of the "wow" response—the response that actually makes customers sit up in their chairs and have them say: "Wow! That's really creative!"

One way to achieve that is to appeal to your customer's ego through the fully personalized response. Not only it is flattering, but it is also very personal. Old Spice perfected that with Mustafa's video responses quite some time ago. My friend Ramon De Leon, marketing mastermind of a six-store Domino's Pizza franchise in Chicago, goes one step further and truly touches his customers through personal relationships. He does a fantastic job with sending his customers and fans personal video responses in real time.

Not only that, through having a personal relationship with his patrons and paying attention to both real-life and Twitter conversations, Ramon knows who his customer's idols are, and when he gets a chance to meet the person his customer admires, he always asks him/her to record a custom five-second greeting to that particular customer and he posts it real-time—his way of saying "I truly care!" Case in point: MC Hammer. One more: a tweet from Valeria, another customer, when Ramon taped a video greeting from Brian Solis at LeWeb just for her (she is a big fan of Brian's).

Just before Christmas I had my own encounter with the "wow" experience when my casual tweet to REI, "What is the best gift suggestion you have this year?" was answered through a video. Not only the video was custom made for me, it was made within less than an hour. Even for the most innovative companies, that speed of response is to be envied.

Was I pleasantly surprised? Definitely! Was I flattered? Heck yes! Someone actually took time to create a custom response for me. Not only that, they presented themselves as a socially savvy brand. And that piqued my interest. So I decided to meet REI's social media team and investigate further.

REI started its social programs about five years ago. The social team is composed of three people, all passionate about working with customers. It was a natural fit for the brand because the company is a member-owned co-op. "Our members are the source of our inspiration," says Lulu Gephart, social media team member at REI. "We love to bring our members' outdoor inspiration and expertise to life on our social platforms."

And it shows. Take, for example, their new 1440 Project. The concept here is to help the REI community celebrate every minute of the day spent outside (there are 1,440 minutes in a day). The site reads the timestamp metadata on your photos to slot them in the right minute of the day, creating a brand new way to look at the collective adventures. "Going forward, we'll look for ways to weave these photos into a variety of marketing vehicles as well as our store and site presences," says Gephart.

This holiday season, the team decided to spice it up and answer some holiday questions on Twitter with video. The program was called #giftpicks. To accomplish that they used Green Vests—the in-store employees who pride themselves on their passion and expertise in various product lines and who are always available to help. My video response came from Charis, a Green Vest who works in the Bellingham, Wash., store.

Green Vests in multiple stores partnered with REI's creative team and looked at what might make the best gift suggestion for a particular customer and together came up with the best video response. In 30 to 50 minutes, no less. REI is uniquely positioned in that their creative team is located internally; they do all their production in-house.

"We pride ourselves on providing the inspiration and the expertise to help people get outdoors," says Gephart. "The #giftpicks effort is one example of bringing that expertise to life and a great opportunity to humanize our brand a bit more. This experience is the digital replica of what you get when you walk into any of our stores."

The team shot about 90 custom videos during the period of several days. During that time the referral traffic to REI's site doubled.

That is what I call making marketing personal. And the brands that embrace personal touch and creative agile response are reaping the benefits.

[Images: Flickr user Vicki & Chuck Rogers, Social Media Team at REI – behind the scenes]

Add New Comment


  • Enkata

    It's a very clever way to connect with your audience in a new and surprising way. Considering so many companies don't even respond to tweets or Facebook messages seeing REI make a video really takes social customer service to a whole other level.

  • Shep Hyken


    REI is a customer service role model and we can learn a lot from
    them. The way they responded to Ekaterina Walter’s tweet asking for gift
    suggestions is something for all of us to admire and possibly emulate. 
    Great article by Ekaterina, who is also the author of the just released book,
    Think Like Zuck  (

  • Michele Nebel PEake

    Not surprised.  I worked customer service for REI when I was in college over 20 years ago (one of the first East coast stores) and I took that experience with me into my career.  Their customer service has always been above and beyond that of other stores and regardless of what you may think, this is exactly the "above and beyond" that is inherent in all that REI does.

  • Richard Whitney

    Its a great concept and it seems that the execution is working well. It got me thinking how leadership in a corporation could do the same for their employees. Love the ability for an in-house team to execute successfully! It gives me great inspiration- so thank you REI team.

  • Lulu Gephart

    Thanks Richard! I like your intra-corporation twist. Keep me posted if you do some testing with that idea! 

  • Atomic Tango™

     So REI goes out of its way to make a labor-intensive video to make a journalist happy. Let's see them do it for EVERY SINGLE CUSTOMER and I might be impressed... depending on how much they ultimately get out of the effort.

  • Lulu Gephart

    Good point, Atomic Tango. We actually did respond to every single customer, albeit not always with videos. For some less "meaty" or ROI-oriented questions we deferred to our standard process of answering questions in-thread. Luckily, we were able to manage this volume, although I would mind having that other problem!

  • OliviaW

    Seattle food truck Marination Mobile solicited questions and did creative video responses a few years back as part of a national contest they were in. They were Food Truck #44, so the vids with #FT44 in the title are the ones I'm talking about. Since REI's HQ is just up the road from Marination's hometown.... I wonder if someone found inspiration here?

  • Rob Toledo

    this is seriously so amazing -- talk about a company at the forefront of good customer service and new media integration