Member Exclusive   //   April 1, 2021

Amazon Briefing: Amazon’s employee influencers present a new retail frontier

This is the latest installment of the Amazon Briefing, a weekly Modern Retail+ column about the ever-changing Amazon ecosystem. More from the series →

This is the latest installment of the Amazon Briefing, a weekly Modern Retail column about the ever-changing Amazon ecosystem. To receive it in your inbox every week, sign up here

Amazon is deploying some of its workers to fight back against bad press.

In the past week, Amazon worker accounts — usually with usernames starting with “@AmazonFC” (in reference to “fulfillment center”) followed by a first name — have popped up on Twitter to spread talking points about working conditions in the company’s fulfillment centers.

Exactly which accounts are genuinely run by Amazon workers is an open question. Twitter told VICE that many of these accounts don’t belong to Amazon, and are actually troll or parody accounts, but a minority do seem to be associated with the company. And Amazon told Modern Retail that “many of these are not Amazon FC Ambassadors” and are instead “fake accounts” impersonating employees.

But the FC Ambassadors is a real program of Amazon’s, active since 2018, where Amazon employees are paid to represent the company — and spread rosy updates about life in a fulfillment center — on social media. And Amazon is far from the only retailer to encourage its employees to talk about their jobs online. Amazon’s might be the most extreme example, but tapping workers to leverage their social followings has slowly become a mainstream strategy in the retail world — and cases like Amazon’s may only be the beginning.

When asked whether he had noticed other companies mobilizing their employees specifically to combat bad PR online, Jaywant Singh, a professor of marketing at the University of Southampton, told Modern Retail, “Such cases are quite uncommon.” He added that social campaigns like this can easily backfire, as “employees are quick to sense the ‘manipulative intent’” of the company behind it, in this case Amazon.

Amazon has remained relatively tight-lipped about its FC Ambassadors program, but the Intercept this week uncovered corporate documents that allegedly detailed when and how the company’s employee ambassadors should weigh in on Twitter, including by simulating tweets by major politicians like Bernie Sanders.

In documents published by the Intercept, Amazon reportedly outlined its approach of recruiting relatively new employees into becoming social media ambassadors, and described the larger efforts as a way “to address speculation and false assertions in social media and online forums about the quality of the FC [Fulfillment Center] associate experience.” Amazon, in its documents, allegedly directed these ambassadors to answer negative comments on Twitter “in a polite — but blunt — way.”  

Employee influencers themselves are not new in retail. Dunkin’ has recruited select workers to post behind-the-scenes videos of their jobs, in the hopes of broadcasting positive images of work at the company. Walmart has done the same. Its employee influencer program, Spotlight, also has a tool that allows employees to earn monetary rewards in exchange for promoting certain products — a feature that it plans to roll out to every worker in the near future.

Jeff Zilberman, whose company Brand Networks manages Walmart’s employee influencer program, told Modern Retail that he was leery of campaigns to deploy employees to combat bad PR, the way Amazon’s FC Ambassadors do. “Employees shouldn’t be encouraged to combat any negative press,” he said, adding that if an employee were to speak openly on social media, “it should be their choice.”

But Zilberman reiterated his belief that giving employees the tools to become influencers, of their own volition, would be good for a brand. “Front-line employees are a company’s most valuable assets and empowering them to speak openly and honestly about their experiences is immensely powerful for the brand,” he said in an email.

As consumers increasingly demand transparency of their favorite brands, a company’s culture has become a marketing tool. Although Zilberman said that he hoped this would be the last time a company mobilized its employees to combat bad PR, he said, “It’s hard to say, [but] we may see it happening here and there” in the future.

After its NFL deal, Amazon is building out its merch catalog

Amazon earned headlines last week for signing an exclusive 10-year deal with the NFL to stream Thursday Night Football through Prime Video.

But the streaming rights are only the beginning — more quietly, since the TV announcement, the company has made moves to expand the selection of NFL merch on its marketplace.

This past week, Amazon added thousands of new NFL-branded products to its platform. At the same time, Amazon also placed new restrictions on third-party sellers peddling NFL merch, requiring them to become authorized NFL vendors in order to continue hawking their products. (In its letter to third-party sellers, Amazon said that the restrictions were an outgrowth of the new TV deal, then later told EcommerceBytes that the two were unrelated.)

But Amazon’s movements around NFL merch in the wake of this deal seem to align with what many experts have been predicting: ultimately, live sports on Prime Video will help both Amazon and the NFL move more product.

“It would seem that the best thing about the deal for the NFL is Amazon’s ability to sell merchandise,” said Alan Wolk, co-founder and lead analyst at TV[R]EV. Wolk noted that these sales “won’t happen during the game,” but that if Amazon sees that someone, for example, watches a lot of Buffalo Bills games, “they will be sure to put all sorts of Buffalo Bills gear into your ‘suggested for you’ feed when you log onto Amazon to shop.”

That future isn’t so theoretical: Amazon this month started tying artist merch more closely to its own music streaming app, Amazon Music. With this NFL deal, live sports on Prime Video might become just another vehicle for selling products.

Some other Amazon news to know:

  • The National Labor Relations Board began tallying votes Tuesday morning on whether workers in a Bessemer, Alabama warehouse will be able to form a union.
  • Amazon is launching virtual book clubs for the first time — seemingly a way to create a sense of community among readers on the platform, right as e-commerce companies like continue to promote the value of community bookstores.
  • The Alexa skill store — which was once pitched as a way to help connect Alexa users with skills from third-party publishers — now promotes only Amazon’s own skills on its landing page.

What we covered:

  • Walmart Fulfillment Services, the company’s answer to Fulfillment by Amazon, is finally accepting third-party sellers in large numbers.
  • Though Amazon and Walmart remain dominant, retail media platforms from CVS and Target are getting increasing ad buyer interest.
  • eBay had a big 2020 — and now it is trying to woo younger shoppers to its platform.