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Online-Only Brand Somehow Nails IRL Marketing

According to CNBC, 58% of small business owners identify word-of-mouth marketing as the most effective way to communicate with customers. This is a result of the fact that a reported 83% of consumers have a great deal of faith in suggestions from their friends and family over those of advertisers.

So why don’t more businesses actually do word-of-mouth marketing? The short answer: it can be tricky.

Traditionally, word-of-mouth marketing (WOMM) is spread from person to person based on a positive brand experience. But in the social media age, it is often characterized as hyper-targeted digital messaging strategies that ultimately produces organic communication among brand consumers. In either instance, the end result of effective WOMM is a push for increased awareness of a brand via social chatter.

But threading that needle can be tough, especially if you don’t know what you’re doing.

Case Study: Threadless

The people at Threadless seem to know what they’re doing when it comes to word of mouth.

Threadless is an e-commerce site owned and operated by sharp young artists who turned out to know the business value of word of mouth. The company is not extremely unique in terms of what it produces (t-shirts, coffee mugs, etc.), but it is absolutely unique in how it produces it.

The company chose early on to not just promote through word of mouth, but to actually create their products and drive growth with it. How do they do this? Before even considering an audience for a product, they began by promoting engagement and loyalty within the online community of graphic designers and artists itself, asking them to design, create, and select the designs that Threadless would sell. The thinking was that when the products go to market, they will already have a built-in consumer base ready to purchase and promote. And they were right. Every item gets a basic routine of promotion from before it even sees the light of day, creating buzz and getting consumers talking. By the time the item shows up on the Threadless site, a built-in audience is at the ready with their credit cards.

Once that item sells out they just rinse and repeat. The same ever-expanding audience of artists providing a constantly-refreshed inventory of apparel year round and then buying it up when it goes to market.

By doing this, Threadless has successfully used word of mouth in a way that few others even considered. The dual paths—one path that provides ongoing crowd-sourced supply, another path that creates demand among an already engaged community—not only achieve business and brand growth but also reduce costs in all sorts of ways with regards to marketing and design budgets.

It’s a brilliant idea. Threadless recognized that content drives word of mouth, and they look to their community of nearly 2 million followers to provide it through a process that naturally expands the consumer base. Every week the company receives more than a thousand submissions from graphic designers, which is then narrowed down to approximately 100. The competitive nature of this regular event also gives Threadless a huge set of possibilities and the ability to view the work of an enormous number of artists. The word-of-mouth approach seems to be very good for ensuring that the range of consumer products can never get stale.

In the final stage, Threadless invites the community to rate and cast votes for the designs. Importantly, this includes a metric of their likelihood of buying them. So now they have product reviews and consumer research, too. The engagement within their community acts like a real-time focus group of their consumer base, leveraging direct feedback to produce products for which their customer base has already shown an interest. Then word-of-mouth sharing from customers to followers drives further growth.

The Takeaway

For Threadless, word-of-mouth marketing provides the fuel for the full cycle of their business model, creating a source of constantly updated product selection for a pre-engaged community of buyers. But Threadless being a kind of unicorn in the industry, what is it that the average CMO or a more traditional brand really learn from such an example?

I think it has to do with the extent to which you are willing or able to entrust your brand to the consumer—by making the customer the hero. Threadless didn’t just try, in a cynical fashion, to get people chatting about their website. They didn’t send “Threadless Evangelists” into local communities with schwag bags, or pay an online influencer to promote the brand on a vlog. They used their imaginations to see the real creative possibilities of what word of mouth can do. And they put the consumer first.

Because word of mouth, unlike some other marketing strategies, isn’t simply a widget you jam into your branding machine so that it will start coughing up better results. You have to be something of a marketing artist, you have to be willing to put the customer in the driver’s seat and let the market take you to new and interesting places. Threadless also proved that the internet-age isn’t just a new era in which all the classic or traditional ideas (like word of mouth) are now obsolete, it’s a world in which great ideas of the past experience renewal, revitalization, and transformation. Threadless had the excellent idea of trusting their audience enough to involve its members at just about every stage of their design and marketing process. That’s the kind of new and exciting environment we’re in today. That’s the kind of transformational thinking that rockets brands into a new world of success.

So, as someone who may be at the helm of a brand yourself, consider what the next steps might look like—where can word of mouth go that it hasn’t gone before? Aside from just studying audience polls and marketing research, what can bringing customers into your own brand do for your company that it hasn’t done for others? The great thing is, your audience is just waiting for you out there, millions of them, ready to make a success of you. But you have to be willing to trust them. You have to be willing to let the customer take your brand to places you didn’t know it could go.

If you want to learn more about word of mouth marketing or the power of TopRight’s unique 3S methodology, follow us on Twitter @TopRightPartner, subscribe to the TopRight blog, connect with TopRight CEO Dave Sutton on LinkedIn, or buy a copy of CEO Dave Sutton’s book, Marketing, Interrupted.

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