No brand, big or small, can survive without an active group of users. Whether buying a product or service, consuming content or trying to right-swipe their way to true love, a company’s success is dependent on offering something that people want. But some brands strive for more than one-way or transactional relationships, opting instead to build communities where brand enthusiasts can share ideas, offer input and, in some cases, have an actual say in the company’s actions.
A prime example of a brand that’s taking this idea to the next level is Threadless. Threadless is not just an ecommerce website, but an online gallery and thriving community of designers from all over the world. Artists of all stripes and styles flock to their website to share and sell work through personal stores called “Artist Shops” (a model similar to Etsy’s), as well as submit their designs to the active Threadless community. The community, in turn, votes to determine which of these will be printed on t-shirts, iPhone cases, canvases and more and sold by the brand itself.
In short, Threadless isn’t just a brand for users—its users are the brand, serving as the creative current, curator, and ultimately, the customer. Hence the company motto: Making great together.
But community isn’t an idea solely applicable to art and apparel. Every brand can benefit from building a community and going beyond by harnessing the potential of its users. 86% Fortune 500 companies surveyed say they have experienced “deeper/richer insight into customer needs” through private online communities, while in another survey, 40% of people reported that being part of a brand community meant they’d be likely to spend more money on that brand’s products and services. In addition, according to Hubspot, 80% of marketers say building brand communities has helped them increase traffic.
To get the inside scoop on how Threadless is making great together, we visited their Chicago office for an episode of 12 for 12. (While we were at it, we also set up our own shop on the site.) Here are a few quick tips, inspired by Threadless and other companies killing it in this space, for building a great brand through a great community.
Give the People What They Want (Or , Even Better, Let Them Create It)
How do you guarantee the popularity of a product? Let the people tell you want they want. This isn’t just giving customers the chance to rate an existing product 1-5 stars and considering their input down the line, but giving them an actual say in what hits the shelves before it does.
Threadless isn’t the only company with a voting model. Through LEGO’s platform, LEGO Ideas, brand enthusiasts can submit their designs for consideration as well as vote on designs, and LEGO will take the most popular to market.
Granted this model might not work for all brands (it’s hard to imagine Mercedes rolling out a car designed by some kid with a laptop, regardless of how many votes the design gets), but it’s a good lesson about the power of community feedback and looking beyond employees for ideas and inspiration.
Don’t Take Advantage — Add Value!
While Threadless sells the designs of its users, it’s not selling out. Threadless CEO and co-founder, Jake Nickell, is quick to emphasize that while crowdsourcing may have gotten a bad rap, there are distinctly different ways it can be done.
“I see a lot of businesses start that are like, ‘How can we use this community to do our work for us?’” Nickell explains, “versus the way we think about it, which is, ‘There’s this community of people out there doing amazing things, and how can we add value to them?’”
In other words, it’s not about taking relying on the community for cheap labor, but as talent, and creating a mutually beneficial relationship in which they are empowered and rewarded. With LEGO Ideas, for example, the company gets engagement and a user-approved product design—meaning they can gauge the success of a product before it goes into production. On the flip side, the creator of the design gets a percentage of the profits for a product they designed but could never have created (especially to that scale) without the company itself. Win-win!
Take the Community Element Offline
While message boards, discussions and voting is great, taking things offline every once in awhile for a little IRL (“in real life”) action is a great way to get facetime (the literal kind!) with brand fans. Yelp, for example—which is, by nature, dependent on its community—hosts events at a variety of levels, connecting Yelpers even more closely with brands, as well as the local businesses who comprise the other part of the platform.
Meanwhile, Threadless displays the work of local artists not just on its website but in its office—from the outside walls to the bathroom stalls—and also hosts local and touring bands, proving they’re dedication to the artist community that extends beyond the selling of t-shirts.
Promote (and Hire!) Your Biggest Fans
Who needs LinkedIn when you have a community of brand fanatics at your fingertips who are already living and breathing—and in some cases, designing and wearing—your brand for free?
The first Artist Shop Threadless promoted was that of a community member who’d had 80 of his designs printed, and now is an employee responsible for curating Threadless’ selection process.
By hiring from the community, you’re not just signaling that the appreciation is mutual, but you’re building a team as passionate about your brand as you are.