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1 How to Practically Guarantee Every New Offering Is a Winner

You sweat and toil and create new products and services that you just know that market is dying to get their hands on.

You put it out, a few sales trickle in and then, nothing. You tweak the sales page, lower the price, kick the cat and still, nothing.

community build

photo credit: Steve Rhodes via photopin cc

Creating new product and service offerings, even those that the market should need and want, is always a bit of a guessing game. Even when you employ some market research you can’t be sure how a prospect or customer will embrace something until it’s live and in the wild.

There is a model for product and service development that can help you forgo the pain and agony of the total flop and even turn what starts as an okay idea into a sure winner.

The best way to guarantee that your new offerings succeed is to develop them with your customers instead of simply for your customers.

Instead of creating something and then turning to the market to see if they like it, you tap your community to help you build it the way they want it and the way they will buy it.

Here’s how the Community Build process works.

Let’s say you want to create a new online training course.

  • You create the seed of an idea with little more than an outline and you take it to a handful of customers and ask them what they think.
  • You take their input and develop a full-blown course layout and a first draft of the positioning for selling the program.
  • Then you take what you’ve developed and have a larger group from your community comment on exactly what they would hope to learn and how they would get the best results from a program like this.
  • From that research you develop the main workings of the program and allow some small controlled group of community members to enlist as alpha testers. (It’s free, but they have to agree to help make it better.)
  • You measure and gauge all manner of things from the alpha testers including UI, logic, flow, content, value, results and overall benefits derived from the program in order to more fully develop a platform for beta testers. (Again, it’s free but they agree to help with more input and typo alerts.)
  • The collective collaboration effort should help you create a program that makes sense, delivers value and is packaged the way your market wants it. Of course it’s just as likely that along the way you’ll discover there is no market for what you’re trying to create, but that’s an equally awesome finding if you think about it.

Now of course you’ve still got to market the thing, but all this community involvement will quite likely also help you turn up lots of comments, suggestions and feedback that will inform and create a very strong value proposition as well.

One of the best examples of taking this thinking to an extreme is t-shirt printer Threadless. Their Community Build model is the entire business. Community members submit t-shirt designs, community members vote on the designs for the week and then Threadless produces what is ultimately already a guaranteed winner and sells it to their community of over 2 million members.

A large number of their employees come from their community and continue to participate in the community build process even as they pack and ship product in the warehouse, allowing the community participation process to come full circle.

Yes this process takes more time, but ultimately it will ensure that you’re not trying to build things the market doesn’t want and your good offerings will turn into great offerings with real community input.

Some of what I’ve describe here is just basic common sense and good customer focused development, but it’s amazing how few organizations, big and small, use this powerful development process.

35 7 Characteristics of a Real Life Marketing Strategy

In my opinion, developing and executing an effective marketing strategy is the most important job of any marketer and failure to do so is the single greatest threat to creating anything that looks and feels like business building momentum.

While few would argue with the statement above, marketing strategy as a practical tool remains little more than an academic exercise for most businesses.

Inside Threadless HQ in Chicago

I’ve spent a great deal of time wrestling with the idea of developing useful, real life marketing strategies for small businesses and have concluded that there are a handful of characteristics that can be mined, explored and shaped in order to make marketing strategy the foundation of business building.

The key to discovering an effective marketing strategy lies in understanding first that its essence is much more about why a business does something than what or how the business does something.

These elemental characteristics are rooted deeply in human wants and desires and act to create a connection between a company, its products and services, its people and ultimately its customers.

I believe any company can create a marketing strategy that will actually serve as the catalyst to creating a remarkable business by deeply exploring and embracing one, or some combination of several, of the characteristics outlined below.

Single minded purpose

If I were going to point to a requisite characteristic it might be this one. When a company is built with a single-minded purpose and can communicate that “why we do what we do” in a way that makes meaning in the lives of its customers and prospects, magic can happen.

The idea of higher purpose can be a tricky one too. A customer can resonate with the fact that your mission is to bring peace and harmony to the world, but it’s just as likely that there’s a market hungry to do business with a company that believes bringing beauty to the world through incredibly simple design is why they do what they do.

The key is a thorough understanding and simple and consistent communication of the why. You can’t fake this characteristic but you can move your higher purpose front and center in your marketing strategy.

Some of the companies that enjoy the highest levels of staff and customer loyalty focus almost entirely on why they do what they do, as opposed to simply trying to do what they do better.

The product is almost secondary to this single-minded purpose – Shatto Milk Company’s marketing strategy is one that claims to bring a return to what’s good about creating all natural products in small, hand crafted batches and, by the way, we sell dairy products.

Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos, has said repeatedly that Zappos is a customer happiness business that happens to sell shoes.

Desperately seeking inspiration

People want to go on journeys they feel are epic in nature. Now this may sound a little far fetched if you’re simply building a small law firm focused on small businesses, but every business can inspire.

We can inspire by telling stories, by communicating the why, by standing up for simplicity and by bravely connecting our own purpose in life with that of the business and that of the goals and objectives of our clients.

Leadership, the kind that’s drawn from deed and word, the kind that understands that the best way to get more is to want more for others, is inspirational. Firms that draw commitment from customers and staff give them a way to sign up for something that can allow them to be their best self.

Steve Jobs is cited more often than any other company leader for his ability to inspire through telling stories about the Apple brand.

An obvious innovation

Every industry engages is some practice that customers just come to live with. And then someone comes along, either from outside of the industry or as method of survival, and shakes it up but suggesting there’s a better way.

Creating what ends up looking like an obvious innovation in an industry and then embracing that change as a marketing strategy is one way that companies create a clear differentiation.

Rackspace, a hosting company located in Austin Texas, created an obvious innovation in the hosting industry by simply making a decision to provide real service. While that shouldn’t seem like an innovation it was in an industry that appeared to abhor actually talking to its customers.

To sum up Rackspace’s marketing strategy – “Fanatical Support isn’t just what we do. It’s really what makes us, well, us. It’s our need to make a difference in the lives our customers—no matter how big or small. Really, it’s our way of life.”

Let us entertain you

People will give their last dollar to be entertained. I believe this has never been truer than it is today. Since so many of the products, services and ideas we sell can be acquired for free these days, the money’s in the package and the experience.

Fun, joyful, theater and stage aren’t words that are always connected with business, but bring them in and a new world opens up. I had reason to spend a day at Google recently and they get this one very well. Work is often long, hard and boring, but when do we ever tire of play? Make that fact that yours is a business that’s fun to go to work in and fun to do business with central to your strategy and people will be drawn to the game.

Step inside the offices of t-shirt maker Threadless and you’ll be greeted by giant stuffed creatures, two Airstream “think pods,” offices decorated by staff to show off departmental personality, and a basketball court in the warehouse. The place is definitely fun.

The role of convenience

This one goes hand in hand with simplicity and surprise, but it’s something different entirely. Some businesses are actually hard to do business with. We may love what they do, but scratch our heads at how they do it. This one is all about non-friction, speed of change and a mentality of yes.

Take down the barriers to communication, give people the tools to do what they want, rethink meetings, eliminate the policies of control, trust your customers and staff and, above all, use technology to enhance personal relationships rather than wall them off.

Being easy to do business with is a marketing strategy that can become a culture and mantra that spreads word of mouth and drives customer adoption faster than any promotion or campaign ever could.

Evernote is easy to do business with. Their products sync across all of my various tools and just work, without the need to consult an owner’s manual.

Simplicity is harder than it looks

Life’s too complicated, instruction manuals and return policies and messages and mission statements and features and design are all too complicated. One of the most attractive features of organizations that enjoy high levels of commitment is a lack of features.

Simplicity is the most appreciated attribute of the products and services we love to love. And yet, it can be one of the hardest to actually achieve. This can’t really be achieved by simply stripping out features. If this is to be a marketing strategy it must become a way of life that informs every decision.

37 Signals is a great example of a business that has embraced simplicity as a marketing strategy. They make great software that does just a handful of things very, very well. According the CEO Jason Fried they spend more time considering what features to leave out of a release then what to add.

The element of surprise

Few things enamor like exceeding someone’s expectations. This might end up sounding more like a personality trait, but companies that turn customers into volunteer sales forces fully understand and use the power of giving more than was promised and surprisingly beating expectations as a marketing strategy.

Who doesn’t like to get little unexpected gifts, free overnight shipping, and hand written notes? And yet, when was the last time you got any of those?

Again I return to Zappos. Zappos has an unstated policy of surprise. If you order shoes on a Monday, the order confirmation will suggest that you allow 3-5 days for shipping, but don’t be surprised if they show up the next morning.

1 How Threadless Nailed the Crowdsource Model

I had the good fortune to spend an afternoon at the offices of Chicago based graphic t-shirt printer Threadless recently and their story is one that I never get tired of telling.

Threadless built their business around a now commonplace model known as crowdsourcing. The basic idea behind the model is that you put some defined work out to a community and allow community members to compete to win the project.

This model differs from service offered by organization such as Elance as the projects are not bid on. Project specs and fees are usually agreed upon and then members compete to win the work.

Crowdsourcing has been used very widely in the design industry and has its detractors. In many cases designers are asked to submit fully developed spec work and compete against many other doing the same.

There is a free market argument to support crowdsourcing as well, but Threadless has assembled a number of dynamics that allow them to stay above the pro or con argument while building a multi million t-shirt a year business.

Two Airstream trailers act as thinking pods for Threadless staff

Below are the elements that mesh to make the Threadless model so effective.

Community first

Many crowdsource ideas start with the need to build a community. It’s the classic chicken and egg scenario. You have to come with a robust community in order to get member submissions and you have to have plenty of folks willing to submit projects and pay money.

Threadless started as an online forum for designers and had a supportive community before they ever started to create competitions. This community first mentality is evident today. One casual reading of comments and submission will give you a glimpse into how loyal and committed this community is to the idea of Threadless.

Socialist view

Threadless runs all of the competitions and is the buyer for each of the ten or so designs that get picked each week. This certainly allows them to create stable processes for how each competition is won, but they’ve also chosen to set a specific fee ($2000 + $500 store credit) for each prize.

This set fee model means that world renowned designers (yes they submit too) get the same prize as someone with a brilliant idea, but no design portfolio, if their design is chosen.

This further supports doing work and encouraging community members for the love of the game and removes class from the equation.

Customer forum

Think how many better products would be created and how much smarter those folks over in marketing would be if every time a new product was created it already had thousands of potential customer weigh in on the merits and their desire to purchase the finished product.

Threadless rarely if ever produces a dud t-shirt because the community and potential customer must cast votes of support for a design before it’s ever considered. In essence the Threadless customer produces the company’s product.

Brand filter

Threadless has also installed what I call a brand filter. Sure the crowd, meaning anyone, submits designs and the community votes to bring designs through the clutter of weekly submissions, but the Threadless staff also still makes the final call in a democratic process that helps ensure both quality and mission.

The model becomes the product

Recently, Threadless announced a new initiative, called Threadless Atrium, that is designed as project to take their crowdsource model to others and allow them to use it to produce designs for their needs.

The first two examples of organizations using Atrium can be found on Threadless Causes. The DNA (Demi and Ashton) Foundation is using Threadless to solicit T-shirt designs to raise awareness about child sex slavery, and the Oceanic Preservation Society is crowdsourcing the artwork for its upcoming documentary Singing Planet about mass extinction.

So, what market, industry, product, service or problem could you apply this model to?