User-Generated Media Fits to a Tee

With their shared emphasis on participation and community spirit, social media and CGM (define) often intersect. Some companies can successfully manage one or the other online. Using both, however, is an elusive feat.

Unless you’re Threadless, that is. This community-oriented T-shirt store has a unique approach to promoting interaction with its products and brand: all its T-shirt designs come from consumers.

Artists and designers submit their concepts to the site, and a community of dedicated Threadless fans vote for their favorites. The most popular shirts get the green light for printing and are sold on the site. The same process is used to determine which sold-out items are worthy of a second print run. The clothing company has been called “an on-going t-shirt design competition.” With hundreds of unique and eccentric designs, the customer is always the winner.

Threadless has done for the apparel business what countless brands haven’t been able to do with their interactive marketing efforts: create an active community of brand-loyal customers, advocates, and evangelists. The site is so popular it’s spawned multiple corporate and user-generated subsets, including a kids’ clothing site, a community for designing wallpaper and ties, a contest site based on cakes that have been baked in the likeness of famous Threadless shirt designs, a hub for collecting and trading shirts, and a blog for brand lovers.

This company has pushed the concept of consumer participation and social media to its limits. Without the involvement and contribution of the online community, there wouldn’t be a product to speak of. This is no half-hearted use of social media.

And that’s the difference between Threadless and most businesses interested in connecting with their consumers on the Web. Most CGM campaigns request user-produced ads or input into product development. In both cases, advertisers clearly get something out of the deal, whether it’s free ad creative or fresh ideas for their brands. To foster a sense of loyalty, however, they must demonstrate to consumers that they value their input.

Typically, reciprocation takes the form of publicizing winning ad creative and ideas. But campaign execution often feels obligatory and feeble. It’s obvious to consumers these businesses put more faith and investment into their agency-generated campaigns. What generally ensues is an uneasy feeling that the Web’s positive social and community aspects have been abused.

In contrast, Threadless makes customer input central to its business. Site users see immediate, tangible results from their T-shirt votes and can directly influence the company’s product line and production strategy. Like those marketers, Threadless capitalizes on users’ efforts by printing and selling shirts it knows will be popular (chosen submissions receive minimal compensation).

A give-and-take relationship exists between consumers and the brand that breeds mutual content. Sure as the stitches on those shirts, Internet users can see this company is devoted not just to considering but also to implementing their suggestions.

Granted, Threadless products are unorthodox by nature, so the company can take far more liberties and gambles. But what the company has done can certainly be recreated. Most businesses receive a steady stream of customer suggestions, recommendations, reviews, and requests related to their products. Why not highlight some of these on your product site or blog? Or feed comments from review sites, retail stores, and blogs into your landing page, shopping cart, even your ads. Odds are good the comments are already out there, waiting to be tapped for knowledge and showcased for other consumers to see. Your customers want to praise you; they just need to know you’re listening.

Look to Threadless for some best practices to help you launch more effective user-generated and social media initiatives. And don’t forget to buy the T-shirt.

Join us for the ClickZ Specifics: Advertising in Social Media seminar on May 21 in New York.

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