THE PROBLEM: How do you transform your organization's relationships with customers? How do you get them to see your organization as a gathering-place, a destination for constructive interaction with others? We discussed these questions with Tom Ryan, CEO of the community-driven on-line apparel retailer Threadless.com.
THE SOLUTION: Implement Threadless' Five Relationship Marketing Best Practices. Threadless sells tee shirts in very large numbers to a fanatically loyal on-line community. The art for the tee shirts is sourced from a worldwide community of artists and designers. Once the art is submitted, the community of over 1.4 million registered users cast their votes, which helps management decide which designs go on to become Threadless tee shirts.
Per the Sloan Management Review: 95% of those purchasing from Threadless.com have voted and posted comments, before making a purchase.
Each of CEO Tom Ryan's five principles is a potential game-changer. When implemented as part of your organization's overall strategic plan (not just the marketing plan), his five ideas will transform your organization from a transaction-driven enterprise to a relationship-driven one.
BEST PRACTICE #1. Funnel passion. "Accept that great ideas can come from anywhere," Ryan advises, "either from employees within the company or from customers and fans outside the company. We believe that passion and ownership over an idea are the most critical factors to making it successful. Is your organization set up to capture and funnel passions? Or do you have to pitch up from corporate layer to corporate layer to get an idea cleared?"
BEST PRACTICE #2. Make marketing a conversation -- and don't take yourself too seriously. In other words, skip the hard sell -- or any sell -- when using social media tools to interact with your community. As Ryan observes: "It's very common for marketers to think of consumers who use social media tools as having grabbed hold of a huge megaphone. Marketers then try to grab that megaphone back, and use it as a broadcast tool so they can sell very large groups of customers. It's more useful to think of social tools as being like a telephone line, something you use to reach out to connect meaningfully with one person at a time."
BEST PRACTICE #3. Make your product your marketing. Look constantly for ways to make your product or service interesting enough for people to talk about to others. Ryan notes: "We like to think of our shirts and designs as entertainment content, as stuff that is so interesting that it starts new conversations and attracts good word-of-mouth on its own."
BEST PRACTICE #4. Empower your customer -- usually the benefits outweigh the risks. Ryan says, "we include our community in virtually all aspects of our business". They submit the designs, they vote on them, they critique them, and they buy the products. As a result, they have a vested interest and a sense of ownership in what the company does.
BEST PRACTICE #5. Act human. Authenticity, Ryan warns, is non-negotiable for today's marketers. "It's about treating your customers as you'd want to be treated. In keeping with that, we let folks at Threadless speak to customers in a voice that is truly theirs, but also represents the company."
Implement all five of Threadless's best practices.
Turn your customers into a community -- and engage them to participate in many aspects of your company's operations, including product and service development.
This change will carry two transformational benefits: First, the quality of your understanding of your customers' needs and expectations will increase exponentially.
And second, customers will change how they view your company. They will shift from viewing you as a "supplier" of products/services to a company that offers relevance, personality and (yes) friends with whom they choose to communicate over time!
Ernan Roman is President of the marketing consultancy, Ernan Roman Direct Marketing.
Recognized as the industry pioneer who created three transformational methodologies: Integrated Direct Marketing, Opt-In Marketing, and Voice of Customer Relationship Research.
Clients include Microsoft, NBC Universal, Disney, Hewlett-Packard and IBM.
Ernan was named to "B to B's Who's Who" as one of the "100 most influential people" in Business Marketing by Crain's B to B Magazine.
His latest book on marketing best practices was published in October, 2010, and is titled: Voice of the Customer Marketing: A Proven 5-Step Process to Create Customers Who Care, Spend, and Stay.
Ernan is also the co-author of "Opt-In Marketing: Increase Sales Exponentially with Consensual Marketing" and author of "Integrated Direct Marketing: The Cutting Edge Strategy for Synchronizing Advertising, Direct Mail, Telemarketing and Field Sales."