What’s the secret sauce of Threadless.com - one of the US’ most innovative small companies? Inc. Magazine says it best: The Customer Is the Company.

How can a company “be” the customer? I realize it sounds silly and a lot like “YOU” being Time’s Person of the Year. Yet no matter what you’re selling today, bringing it to market in an engaging way is critical to success.

Jake Nickell and Jeffrey Kalmikoff (of Chicago-based Threadless.com) discovered one of today’s most powerful, new business models nearly through happenstance. Yet a quick study of what’s powering its success reveals key elements that all marketers can learn from and consider applying immediately.

Whether you’re harvesting leads or making direct sales, experience-based tactics are needed to woo customers and earn their business. Today I’ll explain why this is true and use Threadless.com as a backdrop — proof of the rewards experiential marketing can provide. I’ll also reveal core elements — the secret behind success stories like this one

In terms of digital marketing in an increasingly multi-channel world, we’ve already determined that affiliate and search marketing is NOT enough. This begs the question, “what NEW strategies must marketers be considering?”

A New “Marketing” Mindset
Call me crazy but I think a complete re-thinking of the term “marketing” may be in order. We need to embrace a bold, new mindset. Marketing decision-makers and creative strategy developers at the highest level must address new market dynamics that hyper-connectivity is creating. Specifically, consumers don’t care anymore. They’re busy either tuning out marketing messages or entertaining themselves. Not much else!

The key to success in today’s digital, multichannel shopping world is precisely the mindset that Threadless has embraced and run like blazes with. The essence of this mindset is rooted in familiar but non-traditional concepts. No it’s not some kind of slick voo-doo from a social marketing “expert” but it IS radical. It IS, some say, not marketing at all. 

The Doctor is In
“Advertising is about supply finding and ‘creating’ demand,” notes Doc Searles, co-author of The Cluetrain Manifesto, and a Fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society. “[There is] nothing wrong with that. At its best, it’s good and necessary stuff. But think about what will happen when demand can find and create supply.”

Searles wrote about this concept years ago (that makes him rather smart!). Today, the vision is becoming reality.

Search engines, described as “databases of human intentions”, quickly birthed search engine marketing (SEM) to capitalize on human gestures communicating commercial intentions. Here, masses of customers created and articulated their demand in the form of search queries. What did affiliates do? They monetized the situation by getting in between customers (demand) and marketers (supply).
SEM was complimented by reverse online auctions such as Hotwire, Priceline and LendingTree. Here, customers create demand and go further: they actively negotiate pricing. Marketers compete for their business.

When taken to an extreme the idea of allowing customers to create demand and bring it toward supply can be a wee bit frightening. It’s called “crowdsourcing”, and it’s not for the faint-hearted. (sssh… here’s a cool, Canadian crowdsourcing company flying under the radar with big dreams)

Today, Threadless customers are communicating their demand… yet the company is going even further. Jake and Jeffrey are allowing the community at large to create supply (highly artistic tee shirts) and then “voting up” that supply (creating true demand) based on the uniqueness of the product. It’s totally market driven.

“Threadless was built as an art project,” says founder Jake Nickell. “It was really just a hobby for us. We were just two members in the community trying to help people find a way to express themselves and get their work shown to a large audience.”

Again, supply creation — namely, product design and production — is driven entirely by customer/artists. Typically, customers of Threadless.com band together (create demand) and design their own clothing (supply/inventory). Product is then sold to the group of buyers.

Bottom line: A wider, customer-centric framework is being forced by a hyper-connected, always-on interactive digital ecosystem. Success in this brave new world is about recognizing and acting on this shift. Sooner or later all marketers need to get in the game… at some level.

Most marketers, for now, aren’t quite as experimental (as Jake and Jeffrey). Yet elements of crowdsourcing’s power are catching on and should be kept in mind by marketers. More on that next week… but what about YOUR thoughts, fair readers? Is crowdsourcing just too much for most marketers to contemplate? It IS more of a business model, after all.

Am I crazy to think that the elements within crowdsourcing are EXTREMELY valuable to “traditional marketers” running traditional businesses? (that may never use a crowdsourcing biz model)