Authenticity Is the New Authority and Less Is the New More
SAN FRANCISCO, April 3, 2009 — The theme of this year's Web 2.0 Expo, "Less is More," has manifested in various ways throughout the week's conference, held here at the Moscone Center this week. In breakout sessions, speakers coached attendees on leveraging the social Web as an inexpensive marketing alternative. Keynote presentations -- such as yesterday's by Douglas Rushkoff (@rushkoff on Twitter) -- were particularly critical of inflexible institutions and big corporations, advocating a return to creativity and transparency in business. And, on this final day of Web 2.0, the morning keynotes stayed true to the theme as well. Speakers Jake Nickell and Jeffrey Kalmikoff, cofounders of T-shirt company Threadless, spoke about utilizing their greatest resource at hand for product development, marketing, and company growth -- their customers.
The Threadless employees know a thing or two about starting small. The company basically began as a hobby, said Nickell, who added that his own experience to that point had been in Web design, not apparel. The basic idea of Threadless is that users submit designs for T-shirts to the Web site. Other users vote on the designs and, by the end of the week, the design receiving the most votes is made into T-shirts to be sold online at Threadless.com. It's crowdsourcing to a "tee" -- and it's worked for close to 10 years. Threadless, the cofounders told the audience, sells about 100,000 shirts a month.
In terms of marketing, Kalmikoff said, the company does very little beyond a weekly email newsletter -- but Threadless benefits from massive viral and word-of-mouth marketing. When an individual submits a design, often she wants to share it with her friends -- plugging the Web site in the process. In addition to the design content, the company allows users to blog on Threadless.com, treating the site as more of a forum than an online store.
When asked why they don't try to promote the Threadless brand more than they do -- such as putting a logo on front of the shirts -- the founders made it clear that pimping their brand is not what the company is about. "It's not about the brand being in the spotlight -- its about the brand as a facilitator," Kalmikoff said. Threadless instead emphasizes the story behind the products -- the unique story behind every T-shirt that's made -- which is of great appeal to customers. In fact, moderator Jennifer Pahlka referred to the concept as "the Threadless Movement" -- companies connecting with customers based solely on the stories behind their products. People, Pahlka contended, want to feel connected with the people behind the products they're buying.
Other examples abound, such as community craft site Etsy.com and Stonyfield Farm's organic yogurt -- businesses where, in many cases, the story has boosted sales. In talking about this trend, Kalmikoff said part of this is due to economic distress and a communal desire to return to simpler times. "The economy is eliminating the middleman, and is connecting businesses with consumers." But it's not a bad thing, he said -- "Both [sides] want it."
Kalmikoff acknolwedged, however, that Threadless' crowdsourcing model isn't exactly a piece of cake. "The misconception about crowdsourcing is [that] it's this easy way or shortcut to spending money, and you get things for free, or in thinking you can just activate a customer base." Crowdsourcing, he said, isn't necessarily a better business model -- it's different and not for everyone. "It's worth spending time thinking about whether or not the customer base has potential to become an active one." If anything has been established here at the conference this week, it's the fact that communities won't form just because you want them to. In fact, trying to force a community might be worse than not having one at all.
Along those lines, another conference presenter, comedienne Heather Gold, spoke on stage at one point about the need for authenticity within businesses. She proposed that "authenticity is the new authority" citing as an example Twitter and social media empowering individuals to speak out and even crack jokes about authority figures. With the sheer mass of humanity on the Web and the amount of information that can be uncovered about any given person, Gold said it's critical that people listen to what others are saying -- and, most of all, practice being themselves.
"It's getting harder and harder not to listen," she said, and increasingly difficult to draw the line between business and personal life. "What once seemed 'informal' and 'too personal' is going to be seen as 'average,' " she predicted. The solution to the blurring of lines? Be yourself and know your story, she said. After all, "The most engaging thing to do is to be honest."
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