We all have our favourite clothes brands. Caroline loves Jimmy Choos. Gudgeon favours retro jumpers bought from tramps. Me? I’m partial to threadless t-shirts. Here’s me on holiday wearing one of my favourite threadless t-shirt designs. It’s called “to scan a forest”. I think the design is an amazing piece of art.
Of course you may not like this design – but if you visit www.threadless.com, you’ll be able to look through literally hundreds of t-shirts that were all initially submitted to the site as designs (over a 1000 submitted each week), been voted on extensively (each design receives an average of 1,500 votes by the threadless online community), the most popular of which are then printed and sold as t-shirts (around 10 are chosen each week). There’s bound to be a few designs that catch your eye.
The process by which t-shirts are designed and chosen on threadless is best described as “crowdsourcing” (Howe, 2006), which is similar to outsourcing, except that the work is outsourced to an ‘undefined’ public rather than another business or organisation.
In this case, the ‘undefined public’ are the community of designers and design lovers that design, vote, and buy the designs, of which there are 1.8 million members.
Threadless’ business model could not exist without the Internet, which is the means by which the community communicates. In fact, the business actually started in the early days of the Internet, on an online forum of graphic designers, and the subsequent growth of the Internet has obviously contributed to the success of the business.
Fuchs, Prandelli & Schreier (2010) outlined the psychological consequences of this business model in a study that actually used t-shirts as the products to be evaluated.
They found that empowering customers to play a part in selecting t-shirts to be produced and sold results in stronger demand for the products, even when subjective and objective evaluations of the quality of the product are the same. They also find evidence that empowerment affects feelings of psychological ownership over the products they helped select, which may play a part in this increased demand.
The authors highlight that this irrational effect contradicts economic theory, which suggests if two products are of the same quality and value, demand for the product should not be increased. As psychologists however, we know that human beings don’t act in rational ways. The authors refer to this increased demand following empowerment in selecting the product as the “empowerment – product demand” effect.
Threadless have even found a way of bringing people who don’t initially vote on the designs into the production process. Every shirt is produced in limited quantities, and when they run out of stock, they only reprint when a certain amount of customers requests a reprint. In this way, even members of the community who weren’t involved in the initial design, critique, or voting process can are empowered. I can say from personal experience that it’s very satisfying when you get an email saying that a t-shirt you requested for a reprint has been reprinted!
Interestingly, the researchers also found that the “empowerment-product demand effect” diminishes if the consumers do not feel they have the competence to make good decisions in the product selection task. This highlights the need for companies to facilitate helpful online communities and giving users information to increase their expertise and knowledge, in order to maximise this ‘empowerment – product demand’ effect. Using threadless as as example, the “empowerment-product demand effect” might not be evoked in the type of person who needs to be told by someone else what looks good.
To summarise, crowdsourcing is a powerful tool, and empowering consumers by making them part of the selection process increases demand for the product, which means that the company can sell more products, and charge higher prices. This goes some way to explaining why threadless are so successful, and are able to compete with much larger clothing labels and retailers – the community plays a crucial role in creating and choosing which products get printed. Clearly crowdsourcing is an effective way for smaller businesses to compete with larger corporations, particularly in the digital age, and should be considered by any business hoping to increase demand for its products.