How to create a best-selling product without encouraging consumerism

How can you create a best-selling product or service if you can’t put as many invasive ads in front of their eye-balls, spend as much money as you want in PR stunts and must be sustainably successful?

Easy. Make your users successful by growing their skill set, by helping them broadcast their message or by helping them make money.

Most of the time marketers think in attracting loads of attention to their products, hoping to convert a tiny amount of this attention into clients. You might also know this practice described as the marketing funnel.

On top of the funnel, you get a load of undifferentiated people to see your product through ads, promotions, coupons and so on, and at the end of the funnel, a few of those people who have seen your ads and coupons will buy from you.

So if you paid $1000 to get 1000 people to see your ad and 10 people bought your 200$ product, you got $2000 back and made a $1000 profit.

Pretty neat.

Except that you’ve annoyed the 990 people who didn’t buy and never asked for you to take their time and mental space.

You might agree that this is not the most respectful way to promote any product. But once marketers realize that this technique is an amazing way to make money, it’s hard to resist shoveling more and more ads in front of more and more eyeballs to attract more attention at the top of the funnel.

If you can expose enough people to your idea, you’ll be able to afford to buy more attention, run more ads and put more people into the top all over again.

But, aside from the ethical considerations on people’s attention, the amount of time and money you need to keep that funnel filled can explode your budget pretty quickly.

To me this has always been a dilemma. How can I get others to buy my service and product without taking up their precious time and attention and without spending a huge amount of money I don’t have?

Two of my marketing “gurus”, Seth Godin and Katy Sierra, gave me the clue.

You just have to flip the funnel and turn it into a megaphone. Or in other words, instead of trying to squeeze your users’ pockets, you should make your users successful and make it easy for them to grow their skill set, to increase their earning power and to broadcast the cool stuff they do. Their success will shine back on your product or service and will get you free promotion FOR.E.VER.

It should be clear by now that the internet has given us a set of online tools that makes it an imperative for any organisation to empower and give a megaphone to your fan club and get out of the way.

But there are still too many companies not empowering their users. In fact, most companies still rely on the old Funnel scheme to squeeze their clients instead of nurturing loud and successful fans.

First, let’s check out some tactics “funnel organisations” use. Then we’ll see how “megaphone” organisations have invented an alternative model that makes their businesses thrive and have a much bigger social impact.

Once you’ve read it, let me know how would you prefer to be treated as a client. If you are in business, you might want to adopt some of these new strategies.

How to squeeze your clients dry

So here are a few more techniques business-as-usual companies use to force their customers into handing their money.

Short Durability

Fast fashion companies like Zara or H&M sell clothes that are designed to be trendy, cheap and disposable. Some positive aspects this strategy has is that it creates employment and a robust recurring business.

The other side of the coin is that this model creates loads of waste, depletes more resources, low-income jobs and ends up being more expensive for customers in the long run than if they bought more durable and expensive clothing.

If you are a client, durable fashion might cost 2 or 3 times more than fast fashion, but it will usually last 10 times more, making it more affordable.

And if you are a business, people are starting to notice and demand more sustainable fashion and learning how to sew and mend their own clothing. So it might be a good time to start helping the industry shift.

Prevent repairs

You might not know Leroy Merlin, a french home improvement and gardening retailer. I like a lot of initiatives they’ve been taking, specially their investment in the maker movement.

But I recently went to one of their stores to buy some lamps for the bathroom, but there was something weird about them. None allowed you to replace their bulbs. It was clearly stated that their lamps would last five years, so you know that you will have to throw the whole thing to the trash.

When I asked the salesman for repairable alternatives, he told me there weren’t any at the shop. Manufacturers are doing it on purpose because they have noticed users replace their lamps in 5 year cycles.

My arms almost fell off.

Even if that’s true, it is a practice that decreases the freedom of its users and makes it unavoidable to increase the amount of trash. And it has the added benefit for commerce that it forces people to come back to buy new lamps instead of bulbs and spare pieces.

Another famous company preventing its users from repairing its products is the tractor manufacturer John Deere. Farmers pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for a license to operate the vehicle, and the license forbids them to look at the software running the tractor. So if you are a farmer and anything goes wrong, you can’t repair it yourself even if you know how to do it. You are locked in with John Deere’s repair services that costs thousands of dollars.

Why show your users you love them by encouraging them to repair things themselves when you can force them to come back to you and extract some extra dough?

Prevent product compatibility by not using standards

Apple is the champion at making their customers buy or unnecessarily upgrade their hardware. Whenever your charger or headphones break down, instead of reusing an old pair lying around, you have to buy an expensive replacement because they are not compatible.

It has also been reported that Apple’s user devices slow down when Apple forces its users to upgrade their iOS version, which motivates users to buy the next iPhone version.

Apple doesn’t provide any extra value when it does this, but it still manages to get some extra cash from its clients by limiting their options.

I’ve used Apple as an example, but they are not the only ones using these tactics to get higher profits and growth. Unfortunately, they neglect to share the value they create with society and the environment as other more open and repair conscious companies, like Fairphone, would do.

Using your monopoly to “force” your users and providers

Uber has a lot of users and a lot of drivers. Their objective is to grow as big and as fast as possible to sustain their over $50 billion valuation through any means. For this they haven’t blinked at the possibility of taking higher commissions from drivers already struggling to reach minimum wage, or from doubling, tripling and even quintupling prices at rush hour or during emergencies.

Some more interesting alternatives to this is actually creating platform cooperatives and to open source the technology behind the platform. Or to create a business where your providers own part of equity and profits of the company, like Juno or Stocksy do.

How Megaphone Organisations do it:

Thinking of the freedom and success of your users will shine brighter on you.

By making its designs and software available in Open Source, Arduino became the standard micro-controllers for makers and do-it-yourselfers. Open Source has empowered this movement, that was rather underground a few decades ago, to build projects that like 3D printers, drones, Prosthetics and more… Every new makers who creates something new on top of Arduino makes other people want to build their own projects with an arduino. All of this without invasive ads…

Following the same spirit, Reddit became the biggest online forum on the internet where millions of people share and collectively curate content interesting to different communities. In 2008, the company shared its platform technology in Open Source. Opening their platform helped them by getting the support and contributions of its huge community of developers and it benefited the community by giving them access to their tools and by allowing them to improve the forum they used in their terms.

This move was an acknowledgment that they’ve depended on the tools other open source projects and communities empowered them to build their platform, so it made sense for them to give back to the community. This has been a brilliant move that has helped them develop faster, and it has enabled many different communities to build their own Reddit-like forums.

At the time they did their open source move, Reddit was the number 2 news aggregator behind Digg. Digg collapsed in 2012 due to many reasons while Reddit has lasted until now. Thanks, in part, to its openness and community support.

Instead of squeezing its users through a funnel for more revenue, Reddit has thrived by becoming their megaphone. They’ve given them a tool to voice their interests and they’ve opened their platform to developers and communities who want to reuse it as they see fit.

It has not only increased the strength of their technology and reduced their costs of development, but it has also helped them become the 7th most visited website in the world.

Encouraging the users to escape the consumerist path

In a different and more traditional industry, Patagonia is a good example of how a fashion company can open to its community. They don’t squeeze anyone through their funnel and they also have one of the most successful fashion companies in the world.

Since they started their Common Threads Initiative, they’ve been inviting their clients to do what most companies like Zara or H&M would fear:

  • not to buy their products
  • to buy long-lasting products
  • to repair their products
  • to re-sell their products once they don’t want them anymore.

In turn, Patagonia has committed to design their clothing so it is durable and easy to repair, it has made repair guides in Ifixit, and it has partnered with Ebay to create a marketplace where customers can resell their second-hand clothes to other customers.

While technically Patagonia did put this ad in front of its readers to sell, they were really telling their readers the bad impact its jacket has in the world. Or in other words: “get out of the funnel and make a more conscious use of the world resources!”.

After this campaign, Patagonia grew almost 40% in the following two years.

Businesses helping you build your own Megaphone: open source, bloggers and sprawling inspiration

WordPress allowed people to build better megaphones with their own blogs. People have been able to create their freelancer, course or plugin businesses on top of a free idea, that has sparked a $1 billion market.

Unsplash builds a megaphone for two kinds of people. On one side there are those who want to express their ideas with images that are more beautiful than stock photos. On the other side, there are the photographers who get their creations discovered, used and promoted by a larger public.

Content companies like TED also give a speaking podium to relatively unknown experts. This has helped them create amazing content, and has given access to their viewers to tantalizing insights that inspire even more people to share what they’ve learnt and to organize their own independent TEDx, which in turn creates even more great content.

Finally there are bloggers who’ve learned that teaching others how to build their businesses is a great way to lift their own businesses as well. They regularly give away extremely valuable content tailored to help their readers make money or improve their lives.

Some examples are Tim Ferriss who has shared some great posts on how to launch a kickstarter campaign, on how to learn languages or on how to lose weight.

Bryan Harris from Videofruit or Paul Jarvis help entrepreneurs and creatives build an audience and find ways to create their own businesses thanks to all the free opportunities the Internet provides to become an entrepreneur. They’ve first driven people with their amazing content people would easily pay for, and they support themselves by selling more detailed courses.

As Katy Sierra, the author of Badass, Making Users Awesome, puts it, people are not interested in using your tool, or in experiencing your UX, or even in knowing you. They are interested in the post UX-UX. Or in other words: How much do they like themselves after they’ve used your tool, service or product. How much you can help them impress their friends, family or peers.

And all of these businesses, whether they are bloggers sharing their hard earned experience, companies empowering you to repair and reuse their products, or big platforms allowing their software or their content to be re-used by anyone are definitely making their users look better in front of their friends, peers and audience.

Conclusion

If you sell stuff like Smartphones, furniture or fast fashion clothing, once your clients buy, their money is gone forever.

Then to get them back and get more money out of their pockets, you’ll have to put more ads in front of their eyeballs. If you just get customers in a funnel to squeeze them of their money, then their well of money ends up drying up, and yours as well.

But If you want to have a business that will promote and sustain itself and your users:

Make sure you give them everything they need to be successful.

Then give them a megaphone loud enough to show their friends and community what they’ve been doing with your product and how you paved their way.

When you give your clients this kind of love and power, instead of expensive and intrusive ads, they will be the ones promoting your work. Not because you paid them to do it, but because they’ve experienced the value of what you made for them.

You gave away more than you asked in return, and still managed to get more than you asked for.

Inspiration Sources:

Flipping the Funnel, by Seth Godin (it’s free) 
Badass, Making Users Awesome: That link is my magical affiliate link. It gives you the same great book and pricing and it gives me a tiny kickback to support the blog.

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Jaime Arredondo
Find me on:

Jaime Arredondo

Creator at Bold&Open and shaker of collaborative projects
Jaime Arredondo
Find me on:

Comments

  1. Hi Jaime, great topic again to touch on!

    I completely agree with your sentiment and like the practical approach you take in addressing it.

    As I understand, most of the article is about how to (and how not to) sell products to customers and how those products should be built (open source, standardized, etc.).

    But what about just stopping to sell products completely? And instead do something disruptive: sell the use of the products as a service. This is the whole idea behind what was Product Service Systems and Collaborative Economy. These terms have since been hijacked and misused by Uber and Airbnb, but I believe they are still very strong concepts for business models, also for physical consumer products.

    If I do not buy my laptop, my phone, my clothes, etc. anymore, but instead pay for using them AND being able to cancel the service immediately, then companies will be motivated to make them durable, recyclable, attractive, lovable etc.

    What do you think?

    1. Author

      Hi James,

      Great comments and great to read you here again 🙂

      Your point is really interesting. I haven’t explicitly put it in the list of best practices because, as you say, the real world implementation has brought less than desirable effects.

      I agree that it might bring ecological efficiencies, but the need for exponential growth has also brought many undesirable social results, like increasing the real estate prices for citizens. As long as we don’t couple collaborative platforms with real cooperative governance and structures, I don’t think we’ll get there. And so far there are only Stocksy or Juno really trailing this kind of path. Hopefully we’ll see some platforms add an open source dimension to their stack.

      And regarding the selling the use of the product, there was a debate started by Lars Zimmermann about the desirability of it. If we get to rent a product but it’s not ours, then we can’t customize it or modify it as we’d wish. So at the end your freedom would be curtailed.

      I really would like to see someone come up with the kind of service you talk about though. The thing is no one has really been able to pull it off quite yet for laptops, phones, clothes and so on…

      I guess for now there is no clear answer, just paths to explore and see if they could work.

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