Crowdsource your Designs
Bloomberg Businessweek ran an interesting article a few days ago about the website Threadless and how they select which T-shirt designs to sell. I thought there were a couple ideas worth considering when working with promotional apparel.
If you're not familiar with Threadless, the site mixes standard online retail T-shirt vending with American Idol-esque voting. Submitted designs are open to voting and commenting by users for seven days. After that period ends, Threadless will look through the top 300 or so designs and decide which ones they want to sell as tees or prints. So, not completely democratic, but still heavily user-influenced.
Here are a couple thoughts I had about Threadless that may be applicable to our industry:
KNOWING END-USER INTEREST PAYS OFF
One of the main points of the Bloomberg Businessweek article is that Threadless has been so profitable because it's only producing designs that it knows buyers have an interest in. Through its voting process and commenting community, Threadless is able to get a decent idea of popularity and buyer demand, thus taking a little risk out of printing up a few hundred copies of a given design.
Obviously your ability to poll end-users will vary from promotion to promotion, and ultimately I suppose it matters more to please your clients and not the end-users themselves, but nonetheless Threadless is certainly a model of how knowing what end-users want can make a big difference. It's worth noting too that the article cites two companies, Dell and Havaianas, that worked with Threadless and used the company's voting process to successfuly vet new merchandise.
A PORTFOLIO PIECE
For distributors with design skills, Threadless might prove to be a useful marketing tool, both within the site and outside it. If your designs prove successful on the site, I imagine that would be a good portfolio piece to show potential clients not only your design chops, but also that you understand what people/a given market wants and are able to execute based on that information. As for marketing within the site, the same reasoning would apply, but in reverse. Users who have become familiar with your winning designs might eventually be enticed to check out your bio page and see all of your promotional work.