Customization meets social commerce

Custom jeans

Mass customization legend Frank Piller recently posted about custom jeans up-and-comer Getwear.   “The website seems to be very carefully designed and somehow a “best of breed” of best practices for a good co-design toolkit.”

Is Getwear any really any different that other custom jeans companies Indi, Make Your Own Jeans, and DoMyJeans?

GetWear believes that their site is new and different.  “None of them is social,” explains Yaakov Karda of Getwear.  “It was you (the customer) and the company.  Basically, it is an analogue of web based “atelier”. There’s not much fun in buying atelier made clothing for young people; the concept looks and sounds outdated.   Getwear is all about social commerce. From my point of view, mass customization has perfect potential if coupled with community but will not succeed on the large scale if it is not.  All other “custom jeans” businesses mostly target people with special requirements (and though an established need for a custom product). It’s a very limited market (and with harsh competition).”

Are Buyer / Sell communities "social?"

Is Getwear an example of social commerce?  Yaakov is referring to “crowd-sourced,”, not “social.”   Of course co-creation (ie open innovation) and social are not the same thing, but they are often confused.   Does social just mean community-enabled or does it imply tapping the trusted opinions of friends or connections?   Certainly, giving quasi-designers the ability to sell their creations in your marketplace is democratic and taps into the power of network effects, but it does not merit the title ‘social commerce.’

Social as a collaboration enabler

Nicholas Marx of Besposkable says this about their open portal approach:  “Through social, we’re enabling collaboration: both sides – buyer & seller – can make edits to our product configurators. We’re finding that many people want a relationship with the maker of their things. They want to be able to ask them for their advice, etc. Only the personal attention of single craftsmen or a small team can provide the attention to detail needed for true customization. We’re finding that people want to buy from other people, not really from factories. I think many of the custom DIY outfits out there are missing that.”

Although the Bespokeable model leapfrogs conventional buyer / seller marketplaces like eBay by enabling creative collaboration, this may not merit the title “social commerce” as it doesn’t tap into power of trusted referrals.

Social commerce as a lead generator 

Pinterest is probably the best example of social commerce in that it taps the tastes of your Facebook friends.   Pinterest enables an aspirational, “pre-shopping” experience rather than a conventional yellow-pages marketplace.   Like Facebook, Pinterest feels more at home as a marketing tool than a sales tool.


So you want to sell custom products? (Part 2)

Here at Treehouse Logic we talk to a lot of start-ups about launching new, design-your-own business models.   This post is second in a series of tips for new entrepreneurs entering the mass customization space.   Here is the first post.

Remember the product configurator is a sales tool

Limit the amount of control your configurator offers.  Your customers wouldn’t want to walk into your retail store and be handed scissors and raw material, would they? Yes, they want to be involved in the design process, so give them control, but insist that options and combinations they select have been pre-approved by you.   Customers depend on your expertise to design, build, and deliver the product.

Don’t ask your customers to make difficult design decisions.    The backlash of control is frustration.  Customers who ask for power will in fact abandon the process if they feel like they are asked to do too much work or make tough style decisions.

Keep in mind that the risk is not necessarily in a long purchasing process, but in creating a difficult purchasing process.  The same customer who abandons your website after trying to design a custom dress shirt for 40 minutes will happily spend 4 hours pinning images on Pinterest.   Why? Pinterest is easy, intuitive, social, fun, visual, and low risk.   Configuring a dress shirt is loaded with risk.


Many new build-your-own companies get distracted by new web technology and sexy visualization gimmicks.   Customers don’t need a space-age hologram of your product; they just need an accurate, elegant picture of the customized product to help increase their confidence.    Remember, you’re not in the technology business, you’re in the customer satisfaction business.   Simplicity is key to sales.

Avoid self-measurement

Online apparel retailers have the highest return rate in eCommerce. On average, 1-in-4 garments bought online are returned to the retailers. The return rate is higher – over 40% – for fitted and more expensive fashions. Most of the returns are due to bad fit.”

Anytime you are asking customers to step away from the computer to find a measuring tape and measure themselves you are losing a big chunk of your audience.    There is too much risk of error.

No one has cracked “the fit problem,” but many are struggling with the measure-yourself-at-home approach.

Custom by design

Many companies fail at custom products because it contradicts their core culture.    Company’s like Levi’s could not simply bolt-on customization to their mass production business.  Build your culture and business model around customization from the ground up.     Just like many new business models are re-defining themselves as “social by design,” (like Spotify for music, or the Washington Post for newspapers) build up your company to be “custom by design” at it’s very core.

So you want to sell custom products? (Part 1)

Albert Wenger of Union Ventures

Here at Treehouse Logic we talk to a lot of start-ups that are betting on the design-your-own business model.   We’re seeing some major shifts in shopping behavior, most of which are discussed in this blog.

Albert Wenger of Union Square Ventures probably explains this phenomenon of mass customization the best: “We’re pretty convinced that mass-market consumer products are now so cheap and widely available that they’ve lost a lot of their appeal. We think people are looking for something unique and customizable. We’re interested in the social fabric — bringing people together that design things, and people who want to buy them.  Mass produced goods are dominated by a few large brands. But everywhere you look there are movements seeking to bypass those brands, whether it’s the locavore movement in food, or something such as NikeID, which has seen double-digit growth year over year.”

So how can new entrants to the customization market build businesses that focus on providing something unique and customizable, as well as tap into the power of the social fabric of designers and buyers?   Here are a few tips for up-and-coming custom product vendors:

Don’t repeat the mistakes of past customization businesses

Dell's product configurator

About 10-12 years ago we started seeing the first consumer-facing visual configurators.  Nike ID,, and Timbuk2 were pioneers of the design-your-own movement.  What worked for them?  What didn’t work?   Why did Levi’s drop their customization program?   Why did Dell give up on customization?  A lot has changed in both shopping behavior and web technology in the last decade, so be sure to learn from others mistakes, and don’t replicate them.   Do your homework and focus on creating a NEW spin on customization that is innovative, simple, and core to your business model.

Build the brand first

Your value proposition has to be much more than “have it your way.”  You need a brand story that resonates with your customer.  Instead of customization itself, focus on what your core product values are, for example; product quality, locally made, sustainable, fashionable, built-to-order within a week, etc.   Yes, design-it-yourself is a selling point, but your customers don’t buy from you because your products are custom, they buy from you because your products are what they want.

Consider avoiding the ‘custom’ term altogether.  The term ‘custom’ can imply difficult-to-make and expensive.    Eventually, all products will include some level of mass customization.

Focus on product quality

Custom Burberry trenchcoat

Users are taking a big leap of faith by buying your products online.  Don’t let customizability get in the way of product quality.  Highlight your product with high res photos.   If you’re going to differentiate from commodity products you need to stand out in quality and design.    Luxury brands like Burberry use customization as an engagement tool that helps build their luxury brand.    “Honestly it makes no difference at all” how many custom coats Burberry sells, Ms. Ahrendts says. “It’s customer engagement. You want them to engage with the brand.”

Launching a customization program is a lot more involved then just bolting a build-your-own feature onto a website that features mostly “standard” products.      How do you plan to stand out?

Look for more best practices in future posts…

Mass customization is trending so hard right now

Emachineshop: democrotizing manufacturing

Recently an entrepreneur made a comment to us that made an impression: “Mass customization is trending so hard right now.”    Indeed, we’re seeing customization on the forefront of a paradigm shift in retailing.   So what, exactly is trending?

1) Manufacturing 

We’re seeing a shift towards small, agile manufacturing facilities that don’t carry any inventory.    The process of “user manufacturing” is becoming more prevalent as new companies like strive to “democratize manufacturing.”

Manufacturing is coming back to the US in a big way, and it’s cropping up in the form of micro-factories.  According to DIY blogger TJ McCue of Forbes Magazine “There are approximately 315,000 manufacturers in the USA. Over 30% of them are 1-4 person shops.”


2) Marketing

In terms of marketing, we’re seeing a shift toward highly visual, interactive, “curate your own” shopping experiences, rather than conventional search and browse shopping experiences.   This means we are seeing dramatic changes in the way people interact and shop for products.    More specifically, “pre-shopping” is driving shopping itself because it taps into the power of social interaction, ie social brand engagement.

Curation itself is a merchandising theme.   Some sites like are in the business of curating good design for their users, and other sites like Pinterest are in the business of providing easy to use, one-click curation experiences so that each user can play the role of curator.   Pinterest taps into Facebook actions which extends it’s utility to a truly social experience.

Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook has said that any app is an order of magnitude more valuable when it’s social.  Curation and design-your-own are marketing themes that are primed for democracy and crowd-sourcing because they are “social by design.”

Jess Lee of Polyvore

3) Democritization

“Democrotization” is a fantastic made-up term which gets investors excited because it speaks to the rich potential of crowd-sourcing.  Many industries like fashion are being disrupted by web-based services that give individuals the power to design, influence, and sell their own products.  “Democrotizing fashion”.

Polyvore is a good example because they were one of the first companies to focus on enabling creativity among fashionistas.  “Polyvore’s mission is to democratize fashion, “To empower people on the street to think about their sense of style and share it with the world.” says Jess Lee, Polyvore’s vice president of product management.

The site bucks the age old trend of fashion driving the market. In Polyvore’s world, the market is driving fashion. In the past, Vogue has famously been considered a voice on high that says, “Here’s what we think fashion is.” But Polyvore’s user-generated content model is changing the status quo, abandoning the industry’s long-time queenly paradigm.”


How to build a Facebook marketing campaign

TV ads compete for consumer attention

Advertising has historically been about interruption.  TV ads appear, for example, between segments of your favorite TV show.  The problem with the interruption advertising model is that the message is not contextual or relevant.  Users are focused on their show, so they’ve learned to dismiss any brand interruptions as annoying.

Brands are finding their voice on Facebook.  From pages, brands can invite their customers to interact with them in a more personal way, beyond classic interruption marketing.

As brands plan Facebook campaigns they have to consider how to carefully approach their audience on this new medium.   Why would a user care about what the brand has to say?  Why would that user become a fan of the brand?  Once they are fans, why would they engage in the campaign and share the brand’s content with their friends?  How do you earn their trust and encourage them to voluntarily share your message?

Here are some best practices to launching Facebook campaigns:

Be useful

The best examples of brands on Facebook include an example of the brand creating utility.     Solve a problem that your are uniquely qualified to solve.  Your Facebook app is essentially extending a new, free service to your customers.   Use Facebook as a new way to serve your customers.


Nike+ is a great example of a brand that extended its core offering (clothing and shoes) to creating utility for the athlete community they have cultivated.   Nike+ provides training tools that help their customers’ track and share their fitness progress.     The Nike+ Facebook app solves a problem, which makes it an order of magnitude more compelling than a standard TV ad.

Mark Zuckerberg’s take on advertising (and this is not a direct quote) is that advertising on Facebook has to be as good as everything else on Facebook.    This means that advertising needs to be socially generated content that is contextual and personalized for every user.

Be relevant

Don’t bore people.   Timing is everything.    Your content cannot feel spammy, it has to be contextually relevant.   Likewise, your content needs to be relevant to your brand or it will just confuse users.

Don’t broadcast.   Stimulate

Your messages should be conversation starters.   Get people to talk about you.  Stimulate your community to join the conversation.  Likewise, highlight your super fans and make the story about them and their experience with the brand.  Their story is your story.

Keep it simple 

Many Facebook campaigns end up as complicated gimmicks.  Focus on the core idea and deliver on that idea.  Remember what Steve Jobs taught us about product design – simple is better.

Plan with a purpose 

Huggie's Hong Kong Facebook campaign

Focus on what your customers care about.   For example Huggie’s produces highly absorbent baby diapers, but they don’t necessarily need to hit their customers over the head with product specs.  They found that mothers care about baby photos so they focused on highlighting their fan’s babies, which really caught on.

Know your own voice

Your brand has a personality, let it be heard.    Small businesses have always succeeded by building personal relationships with their customers.    Don’t just post content, talk to people.

These themes apply to mass customization and product configurator design because interactive design tools inherently create deep brand experiences.   Fans want to get to know your product and what better way to let them than to let them design their own versions of your brand?

(NOTE:  This post was inspired by talks by Paul Adams – Researcher, product manager, designer at Facebook, and Mark D’Arcy, Director of Creative Solutions at Facebook.)

What is “social by design?”

Mark D'Arcy - Facebook

The web is going through an exciting transformation right now because it’s being rebuilt around people.  The web’s first iterations were focused on content and products.   The reason social is so hot right now is that the social web is evolving into a closer reflection of how humans have always interacted.

Most brands are currently in the process of “adding social” as a bolt-on approach to their existing websites.  These brands start with a pre-existing product-centric structure, then add ‘social features’ like “like” buttons and social sharing widgets.

Is a website that includes social sharing widgets “social?”  Mark D’Arcy of Facebook compares conventional bolt-on approach to adding salt to French fries.  The French fries themselves don’t change at all; you’re just sprinkling on some social.   The result is mediocre.

The next step is rebuilding your business from the ground up so that it is “social by design.”   Social by design means focusing on people first, then technology and products; the core experience is the social element, not just an afterthought.

Example of a share widget

Spotify is a recent example of a product that is social by design.  The music sharing application offers a core value of sharing music.  The secondary experience is playing and enjoying music.   Users login to Spotify with the Facebook ID to see their friend’s playlists, even real-time gestures of what their friends are listening to, ie “Dave is listening to enter the sandman by Metallica.”

Another example of social by design is Facebook Photos.  Facebook prioritized photo tagging over core photo editing features like red eye correction and filters.   What’s important to Facebook users is the person in the photo and the context of the photo, not the quality of the photo itself.   Early photo sharing applications like iPhoto and Shutterfly focus on photo editing as the core value (features), but lack any contextual sharing functionality (people).  The key is not to re-invent desktop-like photo editing tools within social networks, but to focus on a more simplified and shareable approach to photo publishing on Facebook.

Another great example of social design is a “gift ideas” experiment at Etsy.  Etsy’s experimental “Gift ideas” feature let’s you search their library of content based on what your friends have liked on Facebook.  You can select a friend and see a visual search result of gifts that match their Facebook likes.   Brilliant.

The theme here is that products and services are being rebuilt from the bottom up to focus on people.   New sexy ecommerce business models are all people-centric, rather then just another marketplace or online shop.   People are what make brands compelling, whether it’s service staff, friends who recommend that brand, or other shoppers who endorse the brand.

How does the lesson of social-by-design apply to product configurator design?   The design experience is usually too daunting for users, which is why many mass customization businesses fail.  Design-your-own has to be as easy as selecting, comparing, and shopping.  Customization experiences that are social by design and dead simple will be the  most successful.

(NOTE:  This post was inspired by talks by Paul Adams – Researcher, product manager, designer at Facebook, and Mark D’Arcy, Director of Creative Solutions at Facebook.)

What do consumers like about designing their own products?

What did you like about the product configurator?

We recently ran a research study that investigated consumer tastes and preferences in the context of product customization.  The goal was to find out what consumers want from a product customizer.  We asked them to run through a Treehouse Logic product configurator and then respond to a series of questions.

The results are very telling:  User experience design is top priority.  Consumers are no longer of tolerant of websites that are not intuitive and fun to use.   Good usability includes application performance, a smart layout, and comprehensive navigation.   When users are exposed to an A+ site, they appreciate it.  During the user flow, consumers need obvious answers to questions like ‘where am I?,’ ‘what do I do next?’ and “how do I finish?”

In addition to ease of use, respondents mentioned the ability to navigate many choices, and the importance of visualization of the custom product.

  • 50% complimented the site’s ease of use
  • 33% appreciated the rich selection of choices, (ie a graceful solution to “the paradox of choice.”)
  • 17% raved about the visualization, ie zoom, alternate views, and the importance of seeing high quality, accurate images of the product as they design it.

179 respondents answered the optional open-ended question “What did you like most about the product customizer?”  Here are a few verbatim answers.

Ease of use:

“Intuitive, lots of preprogrammed options, fast, very EASY”

“Easy and simple steps with a quick update of pricing on additional additions.”

“Its intuitive design and customizing features”


“A wide range of selections.  Various colors.”

“I liked being able to choose colors for every component.”

“Broad options for materials and colors.”


“Very fast in seeing what I wanted to appear in my changes”

“The zoom feature  – the varying viewpoints of the product”

“I liked the visualization of the custom bag.”