Kat O’Sullivan’s line of sweaters–called Katwise–sell out quicker than most concert tickets.
Last month, 80 pieces posted on her Etsy store were gone in 10 minutes. For the past five years, her customers anticipate her monthly sale by queuing up their PayPal accounts and hoping that they’re the lucky transaction that secures one of her sweaters that range in price from $149 to $689.
How did the High Falls, N.Y.-based textile artist create a product that garners such a buzz? She tapped into her passion. Selling sweaters started as a way to earn gas money to follow the Grateful Dead tour in the early ‘90s.
Mad sewing skills combined with a love of color resulted in upcycled creations that were a hit. For years, she supported her unconventional lifestyle – which includes a patchwork-painted house and a psychedelic school bus – as a street vendor in New York, and then took her wares online in 2006.
“It helped that I was one of the early stores on Etsy,” says O’Sullivan. “My products routinely ended up on the homepage.”
The defining moment, however, came when O’Sullivan made the decision to stop offering custom orders. “It was becoming exhausting,” she says. “I was so scared to let go because the custom orders were the majority of my sales but they were allowing people to have control over me and my time.”
Instead, she released her sweaters in batches – batches that sold out quickly.
“I wasn’t trying to cultivate a frenzy,” she says. “But the reaction was that people became desperate to buy a sweater.”
O’Sullivan doesn’t have customers, she has fans, says Mack Collier, author of Think Like a Rock Star: How to Create Social Media and Marketing Strategies that Turn Customers Into Fans: “Rock stars understand who their fans are and they interact with them,” he says. “Businesses can do this, too, but getting there is a process.”
Collier says there are five things you can learn from O’Sullivan on how to turn customers into loyal followers:
It has to start with this, says Collier. Whether you offer a product or a service, put time into making it buzz-worthy. O’Sullivan puts a lot of effort into each sweater she makes, handpicking the right materials and making each piece herself. It’s not about quantity; it’s quality. She also takes a professional approach to her photography and her packaging is whimsical, giving her customers a total experience.
O’Sullivan says the best move she made was to not just sell a product, but to invite people to get to know her as a person. She regularly blogs about her travels, friends and everyday life.
“I am not anyone’s Martha Stewart and I think sharing stories about my crazy home and parties helps my work resonate on a deeper level,” she says. “I sometimes think that what I am selling is not just sweaters, but souvenirs of my colorful, kooky, whimsical life.”
Collier agrees: “It’s not the sweater they’re buying,” he says. “It’s her story.”
It’s no coincidence that O’Sullivan’s sales picked up when she backed off of custom orders. “Exclusivity creates product demand,” says Collier. “Her customer base knows when her products are coming, and the anticipation creates a buzz.”
O’Sullivan also names her sweaters, which makes them one-of-a-kind. “It started as a way to keep track of them and mark the seasons,” she says. “Sometimes they’re named after the music I was listening to while making them.” For example, she’s offered a Kentucky Derby collection, a Wizard of Oz collection, and a Tom Waits collection.
Her inspiration came from the Cabbage Patch dolls, which were popular when she was a child: “They all came with names and birth certificates, and we ate them up,” she says. “My sweaters are kind of like that with their own identities.”
Businesses create fans by offering gifts or prizes for no reason, says Collier. “A lot of companies offer punch cards, but those don’t create fans,” he says. “A loyalty card or coupon gives someone an incentive to make the purchase. Offering a customer a surprise gift after they make the purchase rewards their behavior and that resonates stronger.”
Occasionally and without warning, O’Sullivan will list arm warmers on her site, and let her Facebook fans know they’re there. Like the sweaters, these sell out in minutes and reward her customers for being a fan.
Fans are different than customers because fans want special access, says Collier. “They want backstage and they want a way to connect,” he says.
O’Sullivan answers every email she receives and replies to all comments left on her social media sites. “I think people appreciate a real person,” she says. “100% of everything you see on my site is me–sometimes to my own detriment.”