Embracing social media before it was “cool.”

29 Mar

Threadless.com: Online community drives company

It’s hard to imagine that a company who has been around for ten years has centered everything around their growing online community, but that’s exactly what Threadless has done and continues to do. Threadless is a prime example of a company who has embraced social media as a business platform. Great part about this — they did it before social media was even “cool.”

The site started off offering anyone a chance to submit artwork, then having community members rate the designs. The best ones were printed on T-shirts. It’s all very similar to what the company does now. The online apparel store has built a loyal open-sourced community that actively submits new t-shirt designs for the chance to win cash prizes, votes on favorite designs, and purchases limited edition shirts (Stein,). Basically, they print awesome designs on T-shirts created and chosen by you. It’s a multimillion dollar empire and the biggest community centered T-shirt store on the web (Lindberg).

“Instead of just dictating what should happen, I have a really open philosophy when it comes to both managing and working with our customers. I mean, that’s the whole point of the company: we trust them to tell us what is right and we agree with the general consensus of the community and adapt to it,” Jack Nickell, Threadless founder, answered this when asked,”What’s his philosophy? (Lindberg). His idea of business is what makes social media so poplar today. Social media gives the customer a voice. It’s ran by communities, and revolves around social interaction, discussion, and content created by users who engage. Nickell’s company survives because of social media.

It’s no surprise that they don’t like advertising or pushing their brand on people who wouldn’t want to hear about it. Without intending to, the founders have successfully tapped into word of mouth marketing on the Internet aka social media (Quinton). Cam Blazer vice president of marketing says that traditionally the company has done no advertising (Quinton). People can’t help talking about the awesome T-shirt they see someone wearing. His mission? To amplify that buzz. That success has continued, with the Threadless community growing from 10,000 members in 2002 to 70,000 in 2004. Today the community stands at 1 million members and counting (Quinton).

The company has a Facebook page that currently has almost 254,000 fans, and a Twitter account that has nearly 1.6 million followers. To compare, Starbucks — who is commonly known to have great social media campaigns — has roughly 1.3 million Twitter followers. That gives you a perspective of how large their loyal online community is.

Not only is the company continuously holding regular design contests, but now they are holding challenges with a specific theme that are judged by a panel from Threadless, and a sponsor. One example is the recent challenge sponsored by Thermos. Challengers were asked to create a T-shirt and a Thermos bottle. The winning design receives $2,000 in cash, $500 Threadless gift certificate, iPad 64 GB with Wi-Fi, $200 in Thermos merchandise, and their design on a Threadless tee plus a Thermos bottle. By offering their community a hard to beat deal such as this one, more, and more, people start participating.

Another way Threadless is becoming socially popular is jumping on board to support causes. The most recent challenge got people involved in designing an inspirational tee around the theme of “Sunrise,” to help those affected by the Japanese tsunami and earthquake that hit last week. Net proceeds from the sale of each tee will be donated to The American Red Cross’s Japan relief fund. March 11th, the day the earthquake hit, Threadless posted this challenge. Within seven days over 640 people had tweeted about the challenge and over 1,000 liked it on Facebook. This is saying that from each individual who reposted that post there are another hundred or so pair of eyes seeing their name, their product, and learning about their company. In a Forbes article about the “Best Social Media Campaigns” the writer says that, “the bottom line is a successful social media campaign requires creativity, a clear message and needs to make a splash at the right time,” and that is exactly what Threadless has been doing for years.

In a 2009 interview with Nickell he mentioned that Threadless had been around so long that he felt that the company was hitting a point where they weren’t keeping up with what newer Web 2.0 companies were doing (Lindberg). Since this interview the site has grown, and done a very good job of adding more community and socially driven concepts. A great example would be the Threadless Meetups — similar to Tweetups. “Threadfans” get together to collaborate on ideas, trade tees and get to know their online pal in real life. You can earn points towards your Threadless purchases, watch Threadless Tee-V, or hear from designers just like yourself. They’ve continued to evolve their company over the years and change with consumer wants and needs. Their online store is a great example of how social communities can be built and integrated into a company’s business model to powerfully drive awareness, encourage company evolution and impact a company’s bottom line (Stein).

My original thought was that it seemed silly that Threadless had never advertised, and I felt that this definitely was a negative aspect of their company, but I changed my tune. Nickell explains, “We’ve experimented with advertising pretty recently and have had mostly negative reactions to it. It’s always been something that we’ve felt is not right for us. Me and Jeffrey (Kalmikoff, Threadless’ chief creative officer) used to work at four ad agencies, so we have a pretty strong understanding of what advertising means and how evil it is. With our company it’s all about trust and honesty and we just don’t like the idea of pushing our brand on people who otherwise wouldn’t hear about it (Lindberg).”

In a world where the consumers voice is hard to silence, Threadless prospers. By trusting their customers, online community, and word of mouth advertising Threadless has led the way in how social media has changed the way companies handle business.


Lindberg, Oliver. “In-depth Interviews: Jake Nickell.” Net Magazine. Issue 198. 10 Dec. 2009. Web. 17 Mar. 2011. <http://www.netmagazine.com/interviews/in-depth/jake-nickell>

Taylor, Victoria. “The Best-Ever Social Media Campaigns.” Forbes.com. 17 Aug. 2010. Web. 17 Mar. 2011. < http://www.forbes.com/2010/08/17/facebook-old-spice-farmville-pepsi-forbes-viral-marketing-cmo-network-social-media.html/>

Stein, Daniel. “6 Ways Brands are Using Social Media For Real-World Action.” Mashable. 08 April 2010. Web. 17 Mar. 2010. <http://mashable.com/2010/04/08/social-media-real-world-action/>

Quinton, Brian. “Crowd Pleasers: Threadless.com gives buyers what they want — by asking them first.” ChiefMarketer.com Magazine. December/January 2010. Web. 17 Mar. 2010. <http://www.nxtbook.com/nxtbooks/penton/cm_20101201/#/20>


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