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Threadless.com Uses Crowdsourcing to Build Brand Awareness

Building an audience with social media is how the site has grown in the 13 years it’s been in existence.

Building an audience with social media is how crowdsourcing site Threadless.com has grown in the 13 years it’s been in existence.

This story first appeared in the February 14, 2013 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

According to cofounder, chief executive officer and chief community officer Jack Nickell, the firm’s mission statement is to “exist to give creative minds of the world amazing opportunities for their art [and] supporting the independent artist.”

Make, pick, play and shop are the general ideas behind the site, which was founded in 2000. Nickell told the audience there are now “hundreds of thousands of artists” in which the active community is basically a group of friends who support each other. The site also counts 2.5 million members, 2.1 million Twitter followers and more than 200,000 followers on Instagram.

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Most of what Threadless sells are T-shirts featuring special designs. Instead of hiring a staff of artists, it uses crowdsourcing — an undefined group — via a weekly open call for submissions for artwork that’s put to a public vote. Essentially the Threadless art community submits the designs and also has input in determining what is sold on the site. That’s because the Threadless staff reviews the designs with the most votes and makes their selections for printing on apparel. Artists/designers receive $2,500 when their designs are selected. Reprinted designs garner artists a $500 royalty payment.

As for viral marketing, Nickell said, “The submissions become little pieces of viral content that go around the Web. Our brand isn’t just defined by that less than 1 percent of designs that we take to market; it’s also the thousands that come in every day that drive traffic to our Web site.”

Members also get to critique the designs submitted, a form of peer production, and it’s that member input that keeps the Threadless community growing. In addition, members get to run design challenges based on a theme agreed on by the community at large on the Threadless forum, another way to build the consumer base and its followers. The challenges also can involve partnerships with other companies. Many of these partnerships host challenges specifically to raise money for philanthropic purposes, such as a recent UNICEF event.

Nickell told attendees that Threadless items are sold off-line at select brick-and-mortar sites too. That could include the Gap store in San Francisco, where an artist whose design is featured also gets a plaque shown in the store with information about the artist, or in Asia, where it is partnering with Japanese T-shirt store Design Graniph to sell designs known as the Threadless + Control Bears series.

The site ships to 170 countries, and more than 55 percent of sales are from overseas.