Word-of-Mouth and Referral Marketing Blog

4 Ways T-Shirt Company Threadless Built a Fanatical Community Through Word-of-Mouth

If you’re a graphic designer, or a fan of graphic T-shirts, chances are, you’d have heard of Threadless.

They are an online community of T-shirt designers, and a platform where they congregate to submit and vote on T-shirt designs. Designs are submitted every week, and the highest-voted designs get printed onto actual T-shirts for sale. Designers are paid 20% in royalties, and either Threadless gift cards or cash.

Threadless was started by Jake Nickell and Jacob DeHart in 2000, based on the idea of a community where designers could submit designs, get paid, gain recognition and wear the coolest T-shirts.

The idea proved to be a hit, as more than 10,000 members signed up by 2002, and they sold $100,000 worth of shirts, according to Inc. Four years after their inception, Threadless was reaping in approximately $1.5 million in profits, and this figure jumped to $6.5 million in 2006.

Let’s check out how Threadless built their insane community from the ground up:

1. Host competitions that turned T-shirt designing into an engaging sport

Threadless Masters of the Universe

To spread word of Threadless, Jake spent a huge amount of time cruising the Web, posting comments on blogs, and engaging with Threadless followers, who in turn promoted the weekly contests to their family, friends, and associates.

All this was done without any help from traditional advertising:

We like the idea of it spreading via word of mouth, organically, naturally. It’s not that we don’t market, we just don’t advertise. I’d rather somebody hears about Threadless through an article in a magazine than an advertisement in a magazine. – Jake Nickell, in an interview with Techradar

When designers submit their designs, they’d get all their friends to help vote for them. In turn, these new visitors would often go on to check out other rad designs. This helps spread the awareness of Threadless, as well as their designers.

Apart from the weekly open-ended competition, Threadless also hosts several themed design challenges.

Here are some of the themed challenges:

A. Threadcakes – Transforming Threadless designs into edible works of art

Threadless Threadcakes Tropicalia

What’s more awesome than having your design printed on to a T-shirt? I know, it’s having them made into a three-dimensional cake.

Although Threadcakes isn’t hosted on the Threadless website, it has attracted scores of skilled pastry chefs eager to show off their skills in transforming Threadless designs into actual works of art.

B. Win20k Challenge – $20,000 to whoever creates the most awesome T-shirt design

Threadless Win20K Challenge

A huge competition where the only rule is to “create the single, most awesome design ever imagined by humans, animals, and extraterrestrials alike”.

Designs that have the most votes and funds raised will be victorious, taking home $20,000, royalties and gift cards.

This is where I found the most hilarious design to date:

Threadless Win20K Challenge Ninjesus design

C. Minimalism Challenge – A challenge to communicate an idea with as little as possible

Threadless Minimalism Challenge

The Threadless Minimalism Challenge began after Ryder Doty, a Threadless community member, created a series called “Threadless Minimalism”, which showcased various community members in their most minimal form.

Since then, designers would gather round to create their best minimalistic art for a chance to win $2,000, gifts, and even a minimalism art print by Ryder himself.

D. Threadwars – A one-on-one themed design competition to see who’s the best

Threadwars IX logo

A brutal one-on-one design showdown where designers are challenged to create designs according to a specific theme and gather as many votes as they can.

The winners of each duel would advance, where only two shall remain to face each other in the finals.

Currently in its ninth year, Threadwars offers only gifts and no cash rewards, so you know the designers are there to prove themselves and nothing else.

2. They built a fun and loyal community where designers can challenge each other to get better.

The wonderful staff behind Threadless
The wonderful staff behind Threadless

Unlike most companies, where the product creation process is separate from the consumer base, Threadless exists only because of the amazing community they have helped to shape.

This presents several interesting factors that are responsible for their success:

Platform to create, compete, and share: Having a platform where designers can have some healthy competition and getting the rest of the world to see and vote on their designs. This is something artists and designers didn’t really have before.

Healthy competition: Design competitions with prizes encourage designers to give their all, thus improving the overall quality of all designs. Threadless then becomes a place where people can go to check out the best in graphic design.

Voting rights: Users are given a voice, where they get to have their say in which designs they prefer.

Recognition: Designers get recognition for their works, gain followings, and winners get paid and their T-shirts made. Indonesian-based artist Budi Satria Kwan mentions how his designs are recognized in the US, even though he’s never been there before.

Read next: 30+ examples of marketing via communities

3. Featuring popular artists and Threadless community designers regularly to promote their work.

Threadless Artist Spotlights

Threadless has a section on their website called “Artist Shops’.

All designers have to do is create a shop, upload their designs, and Threadless will handle the rest. It acts as an ecommerce platform, like Shopify, but for designs and T-shirts.

But what’s cooler is their “Artist Spotlight”, where Threadless features artists and designers that people should know about. Some of them are popular artists, like Tim Seeley, the one responsible for the artwork of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, while others are actually designers from the Threadless community!

Those who have a shop on Threadless have a chance to be featured on the Artist Spotlight, which is great for getting them recognized.

4. Forged partnerships with bigger brands, so designers can reach out to an even wider audience.

Threadless Gap Partnership

Over the years, Threadless has had numerous partnerships with companies like: Gap, Dell, Griffin, Unicef, Thermos, Blik, etc.

This provides a bigger platform for creativity and for designers to share their work with the world, beyond just the Threadless community.

But Threadless doesn’t just partner up with any big company; when some big companies like Target and Urban Outfitters approached Threadless for a partnership, they were turned down.

As Jake Nickell puts it during an interview with Chicago Magazine,

I have nothing against either company, but I really wanted a place where the individual artists would be acknowledged with their designs. Neither company could offer us that. Gap and Bed Bath & Beyond could.”

This is a huge fist-bump for designers, since they know they can trust that Threadless will make decisions with their best interests in mind.

And having the opportunity to have your designs grace the stores of Gap, Dell and others motivates them to put in their best efforts when designing!

Read next: 9 examples of collaboration in marketing

Focus on building an engaging community, and grow it using word-of-mouth.

The path to Threadless’ path to greatness can be broken down to the following factors:

  • Provide a solution that people currently lack and are in need of: Prior to Threadless, there wasn’t a platform and community where artists could gather to check out cool designs, submit their own, and get recognition from the public.
  • Let your users engage activities, especially contests: Designers recruit their networks to vote for them, thereby increasing the number of people who become aware of, and come to your site. Contests also encourage healthy competition, and helps forge a deeper connection with your customer base.
  • Put your customers’ best interests before you: Threadless was built on the desire to “respect the artist and trust the community”, and their decision to work with companies who would honor that philosophy is evidence of that. Profits are definitely important, but your customers should be even more so. Cover their backs, and they’ll love your for it.
  • Building an open community and putting power in their hands: The magic in Threadless lies in how freely they allow their community to direct trends and make certain decisions. As Jake puts it, “…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”. When you choose to empower your customers, they begin to really appreciate you as more than just a company, but perhaps more like an actual person.

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Other fashion marketing examples:Under Armour, Undress,  Lululemon,  The North Face, Victoria’s Secret, THINXUniqlo, Black Milk, H&M, Herschel, Dagne Dover, Daniel WellingtonWarby Parker, Everlane, Chanel, Tiffany & Co

Samuel Hum

Samuel Hum

As a finalist in Esquire's Best Dressed Real Man contest, Samuel is ReferralCandy's fashion ecommerce expert and resident sartorialist. He is obsessed with human behavior and social psychology.

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