How Threadless Spins Gold on Twitter, Facebook

Inside The New York Times Conference Center, an eclectic mix of marketers, entertainers, journalists, politicians, entrepreneurs – and even an astronaut – gathered to bask in their 140 characters of fame during the Shorty Awards.

“I don’t know/I’m probably here cause I shoveled sum snow/Truth is Nwk is finding nu solutions/& we r proud 2b a part of a twitter revolution,” tweeted Newark Mayor Cory Booker, aka @CoryBooker, just after he received an award for his tweets.

The third annual competition drew 750,000 tweeted nominations in 48 categories, up from 300,000 last year, according to Leslie Richin, who handled public relations for the event. (While most winners were selected based on a popular vote, those in 10 marketing categories were selected by a panel of marketers and journalists, including yours truly.)

Truth is, I was fascinated by the real-life Twitterrati, all so passionate about making a difference in the world one tweet at a time. Consider Sree Sreenivasan, (@sree), who was doing video interviews at the awards program. As dean of student affairs and digital media professor at Columbia Journalism School, Sreenivasan is the first J-school prof I’ve ever seen away from a podium – and actually walking the talk. Defining Social Commerce

Marketers were recognized for their good work on Twitter, Facebook, and other social channels. @TrueBloodHBO Season 3 Premiere, for instance, picked up a trophy for best use of Twitter in a marketing campaign, while Chick-fil-A spicy chicken sandwich won best use of Facebook in a marketing campaign.

One company that impressed me and the other judges is, a t-shirt design firm based in Chicago. It was named best brand presence on Twitter and tied with Carnival Cruise Lines for best brand presence on Facebook.

This week, I followed up with CMO Cam Balzer by phone to learn about his company’s social commerce strategy.

Jake Nickell was inspired to start in 2000 after he won a t-shirt design contest. Each week, Threadless solicits ideas for t-shirt designs, encourages its community to score those designs, and then selects 10 to be printed on t-shirts sold for $20 each on the website. The company also reprints five to six designs each week.

“We’re fundamentally a community company. Everything is about our community of artists and designers who hang out on our website – they critique and score each other’s designs,” Balzer said. Thus, designs are naturally promoted by word-of-mouth.

Over the years, has served as a springboard for up and coming artists. “We don’t take credit for making them, but we played a role in getting them visibility [for their portfolio],” Balzer said. Those artists include Lim Heng Swee aka @ilovedoodle from Malaysia; Alix Solis aka @alexmdc from Milwaukee, and Olly Moss, @ollymoss, from London, UK.

Facebook and Twitter both proved to be effective places for Threadless to connect with its community. More than 260,000 people “like” this brand on Facebook; 1.6 million follow it on Twitter.

Of its 60 employees, two are dedicated to guiding interactions on the company’s Facebook page and Twitter account. Members of the customer service team also monitor and respond to customer service issues.

threadless-facebook2 does not calculate its return on investment in social outreach. As a first step to doing that, a URL shortener that uses a Google Analytics tag is helping the e-commerce site understand what activity drives purchases. “The cost is our own time and the effort to maintain those channels. Social is…mostly about growing and engaging with the online community,” Balzer said.

Creating New Realities

There were many other memorable moments at the Shorty Awards. Here are a few:

– Seven guys from Montreal who won the food award for @EpicMealTime. “Six months ago, I was substitute teaching…it was the Jay Leno show last week,” marveled Harley Morenstein, who stars in Epic Meal Time, a YouTube video series and Twitter account. The best part about Epic Meal Time? “We don’t know anything about cooking,” Morenstein said during his Shorty Awards acceptance speech.

– Baratunde Thurston, aka @Baratunde, who won Foursquare mayor of the year even though he’s never held elected office. His claim to fame? The digital director at The Onion ran a campaign to become virtual mayor of a New York City deli.

– NASA Astronaut Douglas H. Wheelock, or @Astro_Wheels, dressed in a blue jumpsuit. He holds the distinction of tweeting from outer space while serving as commander of the International Space Station last year.

“So many of our dreams at first seem impossible, then they seem improbable, and then, when we summon the will, they soon become inevitable,” Wheelock tweeted this week, capturing the spirit of that evening.

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