Social is Global: Learning From Threadless’ Success in Global E-Commerce

Marketing to global customers can be tricky — ongoing paid search campaigning is costly, language issues complicate everything, email successes can be hit or miss. The list goes on with questions like: How can we make ourselves known to the overseas customers? What’s the best way to attract them and build a sustainable business?

A presentation from Tom Ryan, CEO of, at the Internet Retailer Conference & Expo (IRCE), provides a fascinating success story of global e-commerce. Threadless’ success may have provided a roadmap to answer that very tricky question — how to attract global consumers?

The Social Roadmap
In Threadless’ case, the secret is utilizing its social network and building a community where a geographic boundary doesn’t matter. Judging by its results, this can be the most effective and organic marketing method to build your global following, and more importantly, to convert your global fan base into loyal, repeat customers.

Let’s trace the trajectory of Threadless’ global expansion: Threadless is a community-based design e-commerce company. All designs printed on Threadless’ T-shirts and other merchandise are voted on and picked by the community. A pioneer in crowd sourcing, Threadless now boasts an active community of 4 million monthly visitors with a strong social presence of 1.6 million, whose passion helps sell millions of T-shirts in over 150 countries. Threadless was created with a vision on the joy of sharing, but according to Ryan, it didn’t start out with a global vision.

At IRCE, Ryan called his company an “accidental world traveler.” Just a few years ago, Threadless was just another U.S.-based retailer seeking to build a strong foothold in its home market. Global expansion was never its ambition. But gradually, orders started to come in from its international members, and the retailer passively reacted by fulfilling international orders, all without any real investment in the international business.

By Q2 of 2010, 50 percent of Threadless’ revenue came from its overseas markets. Recognizing the tremendous growth potential in the global market, Threadless began to invest more on language translation and localization. The focused approach is already paying off — a year later, its global revenue contributes 60 percent of its total sales.

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  • http://billmarsh bill marsh

    Excellent post — for small to medium business (but for any size business really)
    BIll Marsh – PBBI

  • http://JDP JDP

    Strong points about starting small and building up. We live in age where complex interactions need to be simple and seemless to the customer. A bad initial experience in socializing a business, especially globally, will severely limit growth opportunities.