NEW YORK It might not be the answer to Twitter's quest for a business model, but T-shirt company Threadless is betting Twitter's burgeoning user base and built-in viral marketing capabilities mean there's money to be made.
The Chicago-based company is giving users the chance to have top tweets emblazoned on T-shirts. Unlike other customizable services, Threadless is following its crowd-source model by having users nominate and vote for the Twitter messages that make it onto shirts. Threadless will design the shirts and sell two models per week at $18 each.
"What's interesting about this is allowing anybody with anything to say or quick wit to participate," said Tom Ryan, CEO of Threadless. "You don't have to have an artistic bone in your body. We're tapping into the commentary that's already happened."
The project was hatched after a meeting of Threadless executives with Biz Stone, a Twitter co-founder, early this year. It has the blessing of Twitter, although Ryan declined to say if Threadless would share revenue from Twitter Tees
Threadless is kicking off Twitter Tees with four designs it chose. One is a tweet from BoingBoing contributor Xeni Jardin that reads, "I'm huge on Twitter." Another from Stone reads, "It's the messaging system that we didn't know we needed until we had it."
The Twitter Tees site lets users log on using their Twitter identification and access their messages or those they received to nominate. The site will carry a running tally of the most popular tweets of the week.
The effort will be a small test of the viral marketing capabilities of Twitter. Threadless is banking on Twitterers themselves to promote tweets through the service. Twitter has already proven to be a potent method of spreading information, whether about swine flu, earthquakes or tech conferences.
"We are looking into tapping into the viral marketing power of Twitter and harness this collective work of interesting slogans and sayings that people make," said Ryan.
Threadless has its own potent distribution channel on Twitter, having amassed 475,000 followers. Threadless is still experimenting with how to best integrate with Twitter. It saw success with a promotion over Easter that used Twitter for a real-time scavenger hunt for Threadless "bunny boxes," which had gift certificates inside, hidden in three cities. Starbucks is taking a somewhat similar approach with a new campaign that challenges people to find Starbucks posters and submit a photo via Twitter.
"It was an interesting way for us to make it a real-world conversation instead of just on Twitter itself," Ryan said.
Threadless lets users submit and vote on T-shirt designs. The ones the community prefers get made and sold through the site. It boasts receiving more than 1 million submissions of user-created slogans since it started in 2005.
Threadless will contact those whose tweets are nominated to get permission. It is offering those chosen $360 in cash and a $140 Threadless gift certificate. The first to nominate the chosen tweet gets $100 and a $40 gift certificate.