When Jake Nickell and Jacob DeHart launched Threadless in 2000, social networks didn’t even exist. Instead, they created their own online community where artists could submit t-shirts designs and the public voted on them. A small percentage of submitted designs are selected for printing and sold through an online store. Creators of the winning designs receive a cash prize and store credit.

Eleven years later,  Chicago-based Threadless is the darling of hipsters and entrepreneurs alike.  Artists have submitted tens of thousands of designs to the site. In  2009 alone, Threadless made $30 million in revenue, according to Forbes.

2009 was also the year Threadless experienced rapid growth on social networks like Twitter and Facebook. Thanks to a successful lunch-and-learn at Twitter’s offices, Threadless was added to Twitter’s user-to-follow list. Today Threadless has 1.5 million followers on Twitter and 237,000 fans on Facebook.

We recently discussed Threadless’ own social media strategy with founder Jake Nickell and Cam Balzer, vice-president of marketing. Here are ten of their own ideas that you can apply to your own company.

Let everyone tweet. And Facebook. And Digg. And Stumble.

“Everyone at Threadless is really encouraged to use all social networks to talk about what they’re working on,” says Balzer. “The exception would be that we ask people not to tweet about internal business matters and partnerships, that kind of thing. Every now and then somebody will leak a t-shirt, whether intentionally or not.”

Use a calendar to organize your company’s official social media profiles.

“When it comes to our company accounts, we manage that a bit more closely,” Balzer says. “Two people on our marketing team are responsible for managing our Twitter account and our Facebook page.
“They work from a calendar that includes all of the stuff going on at Threadless, new products we’re releasing, things going on at our office, contests that we’re planning to run and so on.  The goal is to be creating as much engaging content as possible so that people understand who we really are.”

Stop trying to control the conversation.

“You can control the messaging that you’re sending, but you can’t control how people are responding to it,” Balzer says. “So the right approach there is to act as if you are starting a conversation.  Again, you want to share content that people are going to respond to. It should be good content and engaging—the kind of things people want to talk about.”

Post content more than once to make sure it’s seen.

“It’s definitely a big challenge to make sure people see what we’re posting,” Balzer says. “If you tweet something at 9 a.m. and half of your people are asleep at that point, there’s a real good chance they won’t see it all. It’s all about the timing of tweets. We’ll repeat a few things on Twitter throughout the day to make sure we’ve reached enough people.

“A similar thing holds true for Facebook. Conversations spread quickly on Facebook, so we make sure to put content up there that people want to comment back on. We’re trying to use Facebook so that we have more of those mass conversations happening.”

Integrate customer service into your social media profiles.

“We’ve collaborated with our customer service team to address customers’ questions wherever they are,” says Balzer. “@ThreadHelp is how our customer service team manages tweets about some kind of Threadless issue. They will proactively reach out through @ThreadHelp’s account and let people know how to handle an issue, as well as respond to questions via Twitter.

It’s similar on Facebook as well. We have an application right on our Facebook page that lets users look up common customer service questions. They can also submit tickets for our customer service team right from our Facebook fan page.”

Negative feedback is a good thing.

“It’s good for companies to look at negative feedback as the best feedback,” Nickell says. “That’s where you find the most passionate customers.”

Always keep customers in the loop.

“Both Twitter and Facebook can act as support channels,” Balzer says. “This year on Black Friday, we announced that we would have a holiday sale that launched at midnight. So many people logged on then that it slowed our whole site down.

“We were proactively tweeting during the first two hours of the sale—in the middle of the night–that we were working on the issue. Naturally people were frustrated that the site wasn’t working, but because we were tweeting about it, they understood. Many people tweeted back, “No problem. I’ll log on when you get back online.”

Don’t put all your eggs in the established social media baskets.

“Our fastest growth opportunities are coming through brand-new social channels—not through Facebook and Twitter,” Nickell says. “It’s really important to stay aware of which sites and tools are getting rapid adoption. If you can get in on the ground level, that’s key.  Stumble Upon has been driving tremendous traffic for us , for example.”

To stay on top of the next trends, support your digital natives.
“Find some of your digital natives and let them really express either the personality of the company or their own personalities as representatives of your company,” says Nickell. “The things they find engaging or want to share with their friends are going to be the things that will engage your followers the most.”