Social Media: Threadless fall victim to their own success

Social Media: Threadless fall victim to their own success

Yes, your social media campaign can be TOO successful. Ask anyone who’s suffered “the Digg effect” – when popularity on Digg grows so fast and large that traffic crashes the server – and the risk is clear.

Threadless have suffered their own success a couple of times. Their Spring sale in March 2008 resulted in serious server downtime, resulting in the offer of $50 vouchers to inconvenienced customers and the fate-tempting promise “…to never ever let this happen again forever ever.”

It seems “forever” equals about eighteen months (assuming there aren’t other outages I’ve missed). This time, a special one day sale to tie into the 09/09/09 date saw Threadless pummelled by insane amounts of traffic.

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Announcing all t-shirts would be $9 only, and creating a competition for anyone who retweeted the sale on Twitter to win a voucher, social media soon spread the message to hundreds of thousands of people extremely quickly. Each new posting resulted in more clicks through to the site. I first tried to access the site yesterday afternoon (early am in the US and near the start of the promotion) only to be met with the tell-tale “down for maintenance” screen. Repeated attempts throughout the day were no different. Unlike Twitter outages, which usually last minutes, users reported inability to access the site for extended periods – some never getting through.

Talk of Threadless being down spread just as quickly as the sale. Others mentioned how they would be part way through a transaction before the system would fail on them. All those transactions missed – all those customers left disappointed.

Let’s not be coy – this is a problem I’m sure most businesses would love to have to grapple with. I’m sure Threadless still sold enough t-shirts in one day to carpet Europe. But for many people, their first experience of Threadless was frustrating and others may feel their customer experience was far from ideal.

Threadless is built on a social networking model. Users vote for the t-shirt designs they want to see printed, crowdsourcing products people really want to buy. Therefore, it strikes me as strange that Threadless hasn’t learned how to manage wildly fluctuating levels of traffic in their infrastructure. To me, that’s just as much a social media failure as inauthentic behaviour, broadcasting, spamming or other SM marketing no-nos. The customer experience was impacted by a lack of planning – something that should have been addressed after the previous sale problems.

Threadless is big and popular enough that this won’t seriously impact them. But as an illustration of how a lack of fundamental planning and infrastructure can derail even the best campaign, this serves as a warning to others who can’t afford to miss sales and lose customers so readily.

UPDATE: Threadless today sent out an email to all their customers.

Thanks to everyone for sticking with us during our technical tribulations early in this sale! We’ve since fixed the issue (ninjas) and to make up for it, we’re extending the sale until 4 pm ct today (9/10/09)! We’ve also restocked some reprints and added some new designs…