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Why digital marketers can't ignore Tumblr

Why digital marketers can't ignore Tumblr Michael Estrin

Confession time: I am not a Tumblr user, not really. Since the blogging platform was founded in 2007, I've certainly seen my share of Tumblr blogs, and I've even setup a few of my own -- and then just as quickly I abandoned those experiments.

Frankly, there hasn't been much pressure for marketers to learn about Tumblr: Facebook, Twitter, and -- these days -- Pinterest get the lion's share of press in the marketing world. There's probably a good reason why Tumblr doesn't get much love from marketers: Relatively few brands have used the platform in their marketing initiatives, and only a handful have done it particularly well. But despite its lack of traction with brands, Tumblr has a solid following with agency folks, especially creatives. As a Digiday article explained a few months back, "inside agencies, the cool kids are agog about Tumblr."

So why is Tumblr relevant to digital marketers? That's a question I put to several agency staffers who run their own Tumblr accounts. I'll get to those answers and some highlights from their fantastic Tumblrs in a second. But before we get to that, it's worth taking a look at Tumblr's broader cultural appeal.

Tumblr away!

Tumblr is growing fast
Last summer, comScore reported that Tumblr scored 13.4 million unique visitors in the U.S. in July. That's a 218 percent jump over the same time last year.

The Tumblr community is big and active
Tumblr has a blog tracker that highlights the platform's appeal. Here's a recent screen grab that demonstrates just how popular Tumblr is.

Young people love Tumblr
I first heard this from my 18-year-old brother-in-law. If his friends blog -- and many do -- they tend to choose Tumblr because you can be up and posting within minutes. Or, as Christine Taffe, an intern at Haberman put it: "Bottom-line, Tumblr is the most straightforward blogging platform out there. The frills are there, but you don't need to bother with them if you don't want them."

Blogger, by comparison, just seems a little old school. WordPress, arguably the web's workhouse blogging platform, is great, but it tends to require a little more planning and building before blogging.

Last year's comScore's numbers tend to support this point.

"To date, Tumblr's popularity has been strongest among the teen and college-aged user segments," Andrew Lipsman wrote on the comScore blog. "In fact, 50 percent of Tumblr's visitor base is under the age of 25. Teenagers age 12-17 are about twice as likely as the average Internet user to visit Tumblr, while 18-24 year olds are nearly 2.5 [times] as likely."

But while the millennial generation is certainly a fan of Tumblr, Taffe is quick to point out that the platform's popularity is mostly about preferences. Understanding those preferences, whether you're an individual user or a brand, is the key to success on Tumblr, she says.

"If your brand can be conveyed visually, Tumblr is the best platform because it's fast and high-resolution image based," Taffe said. "Many brands specifically in the fashion space are very into Tumblr because it allows them to produce a constantly updated 'mood board' of sorts. It allows consumers to understand a brand more holistically -- as a lifestyle -- rather than just a retailer."

Big things percolate up from Tumblr
It's hard to say exactly where the Occupy Wall Street began, but it certainly got a big boost from Tumblr. This snippet is from The Atlantic's coverage of last year's biggest social movement:

"The OWS movement's slogan has been popularized by a 'wearethe99percent' Tumblr, consisting of about 700 pictures of people holding up signs about why they're angry with the system."

Tumblr is meme-friendly
Memes have their own unique place in the marketing world, but Tumblr is especially friendly to memes. The reason? Tumblr has a reblog button. Much like Twitter's retweet, the reblog button lets the Tumblr community share a good idea quickly and -- hopefully -- virally. But unlike Twitter, where users most click on a link to view a picture, Tumblr puts the meme right in front of the target audience right away.

Tumblr is multimedia
Some Tumblr accounts are just pictures; others are videos and text. But from a multimedia standpoint, Tumblr is an agnostic platform. No matter what form the media takes, Tumblr makes it pretty easy to post, share, and repurpose media. Here are some rather eye-popping stats from Tumblr on how -- and what -- its community shares: "The average Tumblr user creates 14 original posts each month, and reblogs 3. Half of those posts are photos. The rest are split between text, links, quotes, music, and video."


Peter Reid, creative director at Huge operates Thunderball, his personal Tumblr account dedicated to "What I find, what I see, what I cook, what I'm working on, what I want to drive, what I listen to, where I want to go."

In short, Thunderball "displays an accurate representation of my true self to others, and the things that make me tick," said Reid.

But Tumblr isn't just a platform for self-expression for Reid: Using Tumblr has taught him that there are digital tools out there that "everyone can use, and use easily."

Tumblr is also incredibly aspirational, even if brands aren't using it to speak directly to consumers.

"I've learned that someone with good taste, a hot opinion, a collection of similar ideas or images or a great sense of humor, can attract a fierce following without a lot of hard work," said Reid. "It has created a venue for tastemakers to easily display their will to impress others, mostly through the people they want to be and the things they want to have."

But so far, Reid says he hasn't seen many clients jump on the Tumblr bandwagon.

"We once proposed a 'fake' Tumblr for a lead character in a movie, as a way to display his unique and twisted mind, but it never made it live," said Reid.

Ms Lipmann/How To Be Ridiculous

Anna Lipmann, a junior brand planner at 22squared, maintains two Tumblr accounts. Ms Lipmann focuses on Lipmann's professional endeavors, serving as a platform for her to share work-related insights with her team and the industry at large. By contrast, How To Be Ridiculous is a little more personal, giving Lipmann an outlet for "food, fashion, and little bit of everything." But Lipmann's overall engagement with Tumblr has been invaluable in helping her to understand the changes that sweep across digital on a regular basis.

"Tumblr keeps me current to a degree that I haven't been able to find through any other platform," said Lipmann. "It's the perfect way to get a personally curated, well-rounded view of what's going on in the industry, usually with more interesting insider information than I'd get from an RSS reader."

Tumblr has also taught Lipmann valuable lessons about a social media buzzword -- community.

"Tumblr's community emulates what community is in the physical world better than almost any other social platform I've come across," said Lipmann. "In the real world, when you first enter a community, it's a bit awkward: You might not know anyone, or have a feel for the community dynamics. But as time passes and you interact and engage, it becomes more and more comfortable; you begin to understand the nuances, the rules, how things work. It's the same with Tumblr; the more comfortable you get, the more useful it becomes."

But although Lipmann says she's pitched some brand clients on Tumblr, the platform probably isn't a great fit -- at least not right now -- for most brands. One reason she cites is that Tumblr doesn't have a robust reporting function. So beyond using Google analytics, it's tough to measure ROI for a Tumblr campaign. Still, Lipmann points out that some brands like Kate Spade New York and publications like GQ do especially well because they "know their audience and give them relevant content."

But even big brands like Coca-Cola can flop with the Tumblr crowd, says Lipmann.

"The example I come back to most of a brand not fully understanding what their users are looking for in this space is Coca-Cola," said Lipmann. "The product it's promoting isn't conducive to what Tumblr's community is looking for, and as a result, its posts have extremely low engagement. Tumblr is about curating the right content, and if a brand's going to succeed in it or any other digital medium, there has to be a clear strategy when it comes to what it's posting."

I Sell Moss

Sarah Mosseller is a copywriter at Mullen North Carolina. Her Tumblr account, I Sell Moss, is an ongoing archive for snippets of digital creative that move her, and she confesses, "it's kind of addicting."

"A great deal of the creative process is making connections -- finding inspiration, infusing personal style and experience, and at the end of it all, making it relevant and memorable to a complete stranger," said Mosseller. "As a creative, I am always on the hunt for something that stops me in my tracks and makes me pay attention. And in this crazy industry, where being 'on' every day is vital, it helps to have a very visceral source of constant inspiration. Tumblr's microblogging platform combines the best of the social media out there today -- it's highly visual. Users aren't restricted to a character count but typically post in short and easy-to-digest bits. A great deal of the content revolves around art, film, emerging technology, and pop culture -- the things we pull from most in advertising."

But while Mosseller uses Tumblr primarily as a clearinghouse for inspirational creative, she also says she's learned a lot from Tumblr about how digital is reshaping our understanding of community.

"Using Tumblr has reinforced my belief that as time goes on, the communities we form online will be as valuable to us as those we have offline," said Mosseller. "Social media allows us to overcome our financial and physical limitations to create contact and form lasting relationships with people we otherwise probably would never meet. These communities make it especially important as marketers and advertisers to speak to individuals, rather than crafting a message to the masses. People expect conversations. They expect for brands to sound like human beings, and if you aren't doing that, then you are really missing out on making lasting relationships with the people who matter most to your brand."

Seth Weisfeld / Girls Trying On My Glasses

As a creative director at Huge, Seth Weisfeld uses his eponymous Tumblr account as a repository for stunning photography.

"Maintaining a Tumblr photo blog is a great creative outlet for me," Weisfeld explains. "It helps me develop and hone my art direction style and eye for photography without the constraints of clients or briefs. It's also a nice space to collect feedback from my peers on the content I publish and learn what engages and resonates with people."

But Weisfeld also has another Tumblr account that's a great example of how memes can play especially well online. Below is just one of the many photos you'll find on Weisfeld's aptly named Girls Trying On My Glasses.

"This blog happened because girls are always asking if they can try on my glasses," Weisfeld explained. "I realized I had about a dozen photos of girls wearing them on my phone and it just felt like a Tumblr waiting to happen. Now I have a strict policy that if a girl tries them on, I have to take a photo of her and of course it ends up on the blog. I think the blog resonates with online audiences because it's voyeuristic and a bit of fun, flirty shenanigans -- and who doesn't love a bit of playful shenanigans?"

Of course, it's not all fun and games for Weisfeld, who sees Tumblr as a great way to get insights into online audiences.

"Tumblr is a great blogging platform to learn about digital culture, what content is most interesting for online audiences and how content spreads over the Internet," he said. "The main actions of the site (following, liking, and reblogging) are at the core of digital sharing behavior. Watching which content gets reblogged and liked the most -- and in turn earns you more followers -- is great for developing a sense of what content people want to see more of and how they are finding it."

Andrew Harper / Pets With Casts

Andrew Harper is an "avid Tumblr user." He's also art director at The Richards Group. Harper's Tumblr accounts include Andrew Harper and Pets With Casts.

On the one hand, Harper says he uses Tumblr to instantly stay on top of what's going on. "If you follow the right people, you can be fed everything you need to keep on top of what's happening," Harper said. "I can spend five minutes jamming through my feed and be up-to-date, inspired and entertained. It is very efficient."

But Harper says Tumblr also pushes him to be a better creative: "Seeing what others like and create, stretches me. It forces me out of my box. It keeps my mind churning and working to find better, smarter, more fun and more moving ideas."

While Harper says he's learned a lot by being on Tumblr, one of the most interesting lessons he has to share is about how digital is shrinking our world.

"The world isn't shrinking," said Harper. "It's shrunk. Thailand is a thumb tap away. I follow one person from every continent. I have a glimpse of daily life on the Gold Coast of Australia, the life of a guy and his bicycle in Thailand, the design career of a guy in Spain and the mind of a journalist in Venezuela."

Those who follow Harper also get some interesting insights.

Pets With Casts is another great example of a meme that can crowd-source dynamite creative and keep users entertained for hours.

By contrast, like many other agency creatives, Harper uses his personal Tumblr account to archive the creative that most inspires and excites him.

But while Harper is truly passionate about Tumblr, he says that convincing brand clients to jump on board hasn't been easy.

"I have pitched a few Tumblr pages. There can be a couple problems with brands using Tumblr. First, it's hard for them to see value in it. There are so many other places they want to put their resources and it is hard to measure ROI. Secondly, a company can run into usage issues when they try to post pictures and videos. I work on a brand that has beautiful imagery that people would love to see daily, but we would have to pay usage fees that would cancel out the benefit of using a free site like Tumblr. Third, most brands don't see the Tumblr audience as their target. They are nervous about what they don't know. I've seen this with the early days of Facebook and now with Pinterest, too. Most people don't see value in these experiences until everyone is there. Only then do they realize the upside. Despite this, I think Tumblr could be a valuable resource for a brand. I think any social media can be valuable for a brand. People want to have a conversation or be entertained. Those are two of the pillars of social media. You just have to shift your thinking away from one-sided communication to a two-way conversation."

Michael Estrin is a freelance writer.

On Twitter? Follow Estrin at @mestrin. Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.

"Graffiti seamless background" image and "Large empty room" image via Shutterstock.

Michael Estrin is freelance writer. He contributes regularly to iMedia, Bankrate.com, and California Lawyer Magazine. But you can also find his byline across the Web (and sometimes in print) at Digiday, Fast...

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