Tumblr Goes Mainstream

January 5, 2012


If social networks were characters from The Breakfast Club, Tumblr would be Ally Sheedy's Allison Reynolds. She may be quiet and quirky compared to Molly Ringwald's uber-popular Claire, but she's more artistic, cleans-up nice, and is the character that all the cool kids like the best anyway.


Tumblr has had a slow rise to mainstream prominence with steady growth over the years. The micro-blogging site lets users post and share their thoughts, art and literally everything else. It's spawned a number of hilarious memes and is slowly starting to hit the radar of large brands.


I don't think that this is particularly friendly territory for advertisers, which are looking at its growth rate with lust in their hearts. That kind of interaction isn't really what the site is about. Where one might 'Like' a brand on Facebook out of brand affinity, or follow a favorite celebrity on Twitter to catch their every passing thought, Tumblr is the home of the exceptional ordinary person. You follow people on Tumblr because you like their aesthetic or think they're funny, not because they make your favorite drink and you want a coupon.  


However, some news brands are navigating these waters with ease. The NPR Fresh Air Tumblr does a great job of posting click worthy content that fits in seamlessly with its eclectic surroundings. They rarely post actual Fresh Air content, opting to creatively tease upcoming shows with funny gifs, pictures or songs. Their built-in fan base and trendy vibe set them apart and as a result they are able to inspire a surprising amount of interaction. They are, however, an outlier.


Most of the branding attempts on Tumblr just seem tone-deaf, or uninspired. Many brands simply post their stories with a thumbnail. Now don't get me wrong, I love The New Yorker, I follow them on Tumblr simply because of its brand but its posts are noise to me. I'm not trying to read about about Mitt Romney on Tumblr, I want to look at pictures of kittens or this awesomeness.


Time and Newsweek work well on the platform because they are photo heavy publications and Tumblr is a largely visual network. Tumblr has built in sections for 'News' and 'Politics' that have semi-active users but even they seem out of place. So while users have the option to explore news on the site to read about Ron Paul, for example, it's far more likely that they will spend time looking at Ron [Paul] Swanson.


While Facebook and Twitter are fairly ubiquitous, few brands "fit in" on Tumblr. It's a mind-dump; it's where you go to waste two hours that you could have otherwise spent enriching your life in some meaningful way. Brands that win out in this space are those that are able to turn their content into brain candy. It's hard to balance that as a news organization when your brand vision is likely centered on maintaining credibility and gravitas. It's too much dissonance for most to overcome.  


I think this highlights something that social media enthusiasts need to keep sight of, social media is defined by user preference ,which means brand messages need to be relevant. Some brands and industries just aren't relevant to certain networks - what doesn't work on Tumblr or Path, might explode on Twitter or shine on Facebook. I want to stress that this is the ‘state of affairs’ on Tumblr currently - as time progresses and the platform becomes more mainstream it's likely that this will change.