Why Few Brands Are on Tumblr

Tumblr seems to have all the makings of the next big thing — skyrocketing traffic, a cool factor, even a quirky founder — yet there’s one thing it’s missing: much in the way of brand interest.

This is curious since brands now seem to flock to just about every social platform that shows signs of life. Tumblr has plenty of life. It has gone from zero to 60 over the last year — more accurately, from about 16 million global unique visitors in October of last year to over 43 million unique global visitors this past October, according to ComScore. Its audience is young, hip trendsetters. Tumblr blogs have given birth to books (like “Rules for My Unborn Son” and “Pets Who Want to Kill Themselves”) and daily cultural phenomena in the form of memes (planking took off there). It’s grown important enough that President Obama now has his own Tumblr ahead of the 2012 election.And yet, despite all this momentum, Tumblr remains mostly free of brands clamoring for followers and reblogs. It has yet to see the kind of rush of brands that Facebook, Twitter and Foursquare saw at far smaller scale than Tumblr — or even that Google Plus has seen. Tumblr doesn’t run traditional banner advertising. Instead, like other social media platforms, it hopes brands will join as content creators first. That’s proven a difficult sell.“The cutting-edge part of me sees the advantage of Tumblr,” said Adam Kmiec, director of social media for Walgreens, “but the realist in me is, like, how am I going to sell this to the rest of the company?”Tumblr faces a mix of challenges, some unique to its new style blogging platform and some well known to any rising digital star. The nature of Tumblr itself is a challenge. What has made Tumblr so popular with the general population is that it offers users an experience that is somewhere between blogging and Facebooking or Tweeting. The content on Tumblr is not just short text posts like on Facebook and Twitter, and it’s not lengthy five-paragraph posts like on WordPress. It is somewhere in the middle, and it is much more visual than any of these other platforms. As Tumblr’s media evangelist Mark Coatney sees it, Tumblr is “a network of interests rather than people who know each other. This gives more flexibility and expression to your brand.“

That’s a vague message for many brands to comprehend and apply to their businesses. With fits and starts, brands found a place for themselves on Twitter and Facebook. Twitter was the place for coupon offers and updates, while Facebook was where brands could set up shop to connect with their customers through likes. An “interest network” certainly sounds appealing in the abstract, but what exactly does that mean to a mega-brand like Coke?

“Tumblr can talk about scale, but the problem is it’s not scalable from an advertising standpoint,” said Ian Schafer, CEO of digital agency Deep Focus. “It defies categorization. It’s a canvas that’s not hung in any particular gallery, and that’s risky for a brand.”

Brands could be forgiven for looking at Tumblr and seeing a user-friendly and prettier Blogger — more of a content-management system than a defined community like Twitter and Facebook. Not much of interest there. But Diana Hong, creative director at New York digital shop Create The Group, believes brands are missing out if they write off Tumblr as a backend blog platform.

“If a brand has an idea of what their voice is on Tumblr, then that works,” she said. “It’s about creating a culture.”

Ironically, it was brands from the fashion industry, long notorious for behind-the-times digital efforts, that most grasped this message. Fashion bloggers became a real thing because of Tumblr (that’s why people like Tavi Gevinson and Rumi Neely get front-row seats at fashion shows), and fashion houses quickly took note and joined the Tumblr fashion conversation. Many fashion brands and clothing stores like Oscar de la Renta (one of Create The Group’s clients), Topshop and Urban Outfitters have taken advantage of Tumblr’s visual capabilities to do things like showing behind-the-scenes looks at runway shows and displaying new looks, designer inspirations and so on. For example, Oscar de la Renta did an offshoot from its Tumblr Oscar PR Girl  called Oscar de la Renta Live, which used a hashtag and crowdsourced content from bloggers, runway show audience members and online viewers watching the show live to engage people and to showcase the Spring 2012 collection.

And yet that leaves the Coke question. Why isn’t the most famous brand in the world, which has over 36 million Facebook fans, using Tumblr? For that matter, the most social brands in the world like Starbucks, Red Bull and Pepsi are all missing from this vibrant and growing platform. A few have dabbled in using Tumblr for campaigns — Burger King created a Tumblr as part of a monthlong campaign a year ago — but none have established a lasting foothold.

“Tumblr is about expressing creativity, and that’s intimidating to brands,” theorized Schafer. “The first filter that I would apply to the person considering doing anything on Tumblr is ‘are you interesting?’ You have to be legitimately interesting.”

The rich visual aspect of Tumblr along with the platform’s social capabilities (like reblogging and following) and ease of use are what have made it so popular for meme-centric blogs like Feminist Ryan Gosling or Hot Chicks of Occupy Wall Street, which pull from current pop culture and events and become viral sensations over night. Yet most brands look at those creations and don’t see much relation to the type of things they broadcast. Buttoned-down Facebook just feels more comfortable.

“It was surprising to hear from certain brands that they didn’t know what Tumblr was,” said Hong. “They didn’t know about it or the difference between that and WordPress and Blogger.”

But maybe it isn’t that surprising: Tumblr has not yet made public any monetization plans and accordingly has not actively gone after brands and companies. (Some have speculated that Tumblr will institute a Twitter-like “promoted accounts” program that offers publishers and brands more visibility to increase their audience on the platform.) Its one heavy foray with brands came around Fashion Week, and that didn’t exactly go smoothly. Fashion brands criticized Tumblr for demanding too much money for things like banner ad placement, product placement and Tumblr blogger appearances and for ignoring fashion brands that have regularly supported Tumblr.

“I’m not sure Tumblr has done themselves any favors by not courting any large enterprises,” said Kmiec. “I can’t think of the last time I got a call or LinkedIn invite or email from the folks at Tumblr.”

Because of Tumblr’s mix of social, blogging and visual aspects, it takes a certain amount of time and creative energy for a brand to figure out its content strategy for Tumblr; and that may not be something that all brands are willing to do, or that all brands are even well-suited for. For example, General Electric has a Tumblr that gives followers an inside look at research labs and manufacturing plants, not exactly very exciting stuff.

“Google Plus made the same mistake, just thinking about end users rather than thinking about how enterprises would use it,” Kmiec said. “When you don’t think about how companies are going to leverage your platform, it’s like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.”


More in Marketing

In the marketing world, anime is following in the footsteps of gaming

As marketers look to take advantage of anime’s entry into the zeitgeist, they might be wise to observe the parallels between the evolution of anime as a marketing channel and the ways brands have learned to better leverage gaming in recent years. 

With the introduction of video ads and e-commerce, Roblox looks to attain platform status

Roblox is expanding into more areas than just ads in 2024. Much like platforms such as Amazon and Facebook have transcended their origins to evolve from their origins as online marketplaces and social media channels, Roblox is in the midst of a transformation into a platform for all elements of users’ virtual lives.