You’ve probably heard the old chestnut: a man who had a few too many at the pub is searching for his lost keys on the circle of pavement lit by the streetlight above. A passer-by asks, “Why are you only looking there?” The man answers, “Because that’s where the light is!” YouTube has over a billion unique monthly visitors. Facebook has over 800 million active users visiting each day. The over 250 million active Twitter users send over 500 million Tweets per day. Over 200 million Instagrammers have shared over 20 billion photos. Brands focus their marketing efforts on these sites because “that’s where the light is.”
Like the man in the story, though, they might be missing out by failing to consider other possibilities. Microblogging platform Tumblr has flown under the radar since its sale to Yahoo. The platform doesn’t disclose its user numbers, but speculators analyzing the Yahoo sale pegged the number of monthly actives in the 30 to 50 million range. Those users, though, were drawing 300 million visitors to the platform each month at that time.
Tumblr may have a smaller user base than FB, Twitter, YouTube, or Instagram, but its users are dedicated and engaged. The platform provides brands an opportunity to play and experiment in a way that isn’t possible on other platforms. And because it’s a smaller platform, with fewer brands, it’s easier to cut through the noise.
So how can brands use Tumblr effectively?
#1 Know the Culture
Tumblr is full of quirky niche communities, which is why it’s such a great place for brands to experiment. This is the place where memes like “Hey Girl” are born, making Tumblr in some ways the kinder, friendlier, Web 2.0 version of 4Chan. (And we mean that in the nicest possible way.)
Since Tumblr is a culture of subcultures, brands have the opportunity to share part of their brand story without worrying about mass appeal. Lincoln, for example, has a Tumblr on which it curates photos of vintage Capris, Cosmopolitans, and Continentals.
Lincoln’s Tumblr is an example of a brand taking the time to understand the culture of the platform before crafting its approach. As they considered their Tumblr marketing plan, they realized that the hashtag “#vintage” was one of the most popular on the site. How better to showcase an iconic American brand than by sharing classic images of their classic cars?
That approach – a simple stream of curated images, presented virtually without comment – wouldn’t really work on any other platform. But for Tumblr, it’s perfect. The popularity of the “#vintage” hashtag makes it easy for users to stumble upon Lincoln’s content. And since a significant portion of Tumblr posts are reblogs, it’s likely that many of these images will be seen by a far larger audience than Lincoln’s own followers.
#2 Use Tumblr’s Tools To Build the Right Site for Your Brand
Tumblr has made it easy to set up and customize a site on the platform. So easy, in fact, that Tumblr blogs have been set up to react to events almost in real time – the most famous example of this being, of course, “Binders Full of Women,” set up moments after Mitt Romney uttered the phrase during a 2012 presidential debate.
Users can choose from a variety of free templates, or shop around. Either way, a Tumblr site can be up and running in the time it takes to make a cup of coffee. That’s a significantly lower barrier to entry than a traditional web site; the equivalent of a ready-to-wear dress, compared to bespoke tailoring.
To continue the dress analogy, brands can try on different styles easily to see what works best. Even each post is incredibly flexible – want to post video? A GIF? An image? A link? A quote? An audio file? Sure, easy peasy.
And it’s not just the surface appearance of the blog that can be customized. Users can adapt the functionality of the site in a variety of ways:
• Edit the web address to use your own domain name
• Add static pages, like a traditional web site
• Add an “ask” widget to get feedback from users
• Collaborate with others – ask for submissions
• Integrate with other social media
• Use tags to organize ideas and themes
• Link every image back to your Tumblr so that even when your content is reblogged, it can easily lead back to you
One brand making the most of the creative laboratory that is Tumblr is Whole Foods. Their Dark Rye blog is a feast for the eyes – a sleek, stylish stream of video and images to delight the senses. It’s a good fit for a brand hoping to inspire and delight grocery shoppers, who can then scroll through the Tumblr on their mobile phones as they push a cart through the aisles.
A very different visual style can be seen on the Sharpie Tumblr, which is full of bright color and playful imagery. The tags at the bottom of each post even look as if they’ve been struck through with a highlighter – a perfect motif for a purveyor of pens and markers.
#3 Engaging Content is Everything
Branded messages are ubiquitous. Consumers see them plastered all over both the real and the virtual world. To create a Tumblr community, brands need to be posting engaging, interesting content.
Videos, GIFs, and striking photos or image macros are some of the best ways to visually engage an audience on Tumblr – remember, this is the platform which gave birth to the Ryan Gosling “Hey Girl” meme. Popular brands on Tumblr like Disney and Sesame Street feature tons of this kind of highly shareable visual content, as does Red Bull (I can’t get enough of this GIF of two guys in a giant hamster ball).
Lincoln, which I mentioned above, has its own vast archives of imagery to draw upon – images that may be hard to find anywhere else. Vintage car enthusiasts may be a small audience, but it’s better to get deeper engagement from a small audience than shallow engagement from a large audience. The former is the best way for marketing to have a meaningful impact, and marketing that doesn’t seem like marketing is far more palatable to consumers burned out on commercial messages.
Although its Tumblr functions in a completely different way from Lincoln’s, Sephora is another brand that clearly understands how to engage its audience. Sephora’s Tumblr, which maintains a look consistent with their main web site, features tutorials, “haul” videos by well-known YouTube vloggers, crisp photography, and “behind-the-scenes” profiles of Sephora employees and makeup brand founders.
Some brands are under-utilizing Tumblr’s potential. Nature Valley (yes, the granola bars) has some beautiful images and quotes on its site, but is publishing static images almost exclusively. The brand is missing the opportunity to publish highly engaging video and GIFs; as is, a lot of its images – although pretty – might as well be stock photos from the “outdoorsy” file.
As-is, it’s not clear that the brand is making much of a distinction between Tumblr and Instagram. Video and GIF content – especially if the brand reblogged content from users who are fans of the product – would be the perfect way to differentiate across platforms, show the product being used in context authentically, and buils a community around the site.
#4 Play Well With Others
Informational content is not only a great way to engage an audience; useful tips and tutorials are far more likely to be shared (not just on Tumblr, but on other social platforms as well) than traditional advertisements. Look at this Ben & Jerry’s GIF showing a miniature “baked Alaska” being made: it’s mesmerizing, and the recipe is posted underneath, making it eminently shareable.
And since Tumblr is, after all, social media, brands needn’t and shouldn’t post their own content exclusively. Reblogging content created by others is a great way to create and strengthen a sense of community around a site. Ben & Jerry’s frequently reblogs “ice cream selfies.”
The Sharpie Tumblr, mentioned earlier, consists almost entirely of reblogs – a great way to showcase customer creations, and to encourage customers to share and tag videos and images that connect to the brand.
Tumblr has encouraged a sense of goodwill and community from the ground up. On much of the internet, comments sections are notoriously unpleasant – like the Bog of Eternal Stench in Labyrinth, but less picturesque. Some platforms have had to revamp their comment moderation systems to address this, but Tumblr designed its communication methods to circumvent these problems.
Tumblr Founder David Karp has said in interviews that the reblog system was designed to prevent the hit-and-run aspect of Internet commenting: in order to comment on another user’s post, the commenter has to publish it to their own Tumblr – making it harder to twist the original poster’s words, and forcing the commenter to take ownership of their critique in their own space.
Likewise, the messaging feature is named “fan mail,” described on Tumblr’s page for brands as a “way to send nice messages,” and takes on the appearance of a friendly note on lined paper. This rhetoric – even the visual rhetoric – clearly is intended to encourage users to be civil to one another in their communications.
Brands should absolutely be taking advantage of this, both by encouraging feedback from visitors to their Tumblr sites, and by sending out compliments to relevant content creators on the platform. Remember: building a community is the most important goal. From a brand perspective, deep engagement with even a small audience on social media is more effective and useful than shallow engagement with a large audience.
Brands who really want to step it up should also consider collaborating with content creators on Tumblr. Brand integrations are common on YouTube, but marketers are only just beginning to embrace this strategy on Tumblr. It’s a great way to reach a new audience, though, as followers of FashGif know. The artist, who creates clever GIFs from fashion photography, has a long list of collaborations under her belt.
Target, on its “On the Dot” Tumblr, is another major brand that reaches out to the Tumblr community, blogging fashion bloggers who have incorporated items from Target into their looks. The platform itself emphasizes community in its guide for brands, saying, “The more you like and reblog others’ posts, the more likely they will be to like and reblog yours. And the more your content gets reblogged, the more others will see it.”
#5 Don’t Be Afraid to Fail
It seems funny to talk about the “old model” in the context of new media, but the industry has evolved so rapidly that we’ve already seen significant changes in how marketers approach their audience. Brands used to strive for the “viral” video or image. Now, marketers are realizing that constantly striving for “viral” is a losing proposition. If it does happen – great! But if all you’ve worked on is that viral content, you have nothing to sustain interest in the brand. To prevent that problem, more and more brands are turning to the “hero, hub, hygiene” approach.
Given Tumblr’s ease of use, niche audience appeal, visual emphasis, and overall friendliness, the platform is ideally situated as a creative lab for brands. On Tumblr, brands can throw out tons of “hygiene” content and see what works. Post videos, GIFs, images, and blog posts relevant to your audience, and see what gets people excited. Ask for feedback. Rinse and repeat.
Once you know what interests your audience, you’ll have a better sense of what kind of “hub” and “hero” content is worth investing in. To use another ice cream example, Ben & Jerry’s created “hub” content on Tumblr around Free Cone Day, a yearly in-store event. Other brands, like Sephora, create “hub” content around the changing seasons.
By paying attention to what hygiene and hub content visitors find most appealing, brands can get a sense of what kind of “hero” content will be most worth the investment – when and how to act like an advertiser, and push out content designed to attract the broadest audience possible across all social media.
In other words, Tumblr is a platform where brands shouldn’t be afraid to fail – but it is a place where brands can learn how to succeed.