BuzzFeed unleashed a viral sensation in February 2015 when it plucked a photo of a dress from Tumblr and posted it on its site. “The Dress” didn’t just garner BuzzFeed 28 million views in a day, it also helped show BuzzFeed the power of Tumblr.
Since then, BuzzFeed has turned greater attention to the platform that brought it “The Dress.” Cates Holderness, the community team member who discovered The Dress photo while managing BuzzFeed’s Tumblr, has since made it her full-time focus. In that time, BuzzFeed’s Tumblr following has more than doubled to top 1 million.
Parent company Yahoo may have made a mess out of Tumblr financially, and the platform is no more than a rounding error for publishers in terms of referral traffic. In December, it contributed less than a tenth of a percent of publishers’ social traffic, according to Shareaholic. But dedicated ones like BuzzFeed say the find value in its ability to reach a young, style-conscious and socially active audience they can’t find elsewhere — even if there aren’t opportunities to make money directly from their efforts.
“Tumblr can be a very difficult brand to crack,” Holderness said. “It seems like a very insular community. But personally, it’s my favorite platform. We talk about Tumblr as one community, but it’s really made up of hundreds of thousands of small communities. It provides access to a lot of underrepresented audiences.”
BuzzFeed maintains about a dozen Tumblrs; Holderness runs the main one, started in 2007, as well as a few others, including ones for its food spinoff, Tasty, and one devoted to “weird” content. Before she took over Tumblr full-time, Holderness was posting on the main account around three times a day. Now, she’s up to around 10 posts a day.
BuzzFeed’s test-and-learn approach is no different on Tumblr. Holderness uses Tumblr to promote BuzzFeed content that’s performing well on other platforms; editorial projects that might not be widely known; and content that might appeal to Tumblr’s many activist communities, like this Black History Month one that got 150,000 notes (likes, blogs and comments).
Video is another area of experimentation. It’s increasingly popular on other platforms, and Holderness is trying to figure out the best way to use it on Tumblr. Depending on the video’s quality and content, she might post the video, via YouTube embed or via Tumblr’s native autoplay video feature for shorter videos; or a gif and screenshot with a link back to BuzzFeed.com.
“If we’re doing a week on body dysmorphia,” Holderness said, “I’m going to tag things to be possible trigger warnings. Or, if we’re doing a video on the Stanford rape case, I’m going to tag it as ‘rape’ so I don’t upset the audience,” she said. “People feel things so deeply and look at Tumblr as a safe place, and I want to be sensitive to that.”
Because it’s not a traffic driver, the metric for success on Tumblr is how many notes a post gets. That’s because the audience is “really discerning,” said Mark Coatney, who used to run media for Tumblr. Whereas people are known to retweet things they haven’t even read, when people reblog on Tumblr, it’s not just a gesture. “It tends to be more meaningful.”
For BuzzFeed, a really good post will get 100,000 notes; that happens a couple times a month, as it did with this “Captain America” Q&A that got 575,000 notes. But Holderness said she isn’t just going for volume; she’s also interested in how substantive the comments are.
Tumblr is also a way to foster community engagement. Holderness also gets hundreds of messages a day; she can’t answer them all, but is able to reply to about 25 a day.
“We get messages from people literally all over the world,” she said. “They’re people who are in Brazil who are messaging us because of our Zika coverage. People in the U.K., talking about Brexit. It’s an audience that’s hard to reach in other places.”