Tumblr Bets on Big-Name Publishers

Twitter used its entree with celebrities — hello @aplusk and @oprah! — to build a tech platform into a media juggernaut. Tumblr is hoping to do the same, only it’s banking on old-school media properties to popularize its platform and create the kind of safe environments that will attract brand-advertising dollars.

The reason Tumblr is so into old-school publishers — The Atlantic, Newsweek and Mother Jones have set up shop on Tumblr — is that it has to be known as something more than a random collection of Web oddities, such as Is Ryan Gosling Cuter Than a Puppy. Those kinds of sites, while undeniably popular, will remain difficult to build a business on, since they tend to look like a collection of long-tail sites that draw bottom-of-the barrel ad pricing.“At Tumblr, there’s a recognition that Tumblr is better when you get better stuff on it,” said Mark Coatney, Tumblr’s media evangelist. “And whether that’s making young kids happy and engaged and doing meet ups or whether that means bringing in The Economist, in any of those things, the more good stuff that goes on Tumblr, the better it is for everyone on Tumblr.”

The pitch: Tumblr is huge and growing fast. In the past year, Tumblr’s pageviews have grown to 13 billion and according to Quantcast, the site is the 24th largest site garnering roughly 86 million unique visitors per month. Additionally, Coatney said it has about 38 million users and roughly 300 media properties.

Coatney saw this firsthand at Newsweek, where he worked prior to joining Tumblr in July 2010. Newsweek’s Tumblr, at the direction of Coatney, became the model; it showed that a media property could be authentic. Coatney didn’t just promote Newsweek’s content, but other outlets as well, and curated content in an approachable, personal way.

That’s attracted a raft of media brands to join Tumblr. They all have different approaches, but most post a mix of original-to-Tumblr content and links to content – both from their sites and from other news outlets. Getting the mix right is critical. Blackbook, which started using Tumblr in 2007, now sees more traffic to its site from Tumblr than Twitter or Facebook. Mother Jones, which has a popular Tumblr, sees more traffic from Facebook and StumbleUpon but still believes its Tumblr, which is maintained by a trio of writers, helps it reach new audiences.

“We’ve found (Tumblr) works best when you let it work organically rather than trying to push a particular issue,” said Adam Weinstein, a reporter at Mother Jones. “It’s a place that makes it much easier to have a conversation with your audience, which makes us more responsive as a news organization.”

The challenge for Tumblr is convincing resource-strapped publishers that maintaining a Tumblr is a good use of time. After all, there’s no way for pubs to directly make money off their efforts unless users end up back on their sites. (Mother Jones, as a non-profit, can afford to be less diligent on this front.) Some publishers, such as Capital New York, report seeing only a trickle of traffic back from Tumblr.

“Tumblr certainly doesn’t bring us a huge amount of traffic directly, but I think it does come through from other side doors,” said Gillian Reagan, Capital New York’s public editor. “There is a wonderful writer community on Tumblr, and they pay attention to what we post. Influential writers and readers might see a piece of a story we put on Tumblr, read it and share it on their Twitter or Facebook.”

When discussing what the best metric is to measure the efficacy of Tumblr, Coatney takes a page from the advertising theory playbook. “I always say, if someone says, ‘I love your thing,’ that’s the best metric,” he said. “The thing when I was at Newsweek that I thought was the most relevant, was when people would write, ‘I love your Tumblr.’”

There’s a symbiotic relationship between media and Tumblr, which is a piece of the Tumblr growth strategy. Media’s use of Tumblr has helped the service increase its user-base by bringing media outlets’ information-hungry audiences to Tumblr, where media consumers can read (and in some cases watch) news from their favorite newspapers, magazines and TV programs. Media has been able to use the Tumblr ecosystem to cultivate a community tied to their content.

Newsweek, which now maintains three different Tumblrs, also doesn’t see much traffic to its site from Tumblr but recognizes the benefits of being able “to connect with an audience outside the usual network of Newsweek/Daily Beast readers,” according to Newsweek senior writer Jessica Bennett.

The question for Tumblr is whether this enthusiasm, particularly from more budget-conscious bosses in media organizations, will continue when there’s so little in the way of tangible benefit, i.e., ad dollars.

Blackbook, for one, is trying to make money directly from its Tumblr. It is running recipes from advertiser Don Q rum on its Tumblr as part of a larger ad deal.

“We’ve made money off Tumblr, but we haven’t made appreciable money off of Twitter or Facebook,” said Chris Mohney, Blackbook’s senior vice president of content. “I’m very bullish on Tumblr and continue to make sure our sales people are aware of it, and even if we can’t pop open the hood and give our clients all these complicated metrics, what we can do is pull out the success of these things and put on the reception we get from the community if they’re done properly.”

Tumblr has yet to provide those kinds of deep analytics — or a clear path for publishers to incorporate ads in their Tumblrs. Coatney’s mantra, like many evangelists: Have faith and do the right thing.

“That is the key value, because then you can do whatever; you can ask them to do things for you – send us money,” he said. “But once they love you, they’ll do that for you.”


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