Tumblr’s mobile-first pitch for brand ad dollars

Tumblr recently reached its mobile tipping point: For the first time in the company’s history, the site’s mobile traffic exceeded its desktop traffic. With more than 25 million mobile U.S. unique visitors in April and 23 million on desktop, Tumblr is officially a predominantly mobile platform.

The question now is how this will affect the company’s fledgling ads business. On one hand, social platforms have been particularly adept at monetizing on mobile. (Facebook didn’t have mobile ads until two years ago. Now it has a 17.7 percent share of the U.S. mobile ad market, according to eMarketer.) But media buyers are reticent about Tumblr ads, and it’s anything but clear that the company will be the mobile ad darlings that Facebook, Twitter and Instagram have become.

“Facebook and Twitter have way better targeting options,” Jason Stein, president of social media agency Laundry Service, said of Tumblr. “In that it gives advertisers the opportunity to create unique creative, Tumblr is great. Question is, ‘How do you get the brands to create content native to the platform and target people accordingly?’ And I don’t think they have a full answer for that, yet.”

Tumblr — which launched mobile ads last April — declined to discuss its ad revenue, and such numbers are not included in parent company Yahoo’s financial statements.

Stein’s comment highlights the looming question Tumblr must answer now that it’s a predominantly mobile platform: Can mobile be a good home for brand creative? Tumblr has, to date, resisted the temptation to climb down the purchase funnel and deal in precisely targeted, ROI-driven performance campaigns. But if wants to maintain that position and grow its ads business, it has to convince brands that mobile is an effective platform for the kind of creative brand campaigns Tumblr so values.

“There’s a huge opportunity for the ones that want to go out and lead and dig in and figure this stuff out,” Derek Gottfrid, Tumblr’s head of product, told Digiday. “What differentiates Tumblr is really the brand aspect. It’s hard to find a different product in the marketplace that really has earned [media] piece.”

General Electric (GE) has not only taken Tumblr up on that challenge — the brand was a launch partner when Tumblr introduced in-stream mobile ads last April — it’s been pleasantly surprised with the results.

Tumblr’s mobile ads performed better for GE than Tumblr’s other ad formats, according to GE’s head of global digital programming, Katrina Craigwell, with mobile accounting for the majority — approximately two-thirds — of engagement with GE’s Tumblr posts. Tumblr is particularly powerful for brands like GE because the ads are more “native” — that is, less disruptive — than on most platforms, she said.

Still, Gottfrid conceded that communicating the effectiveness of Tumblr’s mobile ads to brands has been a challenge.

“In some ways our [metrics] are undervalued,” Gottfrid said. “The value of reblog and what that means to an advertiser is very powerful.”

Articulating the value a reblog — Tumblr parlance for a user sharing another user’s post — can be difficult. Similar skepticism has been lobbed at social media stalwarts Facebook and Twitter. What’s the ROI of a like or a retweet? And yet those two have been able to establish huge mobile ad businesses.

Facebook and Twitter earned $391 million and $114 million in U.S. mobile ad revenue in 2012, respectively, according to eMarketer. Mobile ad revenue has increased drastically since, with eMarketer projecting Facebook to earn more than $3.1 billion in U.S. mobile ad revenue this year to Twitter’s $573 million. Factor in the millions Omnicom has this year committed to spending on both Facebook-owned Instagram and Twitter-owned MoPub, and the mobile ad market is only expanding for social media’s top two properties.

Could Tumblr’s mobile ads potential be as high as — or even higher than — Facebook’s? Steve Wax, partner at brand design agency Cooke & co, hinted as much.

“In the context of Facebook, an ad is disruptive because you went there to have a conversation and see what your friends are doing. [On] Tumblr, you’re looking at visual treats,” Wax said. “If you do it right, Tumblr has a compelling mobile story. … But I don’t think anyone’s doing a great job yet.”

As such, Tumblr’s brand education efforts have a ways to go.

“At a high level, the philosophy and strategy is in place: It’s around sponsored posts and getting your brand the kind of attention it deserves,” Gottfrid said. “The mobile and Web aspect is a packaging and pricing question we continue to think through.”


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