Behind the Tumble of Tumblr, the Once-Hot Blogging and Social Advertising Player

Can Verizon do what Yahoo couldn’t?

Tumblr in 'the good old days' on an iPad2 in March 2012. kycstudio/iStock

There was a time when Tumblr was included in the upper echelon of social networks, mentioned alongside giants like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Yahoo saw enough potential in Tumblr to spend $1.1 billion to acquire the blogging platform in May 2013, and then-Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer took to Tumblr to rally the troops: “We promise not to screw it up … The product roadmap, their team, their wit and irreverence will all remain the same as will their mission to empower creators to make their best work and get it in front of the audience they deserve. Yahoo will help Tumblr get even better, faster … Tumblr can deploy Yahoo’s personalization technology and search infrastructure to help its users discover creators, bloggers and content they’ll love … The two companies will also work together to create advertising opportunities that are seamless and enhance user experience.”

But that potential was never realized, and Mayer’s promise was not kept. In today’s social media landscape, Tumblr is merely an afterthought, if it’s even thought about at all.

“Tumblr was such a gigantic innovation at the time,” said Barry Lowenthal, president of The Media Kitchen, of the platform’s early days. “It was kind of democratizing blogging. It gave everyone a voice and a place to discover new ideas, share their pictures. We used to post campaigns to Tumblr. Tumblr was a really core part of how we were distributing and hosting content way back when.”

But times have changed. “I don’t think anyone even thinks about Tumblr anymore,” he said. “Tumblr could have been, Pinterest but it wasn’t. Tumblr could have been Medium, but it wasn’t. Content has become such a big part of what advertisers were creating and distributing. Tumblr could have been a really core part of that, but it’s not.”

Brand Exodus?

Agencies used to tout the General Electric Tumblr page as an example of how brands can play in Tumblr, highlighting innovative ways GE featured its products. GE’s last Tumblr post came on Sept. 23, 2016.

Agencies also used to highlight Coca-Cola’s early Tumblr efforts as another example, but its Tumblr page has been dormant since February 2016.

Tumblr was a “favored platform for many content creators because it wasn’t templatized like Facebook—you could customize it and make it your own,” said an agency social lead, who preferred to remain anonymous. “Many brands did great things with content, and organic reach was greater.”

She pointed out that at the time, quick-service restaurant brands used paid content on Reddit to drive Tumblr traffic with great success.

As recently as October 2013, Tumblr was a highly touted addition to the lock screen for Facebook’s Home Android overlay, on which the social network put a lot of emphasis at the time.

Tumblr began allowing users to monetize their blogs in July 2016, adding affiliate links via VigLink in September of that year.

But despite Yahoo’s grand intentions, Tumblr quickly faded into the background.

“Yahoo never really did a good job of integrating (Tumblr) into its business, helping to activate the advertising opportunity or even creating advertising opportunities,” Lowenthal said.

The challenge, it seemed, was a cultural one. Tumblr was a young(ish) platform; Yahoo was the jaded vet. Yahoo and Tumblr tried to come up with advertising products, but none of them took. Tumblr’s ad products are focused on engagement, and according to agency execs, engagement is not the top metric anymore; there is no correlation between engagement and business results.

Agency execs believe better targeting options and more diverse ad products would have helped Tumblr, but as it stands today, “I don’t know of many advertisers who are still spending on the platform,” said the agency social lead.

When research company eMarketer released projections for U.S. social media users last February, it pegged 2017 user growth at just 4.1 percent to 22 million users, forecasting that Tumblr would add just 1.9 million U.S. users by 2021.

eMarketer forecasting analyst Oscar Orozco wrote at the time: “Although Tumblr has been focused on becoming more adaptable for mobile devices—announcing Snapchat-like features like filters and overlay stickers—it will need to create a substantially more differentiated product if it wishes to compete with the likes of Facebook, Snapchat and Twitter. Moreover, the platform dealt with its own hacking scandal in which over 65 million emails and passwords were breached.”

As of January 2016, Tumblr had 555 million monthly visitors, and the blogging service reported more then 375.4 million blogs in November 2017 and over 345 million registered accounts last April. Tumblr said last November that more than 148 billion posts had been generated on the platform, and over 31 million were being added each day.

Tumblr declined to provide updated figures.

When Tumblr celebrated its 10th birthday last year, founder and CEO David Karp—who later announced that he was leaving the company by the end of 2017—seemed to see the writing on the wall when he shared his vision for the next 10 years.

He detailed a change in focus for the platform, writing: “Tumblr’s focus over the next decade will shift accordingly. Expression has been and always will be a foundational part of Tumblr—and our roadmap this year will not disappoint—but it is now more urgent than ever to empower positive and productive connections across the communities that thrive here. To create an environment where people are truly safe to be themselves. To ensure that positive discourse rises above toxicity. And to protect the free exchange of ideas, from which truth will emerge.”

Going forward

Tumblr declined to provide any details on potential upcoming features or advertising-related initiatives for 2018, and the blogging platform would only share its plans for this year’s Black History Month, which includes content from more voices in #TheBlackout, special stickers and Answer Time Q&As with members of organizations including Black Girls Vote, @blackcontemporaryart (Kimberly Drew), the Minority Cannabis Association, the Cannabis Cultural Association, Campaign Zero, Do Not Resist (a PBS documentary) and the Transgender Freedom Project.

“I beg you to understand that my decision comes after months of reflection on my personal ambitions and at no cost to my hopefulness for Tumblr’s future or the impact I know it can have,” Karp said in his farewell post. “The internet is at a crossroads of which this team can play a fundamental role in shaping. You are in the driver’s seat, and I am excited to see where you go.”

His last day was Dec. 31, and former president and chief operating officer Jeff D’Onofrio was tapped to succeed Karp as CEO.

Will Tumblr get a second chance at relevance following Verizon Communications’ acquisition of Yahoo in July 2017, as well as its shift of Yahoo and Tumblr to its Oath subsidiary?

Magna North America president David Cohen acknowledged Tumblr’s issues but sees hope from its new parent company.

“Tumblr has historically been viewed as challenging from a brand safety standpoint and, with the heightened sensitivity on this over the past year, this challenge has become more acute,” Cohen said. “There is also a perception that the platform suffers from a lack of product innovation and has a dated offering. We believe that Oath is working diligently to address both of these concerns as part of its ongoing consolidation. It is looking to clean up the environment and refresh the platform, and we are hopeful that its efforts will bear fruit. Competition is a good thing, and the ecosystem could benefit from another healthy and robust publishing platform for marketers to leverage.” David Cohen is editor of Adweek's Social Pro Daily.
Publish date: February 9, 2018 © 2020 Adweek, LLC. - All Rights Reserved and NOT FOR REPRINT