Which Marketers Should (and Shouldn't) Tap Social-Media Darling Tumblr

As Brands' Presence Grows, Blogging Platform Finds Sweet Spot in Fashion, Media

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New York-based blogging platform Tumblr has experienced astronomic growth in the past year, more than tripling its audience to reach 13.4 million unique visitors in July, according to ComScore. But while the service hasn't yet attained the primacy of a Facebook or Twitter in most marketers' social-media toolkits, it is catching on with fashion retailers and media outlets that connect with its highly visual method of storytelling.

The list of companies with a Tumblr presence includes global brands such as IBM, which has a Tumblr page dedicated to innovation for its corporate Smarter Planet initiative; record labels such as Universal and EMI; and even diaper seller Huggies, which regularly posts photos of celebrity mothers and their babies. However, most branded Tumblrs seem to fall into fashion -- both highbrow, like Alexander McQueen and Oscar de la Renta, and mass market, such as J. Crew and Ann Taylor -- and media categories. Fashion brands usually take advantage of Tumblr's strong visuals by posting looks from their latest collections or catalogs, while media outlets often post easily digestible pieces of content; think cartoons and short poems on The New Yorker's Tumblr and photos, quotes, charts and graphics on NPR's.

Tumblr has found its niche in the crowded social-media space by focusing on photos and video and aggregating short content such as quotes. The platform also encourages reblogging of other users' posts, creating a unique path for content to go viral. The average user creates 14 original posts per month and reblogs three, according to Tumblr.

Brands' fashion bent seem to match up with the platform's user base. According to Tumblr Media Evangelist Mark Coatney (yes, that 's a real title), about 20% of approximately 40 million daily posts (about half of which contain photos) on more than 27 million Tumblr blogs are concerned with fashion in some sense, whether it's bloggers documenting street fashion or opining on trends. Tumblr also has a full-time community manager who works exclusively with the fashion community.

Despite the the 4-year-old company's increasing visibility, it still has no concrete business model, though it's reportedly been looking to raise more venture capital. (A report in Silicon Alley Insider says Tumblr is currently in talks to raise $75 million to $100 million at an $800 million valuation.) The platform hosts none of its own ads, though brands are welcome to publish their own, like on the Washington Post's @innovations site. Mr. Coatney said the company is considering ways to monetize Tumblr's dashboard -- the back end where users configure their individual blogs. It also takes a small cut from designers who sell custom themes to users who want an upgrade on Tumblr's freebies.

There's also no clear revenue stream on Tumblr for brands, but Jane Deery, president of PGR Media, a Boston- and New York-based agency that works with fashion retailers such as Kate Spade, Chico's and Juicy Couture, anticipates a push to quantify the impact of viral activity on branded Tumblr accounts on search, display and remarketing revenues.

Ms. Deery notes that most PGR client Tumblrs are managed by in-house PR, and the goal is to have the posts -- often featuring the most interesting pieces of the current season -- reblogged to reach a wider audience. (Reblog contests are also increasingly popular on Tumblr, like one currently on Huggies where users who reblog or comment on the post are entered to win a slip-on diaper prize pack.)

"What is king in magazines? It's getting that edit credit," Ms. Neery said. Using Tumblr is "like having a lot of edit credits out there, and they're coming from a trusted source."

Some say that Tumblr's core value for brands is in allowing them to connect with their audiences more intimately than would be possible on other social media.

"Tumblr's amazing for awareness," said Philip Leif Bjerknes, digital director for the New York agency All Day Every Day. It designed and built the Tumblr for the Standard Hotel, which he cites as an example of how a brand can leverage its existing community -- in the Standard's case, a creative one, where artist collaborators often produce content.

"I think you can communicate in a very rich way for your audience -- in a way that seems much more in brand and in character than a Twitter or a Facebook," said Mr. Bjerknes, who also noted that Tumblr doesn't have a rich analytics suite like Facebook, but brands can track the number of likes and reblogs, as well as their total followers, to see what goes viral. "I'd also say the content feels a little less disposable."

He also noted that Tumblr itself is an important collaborator and has worked with his agency and client Milk Studios, the fashion and photo studio that hosts New York Fashion Week. And when the agency set up a Tumblr for Nike to promote its worldwide relay race "Tied Together," Tumblr actually fielded a team in New York, including founder David Karp.

"They're very open to exploring new users and new ways people are using [Tumblr]," said Mr. Bjerknes.

While fashion and media companies seem the most natural for Tumbler presences, there may be an opportunity for any company to use the platform, and Mr. Bjerknes says his personal favorite branded Tumblr belongs to General Electric, which consists of a collection of Instagram photos from the company's archives, showing factories and historical products. However, some say that companies without an obvious foothold into the Tumblr ecosystem -- companies without strong visuals, for example -- would be better served building a Wordpress site, looking at Facebook and developing an SEO and content marketing strategy.

"Tumblr can be fun, but if you don't have the fundamentals behind your brand online, then it's not something you should be focusing on," said Jason Keath, founder of social-media education company Social Fresh.

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