How Tumblr's David Hayes helps brands create the right sponsored content for the platform

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Tumblr's head of CANVAS David Hayes
Tumblr's head of CANVAS David Hayes

For many brands, Tumblr can be scary territory. The microblogging platform is known to be the place where people gather around extremely specific topics and interests, and with its young user base, it isn't exactly a place that welcomes a corporate presence.

That's where David Hayes comes in. The former Hollywood marketing exec is the head of CANVAS, a think tank of creative strategists employed by Tumblr who help brands create a presence on the platform. It's Hayes job to get brands posting on the platform with the right mix of brand messaging, and entertaining content. His eight member team works with brands and their creative agencies to create sponsored posts that organically become part of Tumblr communities.

“There are usually two groups in every company we work with, one that asks ‘how many people are going to buy our product' as a result of the sponsored post, and another that wants to measure brand affinity or brand love,” says Hayes. “We work better with that group.”

Hayes got his start at Tumblr as an “entertainment evangelist,” which made sense, given his previous ties to Hollywood. It was his job to get films and TV shows promote themselves on Tumblr. Before that, Hayes had worked for eight years as a top marketing executive at Lionsgate, the film studio behind such hits as The Hunger Games and Precious. It was on films like these where Hayes cut his teeth on digital marketing, learning creative digital ways to promote movies that didn't have a huge marketing budget.

While The Hunger Games lent itself easily to social media promotions and visual campaigns, it was harder for Precious, with its somber, urban poverty storyline. Hayes says he overcame it by taking a marketing lesson from none other than Oprah. “She had said ‘there was a Precious inside every one of us,' says Hayes. “It became our goal to find an element in the movie every person could identify with.” He says he continues to apply that same principle when creating branded content on Tumblr.

Unlike other social media platforms that were built to host advertising from the start, Tumblr has had to tread carefully when it comes to introducing sponsored content. Tumblr users have traditionally been loathe to embrace any kind of commercial presence. They had a less than enthusiastic reaction when the platform first introduced sponsored posts early last year.

Another problem from brands looking to reach the user base is that unlike Twitter or Facebook, where people can be targeted demographically, Tumblr is made up of several micro-communities of users bonding over highly specific, shared interests. There are Tumblr blogs devoted to just about everything niche you can imagine, including obscure television shows, specific types of photographs, weird celebrity fan clubs and erotic fetishes. By being part evangelist, and part creative consultant, Hayes identifies the opportunities for brands to work their way into one of these micro-communities and become accepted as one of the tribe.

“Unlike Facebook, Tumblr is not about who you know, it's about what you love,” says Hayes. “We're helping brands identify what users love and connecting them to it.”

For example, say there's a Tumblr community devoted to unmade beds (yes, there really is.) Once that community has been identified, Hayes brings it to the attention of a relevant brand, IKEA for instance, and then his team works with that brand to create sponsored posts containing engaging images or GIFs that would be shared and reblogged just like any other post within that community.

As a result of CANVAS's work with brands, Tumblr now hosts plenty of sponsored content, with users appreciating and reblogging the best of them. This includes brands like Denny's, (who Hayes says were so good at creating posts for Tumblr, he hired one of their creatives to be on his team) GE and Gap, as well as movies like Jobs: The Film, and Thor.

“Identifying the right tribe is easy enough, but brands still have to focus on telling a story, instead of selling a product,” says Hayes. ‘They don't have to always have to have calls-to-action or be so sales heavy in their branded content.”

In fact, Hayes and his boss, Tumblr CEO David Karp envision a future where ads can be appreciated for their aesthetic alone, freed from commercial intent. “David believes we can help make digital content as big or as ‘hooky' as television spots,” says Hayes. “Who would have thought ads would become as collectible as art?”

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