Social Media Week: Can Tumblr Put a New Spin on Marketing?

When I first spotted David Karp at [email protected]’s Social Media Week session, I thought he resembled any other young twenty-something. He wore khaki-colored pants, a grayish button-down shirt that looked a tad bit stifling because it was buttoned so high, and scuffed white tennies that illustrated this young man’s hustle. It was almost hard to believe that this youthful innovator founded Tumblr: a platform that now hosts 94.7 million blogs and 43.6 billion posts, according to the company’s site.

But the young entrepreneur with the side-swept bangs admitted that he didn’t anticipate the now six-year-old Tumblr to take the sharing scene by storm. “I’m steering a much bigger ship than this thing used to be,” Karp said during his presentation.

After working for UrbanBaby and later launching Davidville, Karp founded Tumblr in February 2007 because he found the available blogging tools to be “too limited.”

“The original vision was really pretty modest. This was a different take on blogging back in 2005 and 2006,” Karp said. “I was just imagining a different set of tools because the tools that were out there, I thought, were very limited. It was WordPress for writers. It was Flickr for photos. It was Twitter for 140 characters. It was YouTube for video, and I imagined a tool that brought them all together….At some point I said maybe there are some people out there like me who could get some value out of this thing.”

Karp described Tumblr as a “serendipitous experience.” It’s an open canvas for brands and creators to display their innovative images, and it’s a feeding ground for users to discover original content. However, Karp said this creativity could not be shared with the world without technology.

“I think technology, particularly in the last three to five years, has been extraordinarily empowering to creators,” Karp said. “Technology, going back a little bit, was just unlocking creative potential. There was stuff that you just literally couldn’t do before. In the last few years what you’ve seen technology start to do is empower more creators to reach for whatever they have stars in their eyes for. Whether that’s selling out shows, whether that’s publishing a book, [or] whether that’s building an audience on the web, creators now have more opportunity I think than they’ve ever had before.”

The “last layer on the stack” is being able to use technology to capitalize on that creativity, Karp said. Karp claimed that he has always had a “positive relationship” with advertising and said that his dad used to create jingles for commercials. He even took a quick stroll down memory lane and recollected how a BMW ad inspired him to save up and buy his first car, an Acura, as Karp’s pre-Tumblr salary didn’t allow for a BMW.

Karp deems most online advertising as “fine…great for harvesting intent, [but] not great for creating intent.”

“This industry is so bored of display [and] so bored of little blue links,” Karp said.

For Tumblr, monetizing the site means helping brands to acquire customers. The site allows advertisers to pay for promoted blogs or promoted posts – “some of the most sought after spots on Tumblr,” Karp said.

“When Lincoln [or] when Adidas shows up on Tumblr, they create a blog [or] they create posts. Both of those things can become ads by cutting us a check, elevating it up in the system,” Karp explained.  “Anywhere that we’re able to display blogs and posts, which is certainly inside our mobile apps, certainly inside our tablet apps, certainly on the web, we’re able to mix in that advertiser content and are increasingly working to do it in a way that not only is not disruptive, but actually makes the experience better.”

Karp also said that mobile has lead to Tumblr to focus more on engagement metrics – such as time spent and reach– rather than on page views.

When it comes to brands incorporating Tumblr into their social media mix, Karp advises marketers to view the site as part of a social ecosystem, a component that can be shared via other social sites like Facebook and Twitter, rather than an item on a checklist.

“The important distinction for me is this is one of the few places on the web where you can make stuff,” Karp said. “You can’t make anything on Pinterest today. You can’t make anything on Facebook today.”

I usually don’t get nervous when I meet with CEOs and entrepreneurs, but after hearing how Karp grew this content sharing platform at such as young age, I couldn’t help but feel a little like this.

One of the unique things about Tumblr is that it’s a platform that can be used to target specific audiences: from college students, to fashion enthusiasts, to cat lovers and more. After the presentation, Karp disclosed to me that Tumblr’s ability to be relevant to specific communities, while still appealing to a large audience overall, was somewhat accidental.

“It was brought on by certain design decisions, not deliberate decisions necessarily, but decisions that these communities can keep to themselves and flourish and they didn’t need to feel like they were competing…” Karp said.

Karp also acknowledged that a site’s lifespan is often fairly short, and he hopes Tumblr can continue to survive.

“I really hope we don’t lose,” Karp said. “It happens to a lot of these networks, right? You’ve got Twitter for your celebrities and news. You had Myspace for music…I would love for Tumblr to be a place where creators of all ilk and their fans converge.”

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