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If there’s one thing I’ve learnt over the years from working in digital marketing, it’s that first reactions to tech news stories are rarely accurate.

The time to form an opinion, in my experience, is when the stories ending in question marks die down. 

When the Tumblr news broke (Yahoo’s planned acquisition @ $1.1bn) we were predictably flooded by instantaneous musings and misunderstandings around the network and its new owners.

Speculation then moved onto what Yahoo should do with its new toy, with a common concern muted as the nonsensical introduction of spammy ads.

Tumblr has been positioned as both an impenetrable teen space riddled with porn (although just over 10% doesn’t justifiably constitute ‘riddled’ in my book).

What’s more, if you’re a marketing bod looking to reach a valuable youth demographic, there are few places more authentic.

In fact, before the acquisition, the question of why Tumblr was so ignored by digital marketing was a curious one.

Perhaps it was just too far away, culturally, from the realms of traditional marketing spend. Perhaps it was perceived as a glorified blog rather than a genuine social network. (If so, $1.1bn is a lot of cash for a blog.)

The knee-jerk pundits have been wrong before. Remember Posterous? It was seen as the likely victor with features such as the ability to email blog posts cited as proof. Tumblr was widely dismissed as just another blogging platform although its users would beg to differ.

They will tell you it’s more akin to a ‘media-rich Twitter’ – and one with a distinct culture. 

This last point is particularly relevant in ascribing Tumblr’s success. Whatever the technological bells and whistles, a social network will only ever work if people want to hang out there.

Within online communities, culture is king and content is queen. And this is where Posterous faltered. That said, the feature-set is also important. Vine’s burgeoning success hangs on being able to match the creativity and richness of how animated gifs are used across Tumblr. The tech’s important, but not all-important.

The instant doom-mongers also latched onto Yahoo’s less-than-noble track record with sites such as Upcoming (closed), Delicious (sold) and Flickr (largely ignored until recently).

Fair enough. But since Marissa Mayer took over, there have been lots of promising signs – from the revamped Flickr Mobile App (and now revamped site and proposition) through to the Twitter integration with Yahoo! News. 

Much of Mayer’s influence feels right for the direction of the web, not to mention the future direction of Yahoo itself. In fact, even much-discussed home working change of policy can be seen as a sensible and overdue attempt bring back into the fold an asset it had criminally undervalued – its developers.

Yahoo under Mayer seems like a more developer-centric company, mirroring the ethos shared by Google, Facebook, Twitter and Apple. 

Finally there’s the ‘C’ word: commercialisation. 

How can you recover such a huge investment without alienating Tumblr’s users?

Advertising will inevitably play a big role. But it seems there might also be major scope if Yahoo positions itself as a facilitator, helping big bloggers to monetise their audiences and making a buck (or ten) in return. Tumblr’s A-List programme, set up before acquisition, will continue to provide more creative ways of interacting with audiences and it might pave the way for a freemium model to be introduced.

It will need to be done sensitively, though, and not – under any circumstances – at the expense of Tumblr’s culture. 

Mayer got a lot of things right at Google. And if you ignore some of Yahoo’s mistakes before she arrived, I wouldn’t bet against her building on Tumblr’s meteoric success. Above all, let’s not be too quick to judge.

Steve Richards

Published 23 May, 2013 by Steve Richards

Steve Richards is MD of social media agency Yomego and a contributor to Econsultancy.

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