Smells Like Teen Spirit: Schooling Marketers on Tumblr

Jami Oetting
Jami Oetting



The subject of the micro-blogging platform Tumblr has been overtaken in the past six months by the Pinterest craze, but a recent insightful post by a Quora user, not yet old enough to drive, reminded me why the success of Tumblr (with more than 50 million blogs and 20 billion posts as of the beginning of April) is inexplicably linked to how the teen demographic views and uses the Internet.

Tumblr users under the age of 24 make up 45 percent of the site’s demographic, with 18 percent of the users under the age of 18, skewing the usage to a predominately teen and young adult age group. Parents are wondering what makes this platform so engrossing to their tweens and teens, and marketers, like Coca Cola and Adidas, are trying to figure out how to tap into this highly-influential demographic. But this teen’s grabbing statement on why Tumblr is so interesting as both a blogging and social network reminded me of the core attractions of the Internet (before it became a tool of marketing) — anonymity and discovery.

In the anon user’s post, he said:

I like the idea of my voice being heard somewhere where people care, so I make it heard in an environment with users who will curiously read what I have to say solely out of interest. Doing so brings me a sort of joy, that people care or agree with the things I say, that I really can't get anywhere else.

For teens, Facebook has become an extension of the social circles already present in high schools, bringing with it the exclusive and isolating experiences already present in lunch rooms and events (e.g. the problems with bullying). Friend requests, likes, comments — all stem from the voting concept of the original Facebook. Albeit now with the ability for your mother to comment.

With Tumblr, these anonymous teens are seeking information they are interested in and reblogging it if they find it valuable, interesting or inspiring. They are not trying to build their personal brand nor are they worried about metrics and ROI (there are no built in analytics for Tumblr and no third-party services that can accurately estimate the reach of a post). They may care about their number of followers, but only because they feel a responsibility to their “audience” to share great finds and to start discussions around their original content. They learn and support the community because they truly believe in the value of the community — not just their individual blog.

With this, you can understand why founder David Karp has only recently made a move into advertising. It’s not that advertising wouldn’t work (and in turn make them a lot of money); it’s that advertisers may not understand a platform where the teen demographic is not made of ready brand advocates. It’s why Tumblr is hiring brand strategists. There is no one-size-fits all. No display ads to insert a rotating GIF. No projected reach or impressions. Re-posting your recent print campaign, broadcast commercial or online special will not work.

So what will work with the teenage Tumblr, and what can you learn from the Quora anon user?

Authenticity: Don’t be a “poser.”

These teens come to Tumblr to learn and discuss subjects outside of the classroom, the locker room, the hallway and social events. Stories of divorce. Stories of depression and pain. Stories they wouldn’t tell to anyone. The fact that your brand has a “super” new product that will make them run faster, look better or be popular means little. If you have a story to tell visually about an athlete that overcame a hardship, a young adult who gained confidence or a young woman who became well-known for her efforts for a greater cause, compose it with passion and share it. Don’t try to reach them the same way as you do on Facebook. Finding great content and sharing it is what makes these young princes and princesses of the interwebs popular.

Community: You would never vote for yourself for homecoming queen, right?

What does your brand value? Green technology? Fashion? Tech? Don’t just post your own content. The Quora teen said:

My followers rely on me for discovery, as I rely on the people I follow. So, I feel responsible for doing just this; not doing so would run the risk of me losing followers, which will impact the amount of users who see my original content when I choose to write something myself or post a photo of mine or a video I found.

Curate and discover related content to your brand to your users. Educate and inspire even if it wasn’t done in-house. Know that your followers and the people you follow rely on you for not only great original content, but also great found content that relates to your brand’s mission and industry. Support (reblog) and engage (comment and share) with other leaders in your field and build relationships that truly make a community.

Understand: Shake off the sophomore syndrome.

Tumblr’s dashboard, besides the small avatar, doesn’t leave much room for branding. Visuals and text all appear in the same types of squares. There’s no who’s picked first, who’s picked last. Realize that grabbing a teen’s attention on the platform is not a formula. Posts can be formatted with quotes and click-through links, videos that play within the dashboard (most people never visit a person’s actual Tumblr URL), full articles with images, videos with captions, etc. Try different formats and experiment. Understand what the limitations are and how your client’s brand can break the rules.

tumblr-changed-my-lifeTumblr, even as a blogging/social platform, is not inherently made for brand pages, promotions or self-promotion. This was most evident when Tumblr asked users, “How has Tumblr changed your life?” as part of their Storyboard project. Tumblelog owners responded with stories of romance, friendships forged, professional success through passion and overcoming inner conflicts.

The question then becomes how can Tumblr change your brand?

Be passionate. Value discovery. Act like you are anonymous.

Topics: Blogging
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