Tumblr: Would more ads, sooner, have made a difference?

Tumblr is a very well designed mini publishing platform, but more ads, sooner, could have made it the Huffington Post of personal publishing.
Written by Mary Branscombe, Contributor

According to the commentators — who, it seems, only discovered Tumblr over the weekend when Yahoo's plan to bid on the service leaked — Tumblr is for cat pictures, memes of animated gifs and adult content. A slightly less bleeding edge 4chan, if you will.

That was a surprise to those of us using Tumblr for, say, hosting our websites or presenting photo-essays and curated links. Fashion brands picked up on Tumblr long before Pinterest came along. It has no higher a proportion of adult content or profanity than the web in general.

Tumblr actually is a very well designed mini publishing platform, with optional social elements. It's part-way between the pick-your-audience social blogging of Livejournal and the micro-publishing of Twitter.

You can create a blog, theme it into a website or annotate links with witty comments and wait for people to pass them on. It has both simple and powerful tools for publishing via the web, email or apps and plenty of ways to make your content look nothing like a Tumblr at all.

What it didn't seem to have was a hugely lucrative business model.

I first came across Tumblr (as more than a random link) when I reviewed a how-to book for getting the most from the service. I was surprised by how competent the service was, and how popular. Between 2009 and 2010, Tumblr grew from six to nine million users and 1.5 billion page views. (Stats provider Global Web Index claims Tumblr had 73 million accounts by Q1 2013 with 34 million active users, 46% of them in the 16-24 age group Yahoo would love to reach.) I called it the success story no-one knew about.

To try out the tips in the book I put together a website, copying the content from our own rather dilapidated personal site (half built in NetObjects Fusion, half in hand-rolled JavaScript written in the last version of FrontPage that wasn't joined at the hip to SharePoint) into a Tumblr. I picked a theme and in half an hour I had a site that looked so much better than our existing site that we pointed our domain at it — Tumblr has nice tools for doing that, too.

No-one could tell the site was running on Tumblr and it didn't cost us anything. If I'd chosen one of the paid themes, Tumblr would have got a share of the few dollars I paid for that, but the free themes are good enough that I didn't need to.

I set up a couple of other Tumblrs, where we can blog links to our articles and reviews, and wove them into the site structure. I added another Tumblr for fun — a Metro-style theme for collecting Metro-style designs beyond Microsoft products. Then one for collecting the interviews I used to do with science fiction writers. I kept finding new things I could do. If I wanted a comments section beyond Tumblr, I could hook up Disqus. I could add custom HTML.

The one thing I couldn't find a way to do was put ads on the page. And that's where Tumblr missed a trick, where it gave up its chance to be the Huffington Post of personal publishing.

What Tumblr could have done was to put ads on those free sites — unobtrusive but revenue generating ads. If you didn't want ads, you could have paid a fee to get the ad-free service. Or you could have accepted the ads, and filled in a profile to get relevant ads that matched your content and interests in exchange for a share of the ad revenue.

Do I trust Yahoo to do that without ruining Tumblr?

Put it this way: I'm expecting to have to move our website in about a year. Tumblr is a great service. What it needed to be was a great product with a great business model. What Yahoo needs is to prove it can have at least one of those two.

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