Tumblr’s Teenaged, Double-Edged Sword

Posted: May 7, 2013 in Advertising, Opinion, Social, Startup
Tags: ,

20130507-102649.jpg. im ddeleting the internet [sic]“: A telling re-blog from a teenaged girl on the blogging platform turned social
networking site Tumblr, in a chain of re-postings that
had her pondering Tumblr’s impact on her life twenty
years from now, when her passing, immature
thoughts become fodder for a discussion among her
boss and colleagues at some imagined future workplace. The fact that Tumblr speaks to this younger
demographic, and in particular teenage girls slightly
more so than boys, is known. Why that is the case is
something which many are still scratching their heads
over, even as Tumblr begins to focus on generating
revenue from this very audience, whose online behavior makes it tricky for advertisers who want to
connect. “How do teenagers waste hours upon hours
consuming Tumblr?“, a confused parent once asked
on another time-wasting site, the Q&A resource
known as Quora. The top answer, posted by
“Anonymous,” claims to be from a teenaged user
of Tumblr, though it could just as easily be a sneaky marketing ploy from the startup itself. But it speaks
some truths nonetheless. Tumblr, wrote the poster, “seems like a freedom, as
weird as that may sound.” “Unlike Facebook, I have a clean slate,” this person
explained. ”I really have found myself starting to have
my own opinions. These, in some cases, greatly
differ from relatives or friends, people who used to
greatly influence my opinions.” Whether or not “anon” was a real Tumblr user, or even
a real teenager, it’s an apt enough explanation as to
why the site has found footing among the young and
hormonal. Though worries that a boss might peruse
online indiscretions may one day come to pass,
Tumblr users often use pseudonyms or only first names, making their blogs harder to find by the prying
eyes of parents or HR, for that matter. Tumblr doesn’t owe its success among teens solely
because of its pseudonymous qualities. That helps,
but, more simply, it has become the digital upgrade to
that demographic’s earlier tools for cut-and-pasted
self-discovery: the repurposing of media and content
to reflect their interests and fandoms, likes and hates, newly forming opinions, and more. Read through teenaged Tumblrdom as a grown-up,
and you’ll soon feel very, very old. “i haven’t had my phone on ring for like 3
years,” muses ”Aubrey,” who also once reblogged
“what the frick is friendster.” Don’t worry, Aubrey, you don’t need to know. ~~~~ The real answer to the surging teenaged use of the
site lies not in the lengthy Quora explanations, but in
the examples of the odd, offbeat, and yes,
sometimes inappropriate content kids are sharing. Tumblr blogs tend to lack the glossy, professional,
high-minded design of other social networking sites,
including the behemoth that is Facebook and the
SMS-inspired Twitter. If anything, these teenaged
Tumblrs harken back to earlier web days where users
built their own pages on AngelFire and Geocities, with atrocious backgrounds, upgraded cursors, and
dancing GIF images galore. GIFs, in fact, are so
hugely popular on Tumblr that the company even
began experimenting with GIF-based ads. The teen blogs are also reminiscent of MySpace,
featuring often same general gaudiness, and the
spewing of content on top of content, like the layers
of photos and other decorations teens used to tack up
on cork bulletin boards and bedroom walls. Tumblr now serves that purpose, and more. ~~~~ At the risk of dating myself, I’ll reveal that I was
teenaged in the pre-Web era. We didn’t have Tumblr
then, but rather composition notebooks, glossy
magazines, and scissors. We had mean girl-like
cliques to rebel against, passions, complaints, and in-
jokes. We liked boys. We worried about our looks and clothing and hairstyles. We dissed our teachers and
our parents. We wrote short stories. And we
expressed ourselves on paper with scrapbooks, torn
magazine collages, and shared notes in passed
around “slam books.” (To be fair, we weren’t writing truly awful things, really – that’s just what these books were called.) Now children have the Internet. And Tumblr has
become their platform for those universal, familiar
urges at self-expression falling somewhere in between
the diary, the slam book and the cork board. Notes on
Tumblr blogs range from mundane (“ive been telling
myself ill start my homework soon for the last 4 hours,”) to the confessional (“a cute necklace for
school tomorrow” which accompanies a picture of a
noose – a note whose message would terrify parents
and other adults, but appears to only be commentary
on the horrors of high school life). ~~~~ According to Pew Internet’s study from earlier this
year, 13 percent of Internet users ages 18-29 use
Tumblr, while only 5 percent of those 30-49 do, 3
percent of those 50-64, and a (surprising) 1 percent of
those 65 and older do. Demographic data from Quantcast further drives
home just how youthful a site Tumblr has become. 21
percent of its audience is under 18, 30 percent is 18
to 24, and 22 percent is 25 to 34. Then the numbers
taper off. Site users don’t tend to have kids of their
own, make somewhere between $0 and $50,000 (66 percent do), have either no college (41 percent) or
college backgrounds (48 percent), and tend to reflect
an ethnically diverse makeup, where there are more
non-white users. (Hispanics, Asians, African-
Americans, and “other” all beat out the Caucasian
segment.) Now Tumblr is seriously looking to monetize this
audience, proffering a platform for brand advertising
which CEO David Karp last week explained is meant
to be a place for advertisers to “build amazing,
interactive ads.” “We have a story that really, truly stands apart from
the other big networks right now,” he said. Other
networks are harnessing user intent, then pointing
users to little blue links. “Creative brand advertising
has had nowhere to live on the web,” he said. Ten out
of the ten top Hollywood studios advertise on Tumblr now, Karp also noted, while speaking, too, of ads that
inspire people to go out and purchase, designed by
imaginative types who went into advertising because
of their “Mad Men-like aspirations.” He may have played down the demographics’ role in
Tumblr’s advertising equation during this discussion,
but the site’s teen audience is too powerful to ignore:
there are some 30 million U.S. teens with over $200
billion in buying power. They might not all be on
Tumblr, of course, but if brands can reach a portion of this group, they have the potential to tap into a non-
trivial source of disposable income from heavy-duty
consumers. After all, the U.S. is Tumblr’s top traffic
source. Tumblr’s future, for now, seems to be closely tied to
its young adult demographic, their whims, and
perhaps even their historical aversion to online ads.
This audience has grown up connected, is often
skeptical and cynical when it comes to brand
advertising, and tends to toe a fine line between wanting to express their individuality and wanting to fit
in. It’s not an easy group to reach, which makes
Tumblr’s revenue potential tricky to pin down. Too
much or the wrong kind of advertising, and a fickle
teen audience may find a new home elsewhere.
Though Tumblr is now home to over 100 million blogs,
if a good chunk belong to teens, it’s difficult to count that as serious traction – today’s teens are less
committed to their digital creations than adults,
having already invented methods like “whitewalling”
and “super-logoff” to erase and hide their Facebook
pages, and are now turning to “ephemeral” messaging
apps like Snapchat, which delete their communications upon viewing. They understand just how easy it is to deactivate an
account, walk away and begin again. Content is
disposable, and the web is an impermanent platform
to build upon, they’ve found. These are decidedly
radical views. For Tumblr, the shiftiness of the very group it has
found a home among is one of the riskier aspects of
what appears to otherwise be a strong, fast-growing
and potentially very valuable service. Its revenue plan
is to provide a blank slate to its users and advertisers
alike (“…we want to give [advertisers] the space to do anything – a four-second loop, an hour and a half
video, a high-res panorama,” Karp explained last
week.). But Tumblr will need to be careful with the results of
those advertisers’ efforts. Overdone marketing
messages could sour Tumblr’s most engaged users
on their online hangout. Done well, however, Tumblr
could endear itself to its reblog-happy user base even
more, connecting aspirational imagery and content with those who are still young enough to dream they
can spend their way into new feelings. Whether they’ll
eventually end up “ddeleting” those feelings or not.

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