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How Tumblr Forces Advertisers to Get Creative

What the blog network’s monetization plans say about the future of publishing.
April 24, 2013

Tumblr, sometimes unfairly shorthanded as the “hipster blogging service,” is now the ninth most visited site in the U.S. It’s a favorite of mobile phone users–to wit, Tumblr has even put out a dedicated app on Windows Phone 8, just this week. And yet Tumblr still isn’t profitable, six years in.

Should we dismiss Tumblr, then, as a form of vaporware?  Often, when founders say that profitability “just isn’t something we’re worried about right now,” I tune out. I begin to wonder whether they’re at the helm of a grand extracurricular project, a giant bubble waiting to burst.

But that’s not the case with Tumblr. Actually, Tumblr’s careful and deliberate monetization of its site–much like BuzzFeed’s–is probably the future (or let’s say one future) of advertising, and of content creation on the web more generally.

Tumblr recently allowed advertisers to feature content on its site. But unlike Facebook, say, or the New York Times website, Tumblr doesn’t rely on simple banner ads (founder David Karp is said to loathe them). Rather, Tumblr is forcing advertisers to play the same game as Tumblr’s own users. Advertisers have to create Tumblrs (pared-down blogs) of their own, in effect; the content of those blogs can then be featured prominently through the site. As Bloomberg put it last month: “Tumblr tells advertisers to come up with campaigns that will spread through the network like its other content.”

For decades, in publishing, a firewall has existed between those who sell the ads (the publishers), and those who write the content (editorial). Speaking as someone who came up through editorial, the narrative for us has always been one of fending off the publishers, of defending our editorial freedom. The narrative was that editorial was under siege by the forces of commerce.

Tumblr gives the lie to that way of viewing things. In another sense, the forces of commerce have been under siege by editorial–by the people making interesting content. Because the fact of the matter is, most people ignore the banner, fast-forward on the DVR, or click to skip the YouTube ad; in fact, there are whole YouTube ads predicated on this joke. Editorial has won in a sense: the idea that advertising, like editorial content, must be interesting, has won. You can’t just advertise next to someone else’s Tumblr. You’ve got to create a Tumblr of your own.

I recently was speaking with a comedy writer who teaches a course in sketch writing. She said that the unit on writing commercial parodies had become the most difficult to teach, because so many ads today had become truly, organically funny. In the early 90’s, it was easy to satirize the straight-faced Tylenol PM ad, or the eerie cereal ad featuring an animated rabbit. Nowadays, though, advertisements themselves are often very funny: the dating site Zoosk’s ads are essentially commercial parodies in and of themselves.

The editorial sensibility has won. Advertisers have to become content creators, and Tumblr is riding that wave. “We’re not bringing them a template or format to complete,” Lee Brown, Tumblr’s head of sales, told Bloomberg. “We’re giving them a canvas. That takes a lot of time and a lot of thought.” Ads now have to be engrossing, like good journalism. It’s unclear, now, just which side that firewall between editorial and publishing was protecting.

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