This post originally appeared on the American Express OPEN Forum, where Mashable regularly contributes articles about leveraging social media and technology in small business.
More and more businesses have been getting hip to social blogging platform Tumblr lately — specifically those involved in the fashion industry — which may have you wondering, “Should I be on Tumblr, too? Will the denizens of Hunting Knives R Us dig this blogging platform? Or should I just stick to ads in the local paper and — dare to dream — a Facebook Page?”
Well, if you’re a small business owner with your finger currently hovering over the “Start posting!” button, there are a few questions to consider first.
Is Simple Always Better?
Compared to platforms like WordPress, Tumblr is dead simple. It’s easy to set up and customize, and you can start posting within minutes.
“Tumblr is one of the most visually appealing and user-friendly platforms out there, so it was an effective way to build our community online,” says Lucy McIntyre, VP Communications at Andre Balazs Properties, of the Tumblr she helped set up for The Standard Hotel (which is packed with content from guest bloggers, downloadable music and product pictures). The Standard uses Tumblr in addition to a full-blown website.
Still, by hosting your content on a Tumblr, you’re sacrificing some of the freedom other platforms afford. “Tumblr isn’t fully featured,” says David Spark, new media consultant and founder of Spark Media Solutions. “If you go with something like WordPress, you have more control over formatting.”
Yes, with a little bit of HTML wizardry, you can alter Tumblr themes (by adding widgets and sidebars, etc), but you don’t have as much control over themes and other plugins that more advanced platforms offer.
“Also, you can’t self-host,” Spark adds, referring to how when you host your own site, you have much more control — i.e., when Tumblr goes down (which happens often), your site will go down with it. If you a self-hosting, however, your site won’t be subject to the whims of Tumblr’s scaling woes.
Ultimately, you have to ask yourself how much time and resources you’re willing to invest in your blog. If you want a clean, simple, attractive product that you can get up and running during your lunch break, Tumblr is for you. If you want to trade some time for a little more flexibility, you might want to go with something a little more sophisticated.
Are You Speaking to the Right Demographic?
If you were running a vegan restaurant, would you advertise your joint in Meat & Poultry Magazine? Of course not — because you wouldn’t be speaking to the correct audience. Apply that mindset when you’re trying to decide which social tools to use.
“Business owners need to conduct some research to identify how and where their target market is participating online,” says Shelly Nicholas, Adjunct Instructor of Marketing at LIM College. “Are they engaged in social networks? Do they read blogs?”
Here’s the breakdown of who is using the blogging platform, according to Mark Coatney from Tumblr: In the U.S. the audience tends to be younger — 56% of the service’s 25.2 million monthly visitors are under 34, and users skew slightly more male (52%). If that sounds like your average customer, you may want to give it a go.
Anthony Diaz, general manager of a C-Town supermarket in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, found a smart way to tap into the younger demographic present on Tumblr.
“I noticed that a lot of our younger customers never picked up our flyers that list all the sales of that week,” he says. “They were missing opportunities to save a lot of money. So I wanted to find a way to communicate our sales with them. The limit on characters and lack of pictures ruled Twitter out for me. I ended up choosing Tumblr instead of a traditional blog because of the dashboard feature. With Dashboard, our sales, coupons, etc. are delivered to our customers in an easy and non-spamming way.”
Tumblr users all have a Dashboard, which functions like the News Feed on Facebook, allowing people to see news from all the blogs they follow in an easy to scan list.
In addition to focusing on his demographic and using Tumblr accordingly, Diaz also makes use of content that resonates with Tumblr audiences. According to Coatney, half of Tumblr’s 14 million daily posts are image-based. Diaz’s posts all feature photos of sale products, like coupons in a flyer.
“In my experience, photo-based posts, whether it’s something Photoshopped, straight-up photography, an animated GIF, [an] infographic or something else, get the most reblogs/notes,” says Coatney.
So if you’re a business that deals heavily in imagery — like Three Kings Tattoo, also located in Brooklyn — Tumblr is a great venue for sharing pictures of your wares/work and images related to that realm. Three Kings, for its part, posts photos of tattoos, which we can easily see getting passed around the Tumblr community as standalone posts, and consequently, acting as advertisements for the parlor.
Even if your business is not exactly image-based, you can share content that relates to your product or service as well. Amanda Spurlock, who runs marketing for a restaurant chain called The Mermaid Inn, often shares photos of the mythical creature that shares its name with the eatery. “It helps that we are The Mermaid Inn, because mermaids are fun,” she says. “So we can reblog photos of mermaids. It’s also more exposure for the brand.”
You don’t always need to be shilling your wares on Tumblr — by sharing related content that others will enjoy, you’re indirectly informing potential customers of your existence.
Tumblr — as well as being a platform — is also a community, allowing users to share content, interact with others and follow blogs that are relevant to their interests. If your product or service is applicable to Tumblr’s demographic, and you can create content that they will enjoy and share, it might be wise to sign up.
Is The Time Spent Worth It?
It’s time for everyone’s favorite initialism: ROI. It can be easy nowadays to feel pressured to join every social network on the block to get ahead, but sometimes that can be a waste of time.
Nicholas recommends setting goals before launching into a service such as Tumblr. “Small businesses should clearly think through why they want to participate in social media, how they want to engage customers, and how they will measure results. Too many small businesses jump online without thinking through their goals,” she says.
And those goals, according to, Mike Rynchek, president of Spyder Trap Online Marketing, should not be monetary, nor should you expect one service to pull your business up by its bootstraps.
“I look at Tumblr as an ingredient in a bigger recipe,” he says. “Tumblr helps facilitate your search efforts, which in turn drives more traffic to your site. This helps give you an indirect return on investment. Tumblr can also help create another indirect return through engagement.”
Many business owners see Tumblr as a kind of social hub, allowing them to facilitate and build upon social media efforts via other channels. “Tumblr enables us to expand on the content that we post on Facebook, Twitter and Foursquare and drive further traffic to our sites,” says McIntyre of The Standard Hotel.
Diaz, of C-Town, says Tumblr allows him to communicate with his customers and therefore make the shopping experience better. “Most of our younger customers spend little time in the store. They go in and out, [and] don’t ask for help or to speak with a manager,” he says. “Because of Tumblr, they have started to send me messages/e-mails/tweets. We have filled item requests, fixed stocking issues and increased customer support more so than without the Tumblr.”
Many business users also report that Tumblr has helped them enhance their brand’s presence, drawing more customers into the fold. “It visually presents an image of what the company is and who’s behind it, as well as what products we have to offer,” says Audrey Marshall, VP of Online Marketing/PR for Somebody’s Mother Chocolate sauce.
“A couple of our recipe photos, including one for our Chocolate and Raspberry Trifle, have been featured on some food and recipe Tumblrs. One post has generated over 200 notes, so in that sense, Tumblr has helped put the Somebody’s Mother’s name out into the community.”
Yes, Tumblr can be a time suck if you don’t have clear objectives — but seeing as how the service is free, if you use it correctly and target your audience, you’re not going to be losing any money by joining. Granted, you probably won’t be pulling in the dollars directly via Tumblr, either, but you will be engaging with your customers, and perhaps building a stronger base for future business.
Having just scored $30 million in funding, Tumblr is a young company that has a lot of opportunity for growth. Recently, the platform has been ramping up its content curation efforts, building out its fashion community and expressing plans to build out communities in other entertainment sectors as well.
As Tumblr continues to facilitate content curation and help its users discover more of what it has to offer, we can see it becoming a ripe playing field for businesses of all stripes. So if you don’t see yourself fitting into the Tumblr ethos at this particular moment, we advise that you check back in a few months to see what’s happening. Perhaps that new “Hunting” channel you’ve been dreaming about will be live by then. Dare to dream.