What Tumblr Can Teach Us About Content Creation

Nick Greene    By under Content Strategy.

It's easy to overlook Tumblr. The microblogging site doesn't have the easy demographic information or advertising revenue of Facebook, nor does it have the stream-of-consciousness communication style of Twitter. It's a social network that's kind of hard to categorize; a lump sum of pictures, video, blog posts, and random thoughts.

It also may be one of the most important things to happen to the world of content creation in years.

Let's back up a bit. I should probably offer a bit of justification, no? It wouldn't be proper for me to just sit here making a ton of baseless claims, would it?

Tumblr And The Evolution Of Content

There's this fantastic series that was published by Matthew Carroll on Forbes a few years back; The Crippling Image Intelligence Problem. What we're interested in here is part one - "How Tumblr Drove The Evolution of Content into an Image Dominated Experience." Feel free to read the whole series once you're done here - I highly recommend it, in fact.

Anyway, according to Carroll, Tumblr was one of the first sites to solve something known as the audience acquisition problem. In case you're unfamiliar with the term, this was basically a barrier to prospective content creators involving the generation of visitor traffic (namely, their relative inability to generate said traffic). Although it's a bit more complicated than that, the definition we've got here will suffice for our purposes.

Tumblr and its related user-driven sites solved the audience acquisition problem, but brought with them an entirely new issue: information overload. Suddenly, everyone could create content - and moreover, everyone could receive validation in some form for the content they created. To call this new deluge of data overwhelming would be putting it lightly.

"This scale of content creation has caused a certain information overload in web users that has given rise to one of the most interesting developments in web history - the rise of visually-driven content consumption," writes Carroll. "Text is expensive to consume, as it requires the reader to invest cognitive resources in its consumption - a fairly taxing process. The rise of image-based content creation enables massive audiences to instantly parse billions of stimuli & instantaneously make logic associations that provide context and information in a way that text never could."

"This," he continues, "is changing how we relate to & interact with the web - it's becoming intensely image-based & visual."

Now, at this point, it's worth mentioning that Carroll's series was written in 2012 - three years ago. Looking back at it today, one thing becomes clear: Carroll was right. The modern web is more visual than it's ever been, and therein lies one of the most valuable lessons content creators can learn from Tumblr.

Lesson One: Shorter Is Better

I'm certain I've already mentioned on multiple occasions that web users today aren't exactly as attentive as they used to be. In all honesty, that's sort of putting it lightly. To be blunt, the average modern web user has a shorter attention span than a goldfish.

What that means is that the shorter your content is - the more easily one can digest it - the more your readers are likely to share it, discuss it, and generally just engage with it. Content that's way too long tends to be boring; people tune out and move on to other things. Tumblr, I think, is a perfect example of this.

Full disclosure here - I'm a Tumblr user myself. One of the first things I noticed about the platform is that it's excessively rare to see a text post consisting of more than 250 words. The majority of stuff on the site is visual - pictures, comics, video; you get the idea. What text does crop up is usually quite short; a quote here, a random thought there.

And you know what? It works. Something about a sea of easy-to-digest content is addictive; it has a certain pull to it that simply doesn't exist on larger blogs and news sites.

Lesson Two: You Don't Always Have To Be Good - Just Entertaining

Heads up, folks. There's a bit of strong language in the section ahead. Sorry, but it's the terminology used by the community - I'm certain you understand.

See, on Tumblr, there's something known as a shitpost. Basically, it's a tumblr post that's completely unconstructive, requires very little effort to create, and doesn't really contribute a whole lot to...well, anything. All it really has going for it is that it's sort of entertaining (and sometimes, it's not even that).

Sounds like the sort of thing no one on any social network would have time for, right?

Well...you'd think so, but you'd actually be dead wrong. A couple weeks ago, a Tumblr user created a java program whose purpose he claimed was literally "to churn out the worst posts imaginable." He called it shitbot.

Cool experiment, right?

That experiment reached almost 60,000 followers before its creator pulled the plug. It was only four days old. You might think the story a little disheartening, but there's a lesson to be found here.

See, you might think your articles incredibly insightful, you might think your infographics are fun, pithy, and informative. But at the end of the day if they bore your audience, then none of that stuff matters. Whatever you create should be entertaining (or at least interesting) above all else.

Lesson Three: Don't Just Communicate; Connect

Believe it or not, there are actually a number of big-name brands that use Tumblr - organizations such as McDonalds, Ikea, Apple, IBM and even the United States Government. The one thing all of these businesses have in common is that they're using their Tumblr pages to enhance their relationship with consumers.

"Tumblr head of creative strategy David Hayes," writes ClickZ's Tessa Wegert, "wants brands to use Tumblr as a home base and syndicate their content to other social channels, which he says Tumblr doesn't view as competitors but part of an overall "social mix.""

In plain english, what he means by that is that businesses use Tumblr to enhance themselves in some way. The White House fields questions about education and public policy. McDonalds runs promotions and marketing campaigns. IBM offers education, and Apple's iTunes page has a ton of different media. They all have one thing in common: the people managing them understand their target audience, and are playing to the social network's strength in order to connect with them.

Seek to do the same with whatever content you produce, no matter the platform, and you'll be on the right track.

In Closing

There's a bit more we could yet say about Tumblr, but this piece is already getting a bit longer than I'd like. For now, I think we can safely wrap things up. Think on what you've read here, and maybe give Tumblr a try yourself.

Who knows? You might enjoy it. And if not, at least you'll learn a few things about content creation.