Nearly one in seven people on Earth has a Facebook page. But, the most popular social network on the planet is not the most effective social network for the nonprofit First Book (FB). Twitter, with its billion tweets every three days, isn’t cutting it. The Washington, D.C., group has more followers on the microblogging site Tumblr than it has on any other social media outlet.
“Tumblr, to me, is a great platform to reach a new, young audience,” said Rochee Jeffrey, FB’s social media coordinator. FB’s Tumblr has between 25,000 and 30,000 (number of Tumblr followers are not made public), compared to 22,000 Facebook fans and 20,000 Twitter followers. “The virality factor is fairly high. We’ve had more success spreading messages on Tumblr than Twitter or Facebook,” said Jeffrey.
To see an example of Tumblr content “going viral,” or spreading rapidly on the Internet, look to the Occupy movement’s motto: “We are the 99 percent.” The phrase began life as a Tumblr blog in August 2011. The blog was getting 100 daily submissions by October, and millions of people around the world had heard the phrase.
Tumblr, based in New York City, is a blogging site created by David Karp in 2007. Five years later, the Tumblr network has nearly 60 million blogs, 24.2 billion posts and more than 15 billion monthly page views. According to the web traffic measurement company Quantcast, Tumblr.com is the 21st most popular website in America, with 44 million U.S. visitors per month, ranking better than Craigslist, LinkedIn, the New York Times’ website and competitor Pinterest. “With any other type of blog, it just sits there,” said Rachel Fershleiser, literary and nonprofit organizations outreach for Tumblr. “With Tumblr, sharing and distribution is built right in. If you’re looking to grow your audience, it’s a no-brainer. It’s a blog that’s also a distribution and sharing platform.”
Tumblr is a blogging tool “for the short attention span generation,” said Chris Youngblood, director of strategic partnerships for the Melbourne, Fla.-based To Write Love On Her Arms (TWLOHA). Tumblr blogs are generally multimedia heavy: lots of photos, videos, audio clips and infographics, with short pieces of text. Long-form content need not apply. That’s what you do on a regular blog.
A dashboard greets each Tumblr user upon logging in. No HTML knowledge is necessary to create a Tumblr post. The dashboard allows the creation of text, photo, audio and video links and even chat log posts with the click of a button. New posts from all the blogs that a user follows are there on the dashboard, allowing for quick consumption of posts and easy sharing via a “reblog” button. Hitting the reblog button makes that post show up on the dashboards of all of your followers, a key feature, according to FB’s communications director, Brian Minter.
“One thing we do more on Tumblr than on Facebook and Twitter is sharing content from other organizations, especially organizations similar to us,” he said, “because Tumblr audiences look for more graphics and images, which are hard to produce.” It is often easier and less expensive to share relevant graphics than for an organization to produce them.
Tumblr recently made sharing even easier with its “Bookmarklet.” The Bookmarklet is a button that Tumblr users drag to their bookmark blog. Find something you want to share, click your Bookmarklet and that content is instantly posted to your Tumblr, no coding necessary.
“When you get to work, you’re going to read industry news and look for articles about your organization no matter how busy you are,” said Fershleiser, who worked for the New York City nonprofit Housing Works before moving to Tumblr. With the Bookmarklet, you can “highlight a quote, click the button and now it’s on your blog.”
Post tagging is another popular Tumblr feature. Tagging is nothing new; similar to hashtags on Twitter, a tag is simply a word or phrase that describes the content or a category of a post. FB might tag one of its posts with “books,” letting users know that this post is about books. Tumblr allows users to track tags. If a user clicks on a tag and hits the “track” button, the tag is saved and with a mouse click the user can see all new posts with that tag.
When it comes to tagging, “Finding things applicable to your organization in a broader sense helps you find an audience,” said FB’s Jeffrey. “We tag things related to books in general so people into books can find us.” TWLOHA has three Tumblrs, all used differently, in addition to a traditional blog. Its flagship Tumblr with the greatest number of followers, called Behind the Scenes, “gives our supporters an inside look as to what inspires us in the office,” said Youngblood. The traditional blog has longer content and is usually shared on other social media outlets such as Facebook and Twitter.
Here We Collide, the second Tumblr, “caters more to the creative and inspiring side of Tumblr,” said Youngblood. It’s a place for TWLOHA supporters to post art, photos and projects, things that inspire them. Fears vs. Dreams asks supporters two questions: what is your biggest fear, and what is your greatest dream? Youngblood said it’s a place for supporters both to share their answers and to see others’ answers and realize, “They’re not alone. Their stories matter.” Both FB and TWLOHA are featured on Tumblr’s Charities and Nonprofits Spotlight, which Youngblood said has “been a huge help” in growing the number of TWLOHA’s followers. Tumblr has more than 50 spotlights, in categories such as “artists,” “cute,” “parenting” and “technology.” Fershleiser admitted that it’s a subjective decision made by an editorial team as to which blogs are featured on the spotlight, but organizations that “work with our outreach team have a better chance” of being featured, she said.
Despite its growing consumer popularity, Tumblr is having trouble gaining traction with nonprofits. According to the Sage Nonprofits Insight Study, Q1 2012, conducted by software company Sage North America, only 31 percent of nonprofits have a blog, and of that 31 percent, a mere 2 percent use Tumblr. The 2012 Nonprofit Social Network Benchmark Report, produced by The Nonprofit Technology Network (NTEN), Common Knowledge and Blackbaud, does not even mention Tumblr.
“The structure of the site in the admin dashboard makes it very difficult to build community,” said Heather Mansfield, owner of DIOSA Communications in Springfield, Mo., and author of the Nonprofit Tech 2.0 blog. “I don’t like the user interface…or the design. The only reason I am watching it is for mobile innovation.” Mansfield added that she has a Tumblr account that she rarely uses, but she’s been getting more followers on Tumblr lately, so “something is happening there.”
Harry Lynch, CEO of the New York City fundraising consultancy SankyNet, said adoption of Tumblr by his clients has “been relatively limited” so far. FB’s Minter said that could be a good opportunity for nonprofits. It’s hard to distinguish yourself on Facebook with so many other nonprofits fighting for users’ attention, he said. The relative dearth of nonprofits on Tumblr means your organization has a better chance of standing out.
Tumblr could face competition from new kid on the block Pinterest, launched in 2010. Both sites are geared toward sharing visual content. Limited resources might force nonprofits to choose one or the other. “We feel like the people we can reach on Pinterest we can reach on other platforms,” said Minter.
Lynch said: “If (nonprofits) have the resources, they should definitely use both. It’s unfortunate that so many are in a position to have to choose.” He thinks Tumblr might be more versatile. “Tumblr goes beyond just images. It’s a blog as well, so it does allow you to have more of a conversation with the people who are following you,” he said.
“We’re encouraging our clients (to use Tumblr) because it’s easy to use and accessible,” said Lynch. “It’s a great way to show off projects.” Lynch pointed to his company’s client Habitat for Humanity New York City, as an example of how nonprofits can use Tumblr. The organization uses its Tumblr “100 Homes in Brooklyn” to show progress on house builds with brief posts and lots of photos of houses in various stages of completion. “If groups have a lot to show and can show progress, they can use Tumblr as another outlet to show what they’re doing,” said Lynch. He also said that social media in general makes for stronger search engine optimization, so adding a Tumblr blog to your organization’s social media toolkit can help improve its search engine rankings.
“Search engines love the fresh new content blogs provide,” according to the Sage Nonprofits Insight Study, Q1 2012.
Like a widely read blog or a Twitter account with a high number of followers, one of the most important aspects of a popular Tumblr blog is the frequency and consistency of posting. Because of the ease of consumption (everything is there on the dashboard), you have less to worry about in oversaturating your readers than you might with a traditional blog. And, being active “is not that hard with the Bookmarklet,” said Fershleiser. She recommended posting multiple times each day.
It’s also important to give your Tumblr a distinctive, casual voice. “It’s about giving yourself a personality,” said Fershleiser. “You want a good mix of posts that are about your organization and work and posts that are more general in your field. It takes you from a marketing voice to a trusted source.” Youngblood also cautioned against blatant self-promotion. And, if you can, try to make it funny: “Humor is definitely very important and works well on Tumblr,” said Lynch. NPT