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It's time to Tumble into the newest social media phenomenon

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Before we get started, rid yourself of any preconceived notions of what you think Tumblr is all about. Start fresh. Resist the urge to assume it is just the place where teenagers post pictures of their brunches or that site that is nothing but videos of cats.

Social media has now successfully wedged itself in as part of a nonprofit’s everyday life. It is a pivotal part of branding and marketing efforts, a driver of fundraising, and a useful tool for keeping donors informed.

However, there is much more to world of social media than updating a Facebook page or Twitter account every few days.

As the Royal Ontario Museum’s resident technologist Kiron Mukherjee explains, many nonprofits fall under a similar school of thought when it comes to social media.

“The prevailing trend is that ‘I know we need Facebook and Twitter, but do we need to go further? Should we dip into Instagram? Is Pinterest worth it? And I’m not even sure what Google+ is all about.’”

Mukherjee handles the day-to-day operations – including social media management – for the museum’s ROMKids program.

But are many Canadian nonprofits using Tumblr?

A simple search of many nonprofit websites across the country reveals that while Facebook and Twitter are now staples, only a handful of these organizations are actually using the microblogging site.

“Look around, and you’ll notice that there aren’t too many of us out there using Tumblr,” says Mukherjee. “But watch out. 2013 will be the year this changes.”

It's a numbers game

Even if you are under the impression that the content produced on Tumblr is frivolous, the site’s rapid user growth cannot be ignored.

Today, Tumblr hosts 90 million blogs that produce more than 89 million new posts every day, which has shot the microblogging site into lists of the top 10 most popular websites of 2012. A recent Quantcast survey found that those who fall into the critical 18-34 year old demographic are propelling Tumblr’s rise up internet traffic charts.

It was for this reason that the Toronto-based UforChange charity hopped on the Tumblr bandwagon.

“It all boils down to understanding our audience,” says Julia Girmenia, social media specialist for UforChange. “It’s the medium that our youth use to connect with us, and connect with each other. They’re the ones we want to connect with, and they’re the ones we want to introduce our program to.”

Girmenia says that her organization – one that connects low-income youth with professionals, artists, and community leaders to help them use the arts as a vehicle for change – is extremely focused on the younger demographic.

“Our blog is heavy on picture-content, and because we promote the art our youth have created, it’s an easy way to connect with our target audience,” she says. “So why not jump in as well? That’s where a lot of youth are going.”

Although the younger demographic may not be an organization’s key target donor group, Girmeniabelieves that appealing to this web-literate age bracket is integral to cultivating future donors.

“Maintaining a presence on Tumblr certainly has its advantages, and can help in engaging a younger audience that will eventually grow into stronger supporters and future donors,” says Girmenia. “Catering to them now in your social media plans can yield future rewards, perhaps sooner than you think.”

A visual experience

Tumblr is a rather like a cross between a publishing platform and a social network with a voracious appetite for all-things visually stimulating. It’s a combination that offers organizations a vehicle to present visually appealing insight into what they are all about.

“Nonprofit social media managers are understanding more and more that the most effective way to make an impact is to go beyond just shouting slogans or forcing content on followers, by creating something more useful and fun,” says Mukherjee. “With Tumblr’s dedicated group of engaged users, the platform is well-equipped for nonprofit content distribution.”

Tumblr is a highly visual experience, effectively suited to the short attention spans that go hand-in-hand with surfing the web. Through a microblog platform that places emphasis on pictures or short videos rather than text, this new mode of visual storytelling resembles a series of fresh, ongoing television ads. From there, if users want to find out more about an organization, they can easily do so by clicking a link to the nonprofit’s main website.

“It’s microblogging, which in essence is very small, but you can get big, fast,” explains Mukherjee. “Today, I can just post a photo of a dinosaur, but tomorrow I can post some pictures of other activities, or staff you’ll meet – anything to get people excited.”

From there, Mukherjee says that the endless visual potential of Tumblr is what sets it apart.

“If you can get people excited by creatively presenting your program on Tumblr, it’s much better than merely saying ‘hey, come to my program’,” he says. “If you can show users why they’re going to have fun, and if you can show them why it’s going to be such a great time to come to the museum, it’s so much better than tweeting: ‘sign up for this camp’. I’ve found this has really worked.”

It's all part of a bigger plan

Other nonprofits, like the National Ballet of Canada, joined Tumblr as a means of exponentially increasing their presence in the social media universe. However, instead of solely relying on the microblogging site to get their complete message out, they treat their Tumblr presence as an extension of their brand, allowing them to communicate the crux of who they are, while driving high levels of engagement to their main website.

“It’s light. It’s fun. It gives us content,” says Belinda Bale, senior associate director of the Ballet. “We promote Tumblr on our other social media platforms, saying ‘Check out our Tumblr post’, and we’ve had some really popular posts that logged over 350 notes.”

Mukherjee agrees, detailing how he has a better sense of the value of each of his posts now that he’s armed with the knowledge of who falls into Tumblr’s primary demographic.

“I feel like we’re hitting two different audiences. On Tumblr itself, when we post something there, I’m hitting mostly teens from all across the world, but when I tweet about our Tumblr page, I’m hitting the local demographic I want to hit – moms and dads in the GTA,” he says. “I’m building the brand awareness around the world through Tumblr, and hitting the local targets through Twitter by using links to Tumblr. It’s all very connected.”

Fairtrade Canada, an Ottawa-based nonprofit that certifies North American products to ensure they meet internationally-recognized fair trade standards, set up its Tumblr page for similar reasons.

“We wanted to have a platform through which we could make campaign-related posts, something that was separated from our website and other social media accounts,” says Michael Zelmer, director of communications for Fairtrade Canada. “We could have built something natively, but we thought that because Tumblr already has the infrastructure in place, and it has an engaged, social media-savvy community that is attached, we could find new people who are interested in the content that we wouldn’t have caught through our normal online communications.”

Bale notes that she has found that Tumblr is most effective when used alongside other social media tools.

“It’s one more place where we can post content, and we reach a different audience with it – a younger, more creative audience,” explains Bale. “Tumblr seems to draw people who love great visuals, so we look at it as the icing on top of our social media cake.”

The ability to compound social media posts isn’t the only reason why nonprofits are double-dipping on Tumblr. Some organizations are launching microblogs to align themselves with sister sites.

“Fairtrade International is a new organization in the United States, and they’ve actually built their main website on Tumblr,” says Zelmer. “It looked like a good idea, and we thought, ‘why don’t we give it a shot, and see what happens?’ We use it in conjunction with our main site, and now, the rest is history.”

The return of lasting content

It doesn’t seem like very long ago that organizations were chomping at the bit to launch blogs, citing the potential for long-lived content as a means to attract visitors over months and years. However, with the recent shift in focus to networks like Twitter and Facebook, the desire to produce content with a longer shelf life was left to collect dust. Despite offering a bonanza of user engagement, tweets and Facebook posts typically aren’t indexed in search engines and quickly become stale as they get pushed to the bottom of feeds. A recent study found that a standard Facebook post gets 18 hours of engagement, while a tweet nets a staggeringly low 18 minutes.

The remedy? Since Tumblr’s focus is on social amplification and tag-based discovery, it allows content to stand the test of time, with many posts receiving reblogs months after the original post.

“Since Tumblr pages are public websites, they’re indexed on search engines,” says Mukherjee. “This allows the reach of our Tumblr content to extend well beyond the borders of Tumblr, and fall into the laps, and monitors, of any interested person.”

Micro communities of engaged users

Along with a shorter content shelf-life, there are a few additional overarching reasons why Facebook and Twitter aren’t all they’re cracked up to be as a means for nonprofits to reach meaningful audiences.

While Facebook connects and reconnects people with friends and family, and Twitter shows what’s trending at any present moment, Tumblr transcends the immediate to harness growing enthusiasm around a particular subject, creating a community.

For nonprofits, this eliminates hunting for followers because Tumblr provides a built-in audience that follows specific tags and topics. Nonprofits can post highly targeted content with interest-related tags, and easily reach communities of potential donors.

“If we tag ‘#animation’ or ‘#photography’ to our posts, we’ll draw audiences that are specifically interested in those concepts,” explains Girmenia. “Having that focus is really effective when it comes to drawing interest to our organization. We get to tap into the arts community – not just nonprofits, but individuals, businesses, everything. It gets our name out there.”

Weigh your resources

If you ask ten nonprofit directors if they think social media is necessary part of their operations, there is a good chance that at least nine will agree. However, in a multi-network world, every nonprofit has to carefully decide to where to designate resources, and often, a social media strategy falls down the priority list.

“For a lot of nonprofit organizations, the challenge with social media is human resources. It is a time sucker, let me tell you,” laughs Bale. “I have heard very good advice from people about nonprofits and social media, and my policy is to ‘do well with what you can.’”

Bale admits that the Ballet operates a Tumblr account due to a combination of the luxury of a larger communications staff than most Canadian nonprofits, coupled with an eager team.

“I had two members of my staff approach me to tell me that they really wanted to take this on,” she says. “They drove the creation of our Tumblr page, and are fantastic with posting each day, to keep up our presence. Consistency is key.”

Advice to nonprofits interested in launching a Tumblr page

Mukherjee has been operating the ROMKids Tumblr account for more than a year, and has a list of pointers he shares with other nonprofits looking to launch a microblog. Consider them the ‘4 P’s of Nonprofit Tumblr Use’.

  • Preparation. “I probably thought about it for a good two months before I decided whether or not we should get into Tumblr. I really wanted to make the right call, and to make sure that we could commit to it, but once we launched, we couldn’t stop.”
  • Practice. “Really think about what you want to do. Make sure you have a good action plan in place. If you’re never been on Tumblr before, maybe start up your own personal Tumblr first to gain some familiarity. Develop a strategy.”
  • Persistence. “Launching a Tumblr page is not going to instantly change your organization. If you really go after it, and if you’re consistent, you’re on some sort of schedule, and if you’re willing to commit the staff, resources, and time, than it will work. Commitment is king.”
  • Passion. “Make sure you employ staff that are really enthusiastic about using this tool – people who are ready to go, ready to talk, ready to interact. Whatever your organization is about, if your online voice is someone who is excited and wants to talk about all of the awesome things that your organization is doing, it will sell.”

For the bulk of its short existence, Tumblr has been a page-view machine with plenty of upside. There are still some bugs to work out, and it has yet to shed its somewhat-youthful appearance, but despite its flaws, the microblogging site is clearly on the rise. It’s already achieved a massive scale of highly engaged consumers eager for interesting content, and marketers are starting to tap in to this resource.

“And,” opines Girmenia, “let’s not forget that it’s fun.”

 

Brock Smith is a radio reporter/producer and communications specialist based out of Ottawa, with a special interest in the nonprofit sector. Brock can be reached on twitter at @brocktsmith.

Photos (from top) via iStock.com. All photos used with permission.

Please note: While we ensure that all links and email addresses are accurate at their publishing date, the quick-changing nature of the web means that some links to other websites and email addresses may no longer be accurate.

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Mark Freeman Mark Freeman
Thanks for posting this! I hope more organizations see the value of Tumblr. When we started up our Everybody has a Brain project to promote dialogue around mental health, we looked at getting a traditional website but ended up going with Tumblr because we had identified that demographic as the group most likely to talk about mental health online and offline. It was definitely the right decision. It costs nothing and we reach way more people than if we tried to force them to a standalone site.
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