In August, telecommunications company Verizon sold social network and microblogging site Tumblr to WordPress owner Automattic for approximately $3 million. It was, many publications noted, a massive loss on their part. Just two years ago, they purchased the site for $1.1 billion. Most agree that their purchase of the platform was a complete and utter failure.
“ Verizon’s attempt to offload Tumblr comes as it tries to make the best of its collective media business after a $4.6 billion write-down last year, which was essentially an acknowledgment that both deals had been a mistake,” reads a piece on tech publication The Verge. “Now the question becomes whether there’s even a viable buyer for the platform in 2019 that won’t let it slowly wither away.”
Believe it or not, there’s a lot that one can learn from this failed acquisition. Lessons that go beyond not purchasing a platform until you’re certain you can monetize it. Lessons that can easily be applied to your social marketing efforts and beyond.
Understand Your Audience
The beginning of the end for Verizon’s ownership of Tumblr was when the company made the unilateral decision to ban adult content on the platform. On some level, this was an understandable move. Apple had recently banned the social network from its store due to reports of child pornography. At the same time, the decision-makers responsible for the shift could have taken a different route.
And they should have. As a result of the ban, Tumblr lost nearly a third of its users. In one fell swoop, they had alienated the lion’s share of its community.
Not Safe For Work (NSFW) content was a part of the social network’s culture – it had been ever since its foundation. And it wasn’t just pornographic material, either. With a userbase that was primarily queer and feminist, erotic material on the site ran the gamut from fanart to sexual education and more, according to online publication Vox.
The lesson should be obvious. Know your audience before you make any major decisions about your marketing. Do whatever it takes, whether that’s market research, surveys, or simply passive listening on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
Cop To Your Mistakes
As if Tumblr’s content ban wasn’t enough, it was also carried out in the clumsiest, most ham-fisted way possible. Rather than employ human content curators, the social network relied on a poorly-coded automated system to identify and flag adult content. The results were predictable.
Video game-focused publication Kotaku published a list of false flags, including, among other things:
- A picture of a dragon
- Fully clothed women
- A video filled with abstract blurs
- Artwork from a children’s book
- A bowl of fruit
- Garfield. Yes, that Garfield.
Moreover, Tumblr’s updated terms of service contained a line which anyone with even a modicum of understanding of its audience would have found problematic. It banned, among other content, “female-presenting nipples.”
At the time of writing, this has not changed. Nor has the fact that the social network did nothing to address the presence of white nationalist propaganda with its content purge.
Amidst this cavalcade of egregious errors, Tumblr and Verizon remained silent. This was, beyond any shadow of a doubt, their greatest error. If your business or brand makes a mistake – if it errs in a way that has its audience in an uproar – own up to it.
Apologize, explain how you will make reparations, and move on. People will forgive your brand for a few missteps if you’re authentic about them. They won’t forgive a brand that blunders aimlessly through one mistake after another.
The core issue with Verizon is that it did not understand Tumblr as a platform. It tried to treat it as something other than what it was. In so doing, it alienated the social network’s audience to an incredible extent.
The reason is tied to our last lesson – consistency. The most important thing about any brand’s marketing is that it remains consistent with what people perceive as that brand’s identity. Tumblr’s adult content ban outraged its users specifically because that ban was out of character for the brand Tumblr had built.
You can change your brand’s personality and identity, certainly. But it’s not something that happens overnight. It needs to be a careful, measured, and gradual process.
Otherwise, don’t bother.
Tumblr is in better hands now than before. Of that, there can be no doubt. But it’s difficult to say what the future holds for the social network, after so many years of mishandling. At the very least, we can treat it collectively as a cautionary tale – a guidebook of how not to handle social media.