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Tumblr: What's in It for You?

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Marketers trying to keep pace with Twitter and Facebook may want to check out another emerging social media platform: Tumblr.

At first blush, Tumblr, described as a “blogging platform,” which aggregates online content on a particular theme (like, say, skateboarding), doesn’t seem to have an obvious marketing application. But IBM, EMI and Universal Music have all discovered that creating a tumbleblog (a term that preceded the two-year-old Tumblr’s existence) is a good way to help control the message online, reward fans and, in IBM’s case, position oneself as a thought leader on a given topic.

IBM began using Tumblr last fall as part of its Smarter Planet initiative, which was based on a November 2008 speech by CEO Sam Palmisano that posited that in an interconnected world, smarter solutions to problems like wasted energy, gridlocked cities and our antiquated healthcare system will come easier.

IBM ran TV ads from Ogilvy & Mather, New York, on the Smarter Planet theme, but it also has a blog and a tumbleblog related to the idea. The tumbleblog aggregates content from news sources like Information Week and The Wall Street Journal. A heading for “smarter healthcare,” for instance, includes a link to a Boston Globe story on a device developed in South Africa that can help prevent Sudden Infant Death Syndome by monitoring a baby’s movements—if it doesn’t detect any in 15 seconds it vibrates and then, if the baby hasn’t responded, it sounds an alarm.

Marketers can provide such links via blogs, but Tumblr makes it easier to aggregate content like news articles and video. Like Twitter, you can also “follow” a tumbleblog you like. Users can also hit a “like” button or reblog the post onto their own Tumblr page, making the blog items more viral. Adam Christensen, social media manager for IBM, said the idea is to drive online conversation. “It certainly raises awareness for the kinds of things that IBM is working on,” he said. “We don’t want it to be just about IBM, and Tumblr gives us a holistic view.”

At the same time, though, Tumblr can also help a marketer like IBM control its message online in ways that aren’t possible via Facebook and Twitter. Tumblr CEO David Karp said that music artists like Katy Perry and Lenny Kravitz were the first to embrace the platform, and earlier this year labels EMI and Universal Music followed suit. Karp said that marketers who go on Twitter, for instance, find that they are “having weird conversations with the public” and using the platform to short circuit public relations disasters.

In contrast, he said, Tumblr is a way to both control the message and to reward your most loyal consumers by offering them a platform via aggregating their blog posts. “You can find the most positive voices in the community and link to them,” he said. “You can vindicate them and turn yourself into a positive force.”

Michael Arauz, a strategist at Undercurrent, a digital shop in New York, said he believes Tumblr opens up the possibility of letting a marketer present itself as a curator on the Web. He suggests, though, that brands pick a specific issue like IBM did, rather than try to merely reflect its brand personality via Tumblr. “Pick something specific,” he said. “It’s really about showing what’s important to your brand.”