Journalists learn what works (& doesn't work) on Tumblr

Tumblr's "media evangelist" Mark Coatney recently announced the arrival of big names in the industry that have launched their own tumblelogs, including The Los Angeles Times, Al-Jazeera English and The Guardian. In the past year, more than 160 media organizations, as well as individual journalists, have started using Tumblr.

So why has the media become so enamored with the micro-blogging platform?

As more journalists use Tumblr, they're starting to see how it can help them engage with users and reach new audiences. For insights, I interviewed journalists via email about what's working (and not working), and highlighted some of their key takeaways.

Ease of use

The platform's primary asset is its simple ease of use, said Michael Cervieri, adjunct professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs.

Cervieri, co-founder of media strategy firm ScribeLabs, has a personal tumblelog and leads the Future Journalism Project, a multiplatform documentary on American news media.

He said Tumblr users can easily publish multimedia content -- text, images, audio, video, quotes, links or chats -- in just a few clicks after logging in.

"With WordPress or Drupal, for example, the process is more complex and requires greater user commitment when actually publishing content," Cervieri said. "This isn't a knock on them since their purposes are different, but users of those platforms are accustomed to filling out a number of fields that include the content viewers will actually see, as well as metadata that surrounds that content. Tumblr strips all of that away to reduce publishing friction."

Making content sharing more social

Reuters' Anthony De Rosa says community is the big difference between Tumblr and other blogging platforms like WordPress and Blogger.

"There are really smart people posting great content in different areas and they all seem to work well with each other, reblogging something someone else in their peer group posted to fill in the gaps in their own coverage, and providing a fuller picture. Posts can become viral in a short amount of time and get a lot of attention," he explained.

Matthew Keys, aka ProducerMatthew, a journalist who aggregates content on social media sites, also believes that Tumblr is unrivaled in social blogging. Recently, he created a "Tumblr for journalists" guide.

"People endorse and give their own voice not only to their own content but to the content of the people they follow," he told me. "It's one of the few blogging platforms used by several national and international news organizations as a way of bringing visibility to their own content and stories."

Josh Sternberg, a communications company owner and guest writer for The Huffington Post, Mashable, and Mediaite, is also impressed with Tumblr's social media impact.

"The biggest difference is the social factor," he said. "Other blogging platforms like WordPress or Squarespace are solid for content and making a home on the Web, but having the social aspect (the notes, reblogs, etc.) has been a helpful tool in growing reach, relevancy and influence."

Benefiting from a visual platform

Tumblr may disappoint traditional bloggers who have gotten used to either WordPress, Blogger or LiveJournal. Long and wordy posts on Tumblr can get overshadowed by infographics, Internet memes, or memorable short posts and quotes.

On Tumblr, standalone images with captions tend to work well. Each Tumblr user's dashboard has a "Radar" section highlighting most-liked and most-reblogged image content.

"Tumblr is mostly about visuals. I'm a word guy, and even I'm a bit put off by Tumblr posts with no art," said Mark Dodge Medlin, assistant news editor at the San Diego Union-Tribune. "A short video or some photos go a long way toward getting my attention, even if the post is mostly about the words."

With so much information vying for our attention on the Web, it's sometimes easier to consume shorter posts or images.

Building a loyal brand

Journalists and news organizations looking for an audience on Tumblr may also do well to heed Boing Boing Co-Editor Cory Doctorow's social media adage that "Conversation is king. Content is just something to talk about."

"Like other social media platforms, Tumblr should be seen as a space where engagement and conversation can take place," Cervieri said. "If you do it well, you begin to build brand eminence and loyalty."

He added that audience engagement is key to having a successful Tumblr presence.

"It's providing a human face behind the news brand and delivering worthwhile content to the specific audience on Tumblr that makes your news organization matter to them," Cervieri said. "You have to give to gain attention and by give, it's to understand what your audience is looking for."

He explained that giving attention to the audience means entering into a conversation and interacting with them.

Throwing in personal touches can help create a more conversational tone. "While my day job is as communications professional, I infuse my Tumblr with posts about baseball, music, politics -- topics that are relevant to my life," Sternberg said.

Growing a community

While users can embed links and use third-party apps like Apture and Wibiya to share Tumblr content and drive traffic elsewhere, journalists who use Tumblr say that the platform itself is already an ideal medium to secure an audience.

Medlin said he's found that Tumblr is a good place to engage with a demographic that newspapers and other media organizations may not be able to otherwise reach.

De Rosa said tumblelogs that tend to do better are not used primarily to drive traffic to other sites.

"Once you establish an audience on the Tumblr, then you can be more generous with links to the main site, but you should first gain the appreciation and loyalty of the Tumblr audience, otherwise they may feel like you've only joined Tumblr to promote your other website," he added.

"If a news organization is using Tumblr, or any social media platform, primarily as a way to drive traffic to their websites, they're using social platforms incorrectly," Keys said.

He explained that a news organization should use Tumblr to highlight some of its best content: "Social platforms like Tumblr should be about growing a community. If a news organization is focused on growing their community first, they'll find their numbers will grow eventually."


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