The New York Times Magazine article “Can Tumblr’s David Karp Embrace Ads Without Selling Out?” discusses Tumblr founder David Karp, the unique online platform, and its future.
David Karp’s instincts tend to run counter to current conventions on the web. For one thing, Tumblr doesn’t display “follower” counts or other numerical markers of popularity. Karp finds this “really gross.” He also thinks that the public friend-and-follow culture can “really poison a whole community.” And going without certain features and processes that are widely viewed as crucial to social media doesn’t seem to be holding him back. Tumblr has been used to make more than 60 million blogs and draws a combined 17.5 billion page views a month.
Karp is also thinking differently about profitability. While most large tech companies today are essentially metrics driven, Karp has chosen not to operate that way. Rather than monetizing clicks, he wants advertisers to view Tumblr as a place to promote creative campaigns. Karp has said that advertising “really turns our stomachs,” but it is specifically Web advertising as we know it that he opposes: “The Web has mega-optimized the smallest chunk of advertising, which is direct response,” and that’s fine for some, but it doesn’t do much for the kind of creative advertising that is “intended to make you feel something for the brand…can you remember the last Twitter ad you’ve seen, the last Facebook ad?” Karp sees a huge untapped opportunity in online advertising.
One proposed solution is that a spot on the Tumblr dashboard generally used to highlight the company’s picks will occasionally include content from paid sponsors. Adidas, Calvin Klein, and the movie “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” have already participated in this way. Karp says, “[A lot of] brands showed up on Tumblr, figured out how to use the tools, created value for our community and got a response.” Now they can “elevate” what they’ve created within Tumblr through a sponsorship.
Karp’s vision goes directly against conventional wisdom. Online advertising’s methods of targeting and measuring results are seen as crucial and superior to traditional advertising. Karp acknowledges this, but points out that an emphasis on feeling over data is exactly what made Tumblr popular. He says that he occasionally gets pushback from investors on this point, but that, nevertheless, “I think I can make a pretty good case for…following our hearts.”