How GIFs and Storytelling Come Together for Tumblr Advertising in 2014
On January 2, 2014, Tumblr had 163.9 million blogs and 72 billion posts. By March 20, 2014, those numbers had increased to 176.7 million blogs and 80.2 billion posts, and the numbers continue to grow every day. But why should advertisers care about Tumblr — a social media platform largely populated by teenagers and bored college students, a kinetic stream of niche content about cats, dreamy islands and ’90s movies?
Because Tumblr is now running ads.
Until 2013 and Yahoo’s $1.1 billion acquisition of Tumblr, advertising was basically nonexistent on Tumblr — it was completely dependent on content added and reblogged by users. As the website and its features developed, however, advertising also arrived — with a few unique possibilities and differentiators. Here’s how Tumblr describes their advertising: “It’s non-disruptive,” “Shelf life on Tumblr is infinite,” “No clutter” and “beautiful.”
Most Tumblr ads are just like the content generated and proliferated by users: simply posts. They integrate with the Tumblr environment, often mimicking the form and function of popular posts to inspire, entertain, educate and surprise — and their underlying sales goal is often secondary to the post, giving Tumblr users what they want to see.
More often than not, the format they want to see is the GIF.
Mike Volpe, the chief marketing officer at HubSpot, argues: “Animated GIFs tend to catch your eye and attract attention. They allow you to have animation that auto-plays, so … content stands out a lot more.” In other words, GIFs grab you. They distinguish themselves from content that is otherwise stable. Brad Kim, the editor of KnowYourMeme.com, claims: “Advertisers are definitely catching onto this, as with most trends. I think people are noticing an affiliation between online fandom communities and using GIFs as a way of Internet scrapbooking.”
So the GIF catches the eye, distinguishes content and creates a kind of “scrapbooking” effect, which may start to explain the benefits for advertisers looking to resonate with an audience. But what about the appeal for bloggers? In other words, why do people love GIFs so much?
Since around 1987, we seem to find ourselves in a GIF Renaissance with websites likewhatshouldwecallme firing up a youth culture that, for whatever reason, loves this form of communication. Whatshouldwecallme uses the popular form “reaction GIFs” to link together funny, daily moments with the GIFs that properly — and hilariously — animate them and add meaning to them. As of March 2013, the blog got between 1 million and 2 million hits per day, and in a 2013 Forbes article, the creators were asked about their success. One question was, “Why are GIFs so funny?”
One of the creators, remaining anonymous, answers, “I think part of it is that you’re taking a picture of something that totally doesn’t apply to what you’re talking about in the broader sense, but once you put a caption on it, a lightbulb just goes off and it makes sense. … They’re always totally random situations in gifs, and once you put that caption on it and it’s just like, Bingo.”
Echoing this claim and writing about the blog, Kate Brown argues: “Many times the reaction to GIFs on their own, without the overlaid text, are banal, even boring. This is an important part of … GIFs—it is the context that makes them successful.”
Let’s take a look at a typical post from whatshouldwecallme. A daily moment, something banal itself, like “getting out of bed on Mondays” is coupled with a GIF, a sloth crawling through a tree, that suddenly illuminates that moment as hilarious — and even true.
Of this, Brown clarifies that “by removing their original context” — meaning GIFs are fragments of a larger piece of content themselves, like a clip from a scene of a movie, or a facial expression caught on the evening news — "and adding a perpetual repetition of a single action” — the looping feature that makes GIFs so mesmerizing — “they also become atemporal. The emotive performance is fleetingly infinite.” In other words: looping motion makes funny even funnier, makes the relaxed or romantic more luxurious. The GIF’s emotional impact is powerful — and meaningful. Even more so, it’s inviting and engaging.
For Brown, “the authenticity of the emotion at that moment of use becomes paramount. Thus, a type of homegrown aesthetic takes place.” The link the blogger makes to the GIF is where the power lies. This link is “homegrown,” an engaged, emotive response — whether funny, sad or strange. Emotion, it seems, trumps everything else.
GIFs — because they move, because they provoke a response, because they crave new contextualization — become stories. And emotional ones at that. The reason Tumblr bloggers love the GIF so much may be because it allows them to tell a story, to not only repost, but to identify and connect: to craft.
Advertisers, likewise, might engage through storytelling by remembering what David Karp—the now billionaire creator of Tumblr—once said: “You can’t tell a story with a little blue link.” It seems you can with a little looping GIF.