The past year has been an up-and-down affair for Yahoo, with the company and its CEO, Marissa Mayer, scoring numerous PR coups while failing to make headway in its core business of selling digital advertising.
One of those coups was the $1.1 billion purchase of Tumblr, the social blogging platform, which had drawn interest from the likes of Facebook and Microsoft despite having negligible revenues. Like Snapchat, Tumblr justified its sale price with its astonishing rate of user growth.
But since the acquisition, that growth — or at least the portion of it subject to public verification — has come to a screeching halt.
In May, the month the deal was announced, Tumblr reached an audience of 47.49 million users across desktop and mobile, according to comScore. Only once in the subsequent six months, in July, did its traffic exceed that level. That’s not to say traffic has fallen off, just plateaued abruptly.
Asked about the audience trend, a Tumblr spokeswoman cautioned against reading too much into the comScore data. Via email:
Comscore does not fully capture mobile traffic, as it does not include in-app traffic (and that number you reference also only accounts for US). For Tumblr, 1 in 2 active users access Tumblr content through the mobile app. In addition, in the past year we’ve seen a 55% total engagement growth and on mobile this number is 251% growth.
So the picture painted by comScore’s data is far from complete. But it’s worth noting that when Valleywag asked Tumblr in December why it had asked Quantcast, another measurement company, to hide its audience numbers from users, this was its reply: “In order to remain consistent with the rest of the tech sector and improve traffic reporting, we are now measuring Tumblr’s audience engagement only through comScore analytics.”
Another data set, a global survey of 170,000 internet users conducted by GlobalWebIndex, shows a similar pattern. The proportion of internet users describing themselves as active users of Tumblr held steady at 4% from the second through the fourth quarter of 2013. Meanwhile, the proportion of users saying they have a Tumblr account jumped from 6% in Q1 to 12% in Q2, but then hovered around that level for the rest of the year (at 11% in Q3 and 13% in Q4).
In any case, Yahoo surely wouldn’t mind if Tumblr were growing both its app usage and its web traffic. Considering the trajectory it was on at the time of the acquisition, that would seem to have been the logical expectation.
How to explain this? The easiest theory would be that Tumblr, having become part of a faceless corporate colossus, has “lost its cool.” Certainly there was no shortage of predictions at the time of the sale that this would be the case, and no shortage of users vowing to take their business elsewhere. But history suggests mass defections of that sort are rare. (The promised post-Facebook Instagram exodus was all talk, for example.) When users flee in droves, it’s usually because of a change to the product, not the ownership.
Here’s another thought: Tumblr’s traffic flattening corresponds with a period of torrid growth for viral content sites, particularly Buzzfeed and Upworthy. Those sites deal in the same sorts of content — funny gifs and memes, inspirational photos and videos — that’s popular on Tumblr. Could it be that casual Tumblr users — the kind who consume content but don’t produce any of their own — are going to Buzzfeed instead to get their fix of hot dog legs and otters who look like Benedict Cumberbatch?