How Automattic Can Make Tumblr Thrive & Pay Off

Wordpress owner Automattic has purchased Tumblr from Verizon, likely for somewhat less than a song. I still want Tumblr to make it. And by “it” I mean provide a healthy, vibrant, lively, creative community online as it once did, while also plausibly surviving as a business unit. Of course I have been wrong before (though my heart was and is in the right place!) but hear me out, again.

I will generously assume the numbers I am citing here are reasonably close to correct, though feel free to tell me if they are so way off base that they ruin my whole thought experiment. Or don’t tell me that, just let me live my life, man.

Without access to internal analytics, it’s hard to say if Tumblr “users” are actually “visitors” or vice versa, but the decision a few years back to limit access to any Tumblr blog to logged-in Tumblr users makes it somewhat more reliable to theorize that visitors approximately equal users. Statista has its issues, and you want to keep your eye on those big global numbers, but the US user metrics are not apocalyptically bad.

Let’s be ruthless and cut that number down to, say, 10 million monthly US users. And let’s say that only 10% of them are willing to pay anything at all, for anything. The basic WordPress “Personal” price tier is $5/month, billed annually. Roll in the WordPress infrastructure on backend stuff like domain management or whatever else you can bring to Tumblr, without fundamentally changing the Tumblr experience, and also, remove adult content filtering for those who are 18+. Charge, say, $2/month for this.

Your one million paying Tumblr users just brought in $24 million for the year—or, almost double what Tumblr made the first year it sold advertising. Assume the Tumblr active user base is more like 20 million, and/or entice more of them to pay, and/or offer various Tumblr-appropriate upsells, and/or implement and charge for all the years’ worth of community-driven functionality asks … well, getting to the $100 million revenue goal that Tumblr publicly shot for (and likely never achieved) seems not unreasonable.

And you do this without selling ads. I will forever and repeatedly die on the hill that pursuing advertising as Tumblr’s revenue strategy was what killed the site’s independence and alienated users long before the porn ban. I personally believe the management/investor/industry advice to sell ads was not only bad advice, but quite possibly given in bad faith and maybe even predatory in nature. Advertising has pros and cons depending on the situation, but anyone who looked at Tumblr back in the day and saw a Facebook-style infinite-ad-revenue reservoir was fooling themselves and/or others. Demonstrably so.

This is not hindsight! I said all this back then, and I’m sayin’ it now. Automattic seems to have the company-culture DNA to appreciate Tumblr on the merits and take advantage of the opportunity before them, both spiritually and entrepreneurially. And if anyone at Automattic wants to talk about resurrecting Tumblr Editorial, my DMs are open.

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