When I first read Business Insider’s report that Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer plans to turn Tumblr into YouTube, my first reaction was, “Wait, what?” While we’re at it, why doesn’t Facebook turn Instagram into Gmail? Or maybe Google could turn Nest into Foursquare. The news made it sound not only like Mayer wasn’t playing with a full deck of cards, but that she’d thrown the deck out completely and resorted to Mad Libs.
But the plan actually makes more sense than it may appear. I still think its chances of success are slim for a number of reasons, but it might just be crazy enough to work.
In short, teens love Tumblr. Some reports estimate that 61 percent of them are on it. They also love YouTube stars — even more than they love Hollywood actors and pop stars. But weird tumblogs devoted to celebrity bread puns and academic critiques of dick pics, while hilarious, do not make money — evidence strongly suggests that the revenue created by Tumblr since the Yahoo acquisition is negligible at best.
But you know what does make money? Online video. Although YouTube missed 2013 revenue projections by a significant margin, it still posted $ 3.5 billion last year.
You have to admire the elegance of the logic: Teens love Tumblr, teens love online video. Tumblr makes no money, YouTube does. And if Yahoo can attract existing YouTube stars to its team, Tumblr is the only appropriate platform for them to use — After all, it’s literally the only Yahoo property that has any name recognition among the youngs.
But elegant logic only takes you so far in the messy real world. According to a Re/Code report from March, Yahoo’s pitch to convince YouTube stars to jump ship will be the promise of better ad revenues or even guaranteed rates. But beating YouTube’s rates, which creators have historically considered insufficient, may be harder than Yahoo expected. Last month, Re/Code’s Peter Kafka reported that YouTube will invest millions in some of its most popular stars with the stated goal of keeping them from leaving for rival platforms — like Yahoo.
Even assuming that Yahoo is willing and able to outbid YouTube for talent, will creators take the risk of leaving behind the biggest name in online video for a blogging platform with a very little video cachet? Teens may love Tumblr, but when they think of video they undoubtedly think of YouTube first. Furthermore, YouTube has a billion monthly unique visitors while Tumblr has 400 million — though Yahoo could certainly boost that number by linking to videos from its other portals.
But there’s another telling warning sign about Yahoo’s video ambitions. Based on what’s been reported about the plan, the video platform will not be open like YouTube. Instead, Yahoo will merely court YouTube stars who have already become hugely popular. Without the means for unknowns to build an audience, there won’t be such a thing as a star who “got big on Tumblr Video” — the performers will all already be Internet celebrities by the time they get there. So when teens are looking for the next big thing, they’ll still go to YouTube first.
Without YouTube’s reputation and experience with building talent, and without a clear negotiating advantage, the chances of Tumblr’s video platform getting anywhere close to YouTube’s popularity and importance are low. Nevertheless, it does give one of Yahoo’s only remaining properties that anybody still cares about a chance to become revenue-positive. And you have to admire Mayer’s boldness to completely rebrand a billion dollar acquisition in a way that, while light years away from Tumblr founder David Karp’s vision, actually makes sense from a business perspective. Perhaps most importantly, it’s given a ploy that once sounded desperate and doomed (“Yahoo will poach YouTube’s talent!”) a slim yet fighting chance of succeeding.
[Image via Zimbio]