I Got 50,000 Tumblr Followers in 2 Years But I Can’t Show You How

“Best practices” aren't enough to ensure popularity and marketers avoid the platform as a result

In April 2013 I launched a Tumblr for science fiction art from the 70s. I had no social or mobile presence, I had no marketing experience, and no one knew who I was on the site.

Last week, 70s Sci-Fi Art passed 50,000 followers.

Tumblr is possibly 2015's hottest social network so far: it topped 100 billion posts on January 3rd; it’s Buzzfeed’s biggest source of content; and over 70% of its audience falls into the coveted 16–34 demographic. Even Medium, according to TechCrunch, saw fit to “go after” it through last month’s change to allow shorter posts.

Source: Priceonomics. And yes, they crunched the data because “the dress” came from Tumblr. It still haunts us.

Despite Tumblr’s obvious worth, it’s often overlooked by brands with the requisite accounts on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. Tumblr has a problem: it’s insular.

Anyone can start a tumblr blog in five minutes, but they’ll have no followers. They can’t import any from Facebook or Google; they must either tag their posts and hope someone randomly searches Tumblr for them, or they must like and reblog others in the hope that those users will notice them. The operative word here? “Hope.”

Sure, regular and high quality content will always grow a Tumblr, just as quality works on any platform. But even then, growth is slow, with more small niches than large blogs.

Other specialty Tumblrs have taken off quickly: Comedian Paul Laudiero’s Shit Rough Drafts had a book deal a couple months after starting in February 2013. But my growth — from zero to 50,000 followers in two years — is very rare. Tumblr doesn’t release statistics on individual blogs, so I’m (sadly?) relying on anecdotal evidence when I state that it usually takes years for a moderately popular Tumblr user to break 1,000 followers.

It’s Tumblr’s lack of traffic-driving infrastructure that deters marketing professionals and makes this post necessary.

Viral posts come from a network of established bloggers, but it’s difficult to join them. Somehow, I managed to.

Now, as you can tell from the title, this isn't a guide to success on Tumblr.

I could write one. Post between seven and ten times a day, emphasize images, keep a 50/50 ratio of reblogged to original content, and use the ‘queue’ feature extensively. But those are only best practices. I didn't become a success by following any of them.

The truth is, I can’t tell anyone how to replicate my success… and that’s a problem for anyone who wants to explore Tumblr.

That doesn't mean I can’t shed some light, though. Here’s my attempt to break down the nebulous secret to true popularity among specialty Tumblrs.

Uncredited 1977 artwork

1. Winning concept

I know, right? This isn't actionable at all. You need a concept that everyone wants to see, but no one else has invented yet. Good luck.

For my Tumblr, a couple factors worked in my favor: a hint of nostalgia and eye-catching visuals. More importantly, no one else had recognized my exact niche.

I probably wouldn't have picked up speed as fast if I had focused on “retro” instead of “70s” art. The added specificity creates curiosity, and since I care about the difference between the two, I was able to prove that 70s sci-fi art deserves its own venue.

One more note: all the reasons my concept worked were the same as the reasons I wanted to start it in the first place. Make sure you’re as passionate as you hope your audience will be.

2. Digestible format

Whatever your concept, it must be clear, and I mean crystal clear. I didn't name my url “spaceandstarships” or “thefutureofyesterday.” Keywords are a must.

70s Sci-Fi Art is the first result for a Google search of “sci-fi art,” and I wouldn't have gotten that with a less specific name. Users need to be able to instantly understand what your Tumblr does, either from the url or from the first post they see.

That’s it. It’s vague and slightly recursive, but hey, I told you that I couldn’t show you exactly how to shoot to the top. Follow those two rules perfectly, add the best Tumblr practices you can find elsewhere, and you have truly done all you can.

You may never take off, but if you have a fun idea and a little spare time one evening, I’d recommend giving it a try anyway. You don’t need to have dozens of thousands of followers to enjoy running a bizarre Tumblr about, say, rejected newspaper headline puns or modern captions on old clothing patterns.