Anatomy of a Tumblr
Dissecting the success of Go Book Yourself
With 60,000 followers, 50,000+ interactions on our posts, and 300,000+ page impressions, it’s been an incredible two months.
To say we owe our recent success to luck is an understatement, but a strong idea helped, as did a little experience and plenty of hard work.
Anyone trying to tell you there’s a formula for success is a snake-oil salesman and should be sent to bed without supper.
I can only tell you what I’ve learned. Hopefully you’ll find it useful.
It started in the kitchen…
Three years ago I started a recipe blog with my brother on Tumblr. We named it Go Cook Yourself.
The mission of Go Cook Yourself is to make cooking fun and inclusive. To appeal as much to the burnt-toast brigade as the fully-fledged foodie.
One thing the internet isn’t short of is food blogs, so we wanted to do something very different.
We decided to write only the bare-minimum copy with each post, presenting 5 images in a photo set, to give visual cues to the key stages of the recipe.
Lesson one — make your posts as visual as possible.
We now have 250,000+ fans across Tumblr, Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook, and lots of great feedback from those who’ve tried our recipes.
I’m no chef — my brother has all the culinary talent — and I wanted to extend the inclusive, inspirational mission of Go Cook Yourself into an area I know a little about: books.
As a writer, expanding into book blogging felt like a natural step — and we already had the perfect name — but as with food, there are many thousands of book blogs filling the digital shelves of server libraries around the world.
How do I do something different? That boys and girls, is lesson two.
There’s no such thing as an overnight success…
I reserved the domain for gobookyourself.tumblr.com in October 2012… And proceeded to do nothing with it.
The problem was several fold: I didn’t want to write long, copy heavy book reviews, I didn’t know how to do valuable book reviews in an digestible form, and I don’t like to review other people’s work.
A bad start. I moved on to other things.
By October 2013, the idea was sitting way in the back of my mind when I got an email from Tumblr wishing Go Book Yourself a Happy 1st Birthday.
It had been a year, and I’d done nothing. It depressed me into action, and after a day or so of thought, I had a eureka moment:
It should be book recommendations, not book reviews.
The book review blog is near ubiquitous these days, but I realised most book lovers just want the answer to a very simple question:
What should I read next?
You’re only as good as the people around you…
Unable to contain my excitement, I tweeted about starting work on the blog. Anna James, a school librarian and passionate book evangelist/blogger from the UK, tweeted back.
I’d briefly met Anna at Edinburgh Book Festival in August, 2013, and thought she’d be a perfect fit for the project. I asked her to join the team. She accepted.
Anna’s mission in life is to find the perfect book for everyone, and spending all day at work getting kids excited about books and reading, she had plenty of experience doing just that for a key demographic on Tumblr: teens.
She has done at least 75% of the recommendations on the site thus far, and much of the success of the blog is owed to her literary savvy, thoughtful suggestions, and librarian’s intuition.
Try getting an algorithm to recommend books based on Tom Hiddleston.
Rob contributes recommendations when he’s not busy with Go Cook Yourself, and I try to do at least one post a week.
We have also been getting guest editors to contribute posts, mining our network of book blogger/publisher/author friends to add value and depth to our content.
The best contributors though, are our readers, who send in requests for books they’d like recommendations for. Fulfilling their requests ensures we’ve always got content ready for the site, and delights our readers.
The personal touch makes them feel special, which they are.
A blog without readers is just lines of code on a server, blinking away in the dark. Listen to your readers. They own your blog as much as you do.
A picture is worth a thousand shares…
Book covers come in all manner of colours, fonts, and sizes. I designed the content in a way that would keep our posts visually consistent, despite containing up to five completely different book covers.
Also, with the sheer volume of book content on Tumblr, Twitter, Facebook, and Pinstuff, I wanted people to immediately recognise a post as ours.
First, I created a template that allowed us to present portrait-oriented book covers in landscape, minimising the height of the post, and adding some pleasant clean space around the cover.
Giving the background a subtle gradient, I added a light shadow under the book cover to give it a lifelike-thickness, rather than letting it lay flat on the background.
Fun fact: The ‘Like this’ font is named Daniel, and is available to download license free. You should definitely try and use a font with your name.
I created the logo from scratch in Photoshop — I don’t know where to start in Illustrator — and based it on similar logos I’d seen around the internet (apparently the cross-style logo is something of a hipster branding trope).
I arranged the posts like the recipes on Go Cook Yourself: in a photo set, with the featured book — a well known, popular, or topical book — up top, and 2-4 recommendations underneath.
The result is a minimal, unobtrusive post, that allows the books to shine, is instantly recognisable to our fans, and eye-catching to those scrolling through their Tumblr dashboards:
Taking another cue from Go Cook Yourself, I wanted to keep the copy underneath the post as minimal, yet valuable, as possible.
Initially, I gave the title of the main book, a one sentence intro, and then listed the recommendations. At Anna’s suggestion, we added in a few words for each book, to give a little context to the choice.
The resulting post looks a little bit like this:
With the visuals and copy in place, and a minimal blog theme dressed in matching colours, all that was left to do was write the tagline.
In a rush, I decided to put something in as a placeholder, and that I would come back and change it later.
But I didn’t change it. What I wrote in a rush has been there ever since:
“Book recommendations by humans, because algorithms are so 1984.”
Playing the long game…
When Go Book Yourself blew up, some acquaintances got in touch and said, ‘hey, I can’t see the affiliate links, how are you making money?’
The short answer is, we’re not. Yet. The long answer is I find affiliate marketing disingenuous, and I believe there’s a better way.
Wanting to promote smaller, independent book stores over Amazon, we initially chose to link to Foyles, an award-winning independent book store in the UK with an excellent online presence.
Once it became clear that over 75% of our traffic was coming from the US, we made the decision to switch to a US-based indie book store: Word.
We chose to link to those particular bookstores because we believe in their mission, not because we’re making 7 cents on the dollar.
Go Book Yourself is about promoting the joy of reading. I don’t care whether you buy the book online, or buy it from your local book store, or go and check it out from the library.
I don’t care whether you buy the book in paper or digital format.
What I care about is that you read something.
Yes it would be nice to make money from Go Book Yourself in future. But we’re not in a rush.
I’d rather take the time to develop our intellectual property, and make peace with being the kind of guy that says things like ‘intellectual property’.
If you blog and no-one sees it, are you still on Wordpress?
I kid about this a lot, but I’m not really kidding.
Few things make me sigh like clicking through to a cool sounding blog and finding out it is on Wordpress, or, in rare cases these days, Blogger.
Wordpress was once a blogging platform, but now it’s a very powerful CMS used to run entire websites. I like Wordpress a lot. I just won’t run blogs there anymore. Blogger is, well… remember Blogger?
That’s why Tumblr is perfect. It does blogs, and it does them very well.
Tumblr comes complete with a built-in introvert network that ensures you’re never just shouting into the void. Tumblr users are passionate about everything, smarter than you are, and often they can’t even.
In case you can’t tell, I love Tumblr.
The best Tumblr blogs are single-serving. They do one thing, and they do it better than anyone else. The best way to find an audience on Tumblr is to be a part of the community, find a niche, and help fill it. And be nice.
In fact, be excellent to each other. Life’s too short for anything else.
Would we have been successful if we weren’t on Tumblr? I doubt it. We might have a nice site with widgets and such (Wordpress people love their widgets), but we wouldn’t have been this big this quickly.
Lesson zero: Host your blog on Tumblr.
It’s what you know. And also who you know…
Go Book Yourself would not work if the content weren’t good. Full stop.
But it might not have worked so well had we not been given a helping hand by some very influential people.
After receiving the anniversary email from Tumblr on October 17, I finally put Go Book Yourself live six days later, on October 23.
On the second day of the blog, on only our ninth post, it exploded.
John Green, the wildly popular author, YouTube vlogger, and prolific tweeter, reblogged our The Fault In Our Stars post (shown above).
Then he tweeted about us to his 1.2 million Twitter followers:
I don’t know how many followers John Green has on Tumblr — Tumblr doesn’t disclose this — but I’d imagine it’s comparable to his Twitter.
Either way, I was pleased with the 33 followers we’d accrued overnight, only to refresh the page and find we’d gained over 5,000 new followers in half an hour. And the followers kept coming.
The Fault in Our Stars post now has over 30,000 notes, and is responsible for at least 15,000 of our 60,000 followers.
Those two moments of kindness — a reblog and a tweet from a kindly (and famous) stranger — were the catalyst for everything that has come after.
You can’t manufacture luck like that, but you can stack the odds in your favour — we tagged @realjohngreen in the tweet we sent out linking to the post, and we made sure to tag the post with John Green-related terms.
The desired result — to attract the attention of John Green’s passionate fan base on Tumblr — ended up attracting the attention of the man himself.
(If you’re listening, John Green, thank you.)
If that wasn’t enough excitement for one week, I just about spat out my hummus when, the following Monday, BuzzFeed posted this:
That post resulted in another huge spike in traffic, followers, and excited squeals from grown men.
A few weeks later BuzzFeed named us in their Top 45 Tumblrs of 2013. We’d only been live 6 weeks.
During the first few days of the blog, I sent a friendly hello to the wonderful people at Tumblr, to introduce Go Book Yourself and tell them a bit about what we were doing.
Their response was super enthusiastic, and they immediately added us to their featured blog directory — which massively increased our visibility — and included us in their ‘Tumblr Tuesday’ post the following week.
As it turns out, someone at Tumblr knows someone at BuzzFeed (they are both based in NYC), and just like that, two of the biggest websites in the world were in our corner. (Thanks, guys!)
In summary, I’ve probably used up all my luck for a few years.
It was worth it.
The devil is in the detail you forget to bother with…
A couple of things I missed in all the commotion: I didn’t register our custom domain from the outset, so early links all point to our Tumblr URL, gobookyourself.tumblr.com which then get 302'd to our new URL.
Google doesn’t seem to make a distinction, thankfully, and both URLs work fine, but I’d definitely have that in place from day one next time.
I also forgot to use bitly to track outbound links at first. I meant to, but thought there would be too little traffic to bother with in those early days…
Consequently, I have no idea how many of the 30,000+ people who shared the Fault in Our Stars post, nor the hundreds of thousands more who saw it in their feeds, clicked through to the book store.
Though it would have had no financial effect, it would have been great to help benchmark average click-through rates to help determine how useful those links are to our readers, or develop partnerships with book stores.
By eventually tracking clicks with bitly (combined with Google Analytics data), I was able to better understand where in the world our readers were, which helped make the decision to move to a US-based book store.
I’ve made other mistakes: a link on our homepage that didn’t go anywhere left there for weeks, letting a post go live with the images in the wrong order and not noticing until it had been shared 400 times.
Thankfully, none of these were so catastrophic as to ruin the party for everyone. I’ve done much worse in the past, but I’ve learned from my mistakes, and Go Book Yourself is the culmination of those lessons.
8 Tips for making a successful Tumblr
- Do one thing. Do it well. Be consistent. Find your niche and own it.
- Think different. There are millions of blogs. Find a way to be unique.
- Make it visual. 60% of shares on Tumblr are images. Show, don’t tell.
- Get good help. If you can’t write or design, find someone who can.
- Be a part of the community. Ask for suggestions, take requests. Listen.
- Fail hard. This isn’t my first dance at the Tumblr party. It’s trial & error.
- Be excellent to each other. Seriously. This.
- Tumblr. Because Tumblr.