If Facebook isn’t thinking about buying Tumblr, it should be

It might seem a little early to start talking about potential Facebook acquisitions considering the social network just completed its $736-million purchase of Instagram, and its share price is still 40 percent lower than it was when the company went public. But I think Facebook should start thinking hard (assuming it isn’t already) about trying to acquire Tumblr. Why? For some or all of the same reasons that it felt compelled to buy Instagram — including the fact that the massive growth and engagement Tumblr is seeing is a direct threat to Facebook’s future success. It seems obvious someone is going to take advantage of that, and if it isn’t Facebook then it will be a competitor.

This idea struck me again as I was preparing for my talk with Tumblr founder David Karp at GigaOM’s RoadMap conference on Monday, which you can read about (and see a video clip of) here. I pulled together a lot of statistics about the size of the service, but it quickly became obvious that there wasn’t much point, since they would almost certainly be out of date by the time I hit the stage. Sure enough, Karp mentioned that Tumblr recently crossed the 20 billion pageview-per-month mark, up from the 16 billion that is mentioned on its website.

When you look at Tumblr’s size and growth, it’s easy to assume that you have somehow made a mistake and added too many zeroes: at the beginning of this year the network was at 15 billion pageviews, and a little more than a year ago it was at 10 billion. According to estimates from Quantcast, in the past year the site has almost doubled the number of monthly visitors it gets, from about 80 million to almost 140 million. There are more than 35 billion posts on the almost 80 million blogs that are hosted on the service, and it gets tens of millions of new posts every day from what Karp told me were its 160 million or so members.

When comScore looked at the amount of time that users spend on different sites earlier this year, Facebook was still far and away the leader, with about 400 minutes per month, but Tumblr and Pinterest were tied for second place, with about 90 minutes per month. Time spent may not be a great measure of actual engagement — since many users leave sites like Facebook or Tumblr open in a window for hours at a time — but those are still pretty compelling numbers. And there have been some indications that Facebook’s engagement levels are falling, or at least levelling off.

It’s not just the growth, it’s the level of engagement

Those are some of the number-based reasons for why Facebook should be interested in Tumblr. The other part of the argument is more anecdotal: It comes from watching how both of my teenaged daughters use the service, and the powerful hold it has over the way that they consume and share all kinds of content, especially visual content (including animated GIFs, etc.) — and the corresponding decline in the amount of time they spend on Facebook. For them, Facebook seems to have become something they feel they have to use rather than something they want to spend a lot of time on, much like email is for older users. When it comes to sharing info about their favorite TV shows or movies or likes and dislikes, they use Tumblr almost exclusively.

If I were Mark Zuckerberg, I would be more than a little worried about that phenomenon, just as the Facebook co-founder and CEO was apparently worried about the growth of Instagram, and the threat that it posed to Facebook’s dominance of the photo-sharing market and the mobile market — and the possibility that a competitor such as Twitter or Google or Apple might acquire it. As Om described it after Facebook announced the $1-billion purchase (which lost some of its value after Facebook went public and its share price fell):

“Facebook was scared shitless and knew that for first time in its life it arguably had a competitor that could not only eat its lunch, but also destroy its future prospects. Why? Because Facebook is essentially about photos, and Instagram had found and attacked Facebook’s achilles heel — mobile photo sharing.”

It’s true that Tumblr is not nearly as large a player in mobile as Instagram was, but it is clearly a huge and growing force when it comes to sharing and engaging with visual content of all kinds — in other words, it’s the kind of curatorial and creative market that lots of advertisers and brands are interested in appealing to. The sharing of that content is exactly what Facebook has tried to encourage with its “frictionless sharing” apps and features, but much of that has been awkwardly handled from a user point of view and it’s not clear what effect it has had on engagement.

The bottom line is that any service that is growing as rapidly as Tumblr, and sucking up a massive amount of the attention of younger users, is a potential threat to Facebook’s future growth. Theoretically, it could acquire Tumblr for something close to what it was willing to spend for Instagram — since Tumblr’s last financing round allegedly valued it at about $800 million — and then keep the network as a standalone entity, as it has with the photo-sharing service (which has continued to grow by orders of magnitude).

The only stumbling block is that David Karp and his backers may see the value of remaining independent and the potential for building something even larger than they have now.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr user Gabriele Coletti