There is a great deal of fascination about companies like Tumblr, a popular blogging platform that Yahoo purchased last year for a reported $1.1 billion, mostly cash. Tumblr wasn’t profitable, but Yahoo did acquire millions of Tumblr bloggers to add to Yahoo’s user base. Yahoo is developing ways to distribute advertising aimed at Tumblr users.
Tumblr, like other new media companies, has some superficial similarities to traditional media companies. Both new and traditional media publish content that attracts an audience, then sell advertisers access to that audience. But the similarities end there.
New media companies like Tumblr don’t pay for the content - blog posts (including pornography) – they need to exist. Traditional media companies do pay for content, which increases their production costs.
New media companies like Tumblr also rely on automation -- computers and computer software --to provide a platform for the production and distribution of the content they use. Traditional media companies cannot easily develop similar platforms because millions of potential users have already selected new media platforms for blogging and other Internet activities.
The new media business model relies on free content and automation to keep costs low, otherwise these companies would go out of business. That is because new media companies generate very small per-unit revenue from Internet advertising. These companies must keep their per-unit costs low if they want to generate enough money to survive.
The Times article reports that Tumblr doubled its staff, but still employs only 220 people. As of today, Tumblr claims it has 185 million blogs. That is about 841,000 blogs for each employee. If Tumblr expands to 500 employees, it will have 370,000 blogs for each employee. Even if activity on the blogs varies, these numbers show the kind of astonishing productivity that new media companies enjoy because of their reliance on automation.
The low per-unit revenue at new media companies means they must also attract a very large number of users before they can generate enough profit to justify the high values that new media companies receive from financial markets. Traditional media companies have much lower values in financial markets, but traditional media still generate high enough revenue-per-unit to survive without an audience in the hundreds of millions.
For example, Tumblr’s enormous number of blogs means it has to generate average revenue-per-blog of just $5.95 to match its $1.1 billion purchase price.
However, Tumblr still isn’t generating enough revenue to develop “a working business model” according to The Times. (Yahoo hasn’t broken out figures for Tumblr in Yahoo’s most recent financial reports).
Yahoo is still trying to develop advertising that won’t disturb the Tumblr ethos, which rejects advertising. I suspect Yahoo is also developing ways to generate revenue from data about Tumblr users even though Yahoo only requires an e-mail address to identify each Tumblr user.
This suggests one more thing the glimpse tell us about the new media business model. Small per-unit revenue means these companies require enormous numbers of users to generate enough revenue to become profitable. But sometimes, even a large number of users and a very small number of employees won’t be enough for a new media company to become profitable.