Tumblr, Foursquare Execs Map Out New Directions, Tools for Brands

6/7/13Follow @MichaelXBD

Senior executives from Tumblr and Foursquare headlined the first day of Gnip’s Big Boulder Conference on “social data” on Thursday, and while they didn’t have much to say about the news that’s put their companies in the headlines in the past few months, they did lay out what products their companies are betting on for the future.

Big Boulder is an annual invitation-only gathering Gnip hosts in its hometown of Boulder, CO, for companies at the intersection of social media and big data. Gnip gathers social media content, like every public post made in Twitter’s history, and packages it for clients. The company says it compiles three billion public social media actions a day from Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, and other social media sites.

The raw numbers show Gnip is on to something big, and it was able to score an impressive guest list for its party. Along with Tumblr and Foursquare, executives from Facebook and Twitter were scheduled to speak Friday morning in fireside chat-style conversations.

Here are some notes from the first day.

Tumblr cashes in: Tumblr’s status as a leading social media site was confirmed last month when Yahoo announced it would buy the company for $1.1 billion and then immediately pledged “not to screw it up.”

The acquisition was an unavoidable topic during Tumblr’s part of the program, which featured VP of product and engineering Derek Gottfrid and Danielle Strle, its director of product and partnerships.

Gottfrid didn’t offer any new revelations about the deal, but he seemed confident the plan to keep Tumblr largely autonomous while giving it access to Yahoo’s financial clout will work to Tumblr’s benefit.

“Our goal is to be independent of Yahoo for the most part, and obviously there are a lot of resources that will help us move faster,” Gottfrid said. But executives on both sides know Tumblr one day will have to contribute to Yahoo’s bottom line.

“They really are committed to making sure Tumblr’s product contributes in a meaningful way to Yahoo’s business,” Gottfrid said.

Tumblr began developing an advertising platform last year, and that will continue, Gottfrid said. But advertising through Tumblr won’t be based on traditional display advertising, or, apparently, on the hyper-targeted ads companies like Facebook and Google are offering.

While advertisers can use Tumblr’s Spotlight and Radar features to promote themselves, Tumblr envisions advertisers using the site much like its 100 million users already do to create and curate their own public images, Gottfrid said. Tumblr views itself as a user-friendly media and publishing platform that lets users express themselves, rather than a social network based on connections and interactions.

“Brands want to put their best foot forward and have an expansive palette to convey their message,” Gottfrid said. “We think they can tell bigger stories on Tumblr with the tools that we have.”

He pointed to restaurant chain Denny’s as an example. Currently it features offbeat promotional material about Denny’s “Baconalia!” promotion and a lot of comments, content, and artwork generated by fans—including a somewhat confusing rendition of the Denny’s logo that includes the Communist hammer and sickle.

Tumblr’s thinking is advertising on its site it will appeal to obvious candidates, like movie studios trying to connect to fans, but also companies like IBM and the insurance company Cigna, which both use Tumblr, Strle said. They aren’t exactly hip, but they want to be part of the social media conversation too and want new ways to connect with customers.

Foursquare checks in: While Tumblr has become the hot new thing, Foursquare has been struggling to revive the buzz about its service.

Foursquare’s claim to fame is its location-based app that lets users check in to places like bars, restaurants, and clubs. Users can get special deals from merchants and earn points and badges for frequent check-ins.

The company is trying to evolve in a different direction, said Mike Harkey, its head of platform business development. It wants to take those check-ins and use them to determine what kind of products and activities users are interested in. Users can find out what they can do nearby with Foursquare’s explore function.

“The product today is about providing great local recommendations,” Harkey said.

Users appear to find the recommendations useful, as Foursquare has determined 20 percent of the people who use the explore function will check in to a suggested venue within 36 hours.

With about four billion check-ins to 50 million locations worldwide, Foursquare has gained a comprehensive view of what’s going on in communities, according to Harkey.

“We can see in real time when a venue closes, and that kind of real-world signal can not only help us, but the third parties that rely on us,” he said.

An obvious rival in this space is Yelp. Harkey says Foursquare’s origins as a mobile app gives it an advantage over Yelp, which started out on the Web.

Foursquare also is putting resources into building out an ad platform that will tell brands and merchants about their customers’ real world activities and interests.

So far, Foursquare’s advertisers have mostly been large companies, but it plans to make it available to small businesses soon, Harkey said. He said the number of advertisers on Foursquare has grown fourfold over the past six months.

Michael Davidson is the editor of Xconomy Boulder/Denver. He covers startups, venture capital, clean tech, energy, aerospace, telecoms, and whatever else happens above 5,280 feet. Contact him at mdavidson@xconomy.com. Follow @MichaelXBD

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