Unpacking Automattic’s Tumblr Acquisition

The WordPress universe just got a little bigger. And the once high-flying micro-publishing darling known as Tumblr has found a home that finally makes sense. WordPress.com owner Automattic this week acquired Tumblr from Verizon Media for “well below $20 million,” according to Axios.

Tumblr’s value was once much greater when a Marissa Mayer-era Yahoo! acquired the company for $1.1 billion. Since then, it has floundered through various ambivalent owners in the Yahoo!, AOL, Verizon string of consolidation. And that caused some attrition to a once-obsessive user base.

As background, the WordPress platform (WordPress.org)  is the most prevalent publishing software on the web, running a whopping 30 percent of all websites. At its core is a simple website builder and publishing tool, but it’s infinitely expandable as a content management system with tens of thousands of plugins.

Meanwhile, Automattic sits at the center of the WordPress universe. As an open platform, WordPress.org has no owner, but Automattic runs WordPress.com, the biggest onboarding source for WordPress website creation and hosting. It also influences the WordPress “core” as part of the WordPress Foundation.

With that definitional backdrop, what does Automattic’s Tumblr acquisition mean in terms of strategic positioning, trend analysis and implications for local/SMB commerce? These are fairly open-ended questions but there are a few things that jump out at us initially.

First, if Tumblr has a chance of returning to its former glory, it’s likely with a forward-thinking and content-oriented company like the Matt Mullenweg-led Automattic. Tumblr’s micro-blogging DNA could conversely infuse some vision and product roadmap evolution to the WordPress core.

Most of the content output on WordPress sites are either static websites or blogs (and the occasional big publication, like TechCrunch). Publishing is central to WordPress’s DNA as it was initially a blogging platform before broadening to static/corporate websites. Either way, it’s mostly about long-form content.

That “heavy” publishing paradigm for websites and polished articles — whether 200 words or 20,000 — has quality advantages but it also involves some production friction. Tumblr conversely came along a decade ago with the promise of shorter-form and frequent “micro-blogging that’s tied to a social graph.

If the latter’s DNA influences the former’s road map, we could see lower friction publishing tools join the WordPress core, or Automattic’s lineup of plugins. That could ease a typical pain point for businesses — content marketing. This is especially painful for SMBs without a marketing department (most SMBs).

Beyond the publishing friction that Tumblr could alleviate in the WordPress universe, there’s the social graph that Tumblr infuses into the publishing process. This could bring additional viral marketing benefits for SMBs to reach customers or fellow businesses… a la Alignable or Merchant Circle.

That last part is an admittedly speculative wild card, if it’s even on the radar screens of either company. But the pieces are in place to possibly go that direction. But the potentially more powerful result of the marriage will be reducing friction from that dreaded process of publishing and SMB content marketing.

This boils down to two main factors: WordPress’ market share of the website publishing world, including SMB sites, and Tumblr’s streamlined publishing paradigm. It could be a powerful combo for SMBs and beyond. We’ll have to wait and see the real impact including, as always, potentially-unintended results.

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