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How I got over 37,000 followers on Tumblr

thank-you-over-37000-followers-on-just-jordan-kicks-by-chris-milton-sneaker-skip
What started as a new blogging platform turned into my first niche community that refuelled my passion for sneakers.  You really can take your passion and turn it into something amazing. Here’s my journey of building blogs on tumblr that gained a strong, loyal following.
A story of sneakers, building a community, how to avoid my mistakes and leave a legacy.

Context

I didn’t know what I was doing at the time.  And didn’t know how to figure out what I saw going to do next.  It was 2010 and I was going back to school as someone in their mid-twenties after my business had failed in 2008 and my first job following that didn’t pan out.  A friend, who knew I was into blogging and into tech, got me to check out tumblr.  As a blogging platform, it was incredibly easy to understand, customize and play with.  As a social media platform, being able to like, reblog, comment all on your home page was very useful (at a time when Facebook was desparetly trying to figure our their newsfeed and really just making it worse).  The level of contribution and interaction on tumblr between users felt right.  The content was based more on topics rather than relationships and because of that I felt comfortable to dive in.
And it was fun, but I got very little traction “being me” since my interests were all over the place, my posts were just the same.  It was all Chris, but there wasn’t much consistency. I wasn’t frustrated at all, my tumblr homepage was becoming a curated collection of my favorite things being shared by the people I followed.  No one famous, no old classmates or co-workers, just a connection about stuff we had in common: cars, travel, sneakers, sports, architecture, quotes, tech, movies.
tumblr-interests-are-too-varied
I wanted to contribute to this growing community, and a school project was the catalyst. A business plan was required, and instead of just putting a plan in place, I could build a working prototype that followed the up and coming business models of sneaker news, complex and gawker: content draws specific people, advertisers want to expose their brand to specific people. Sneaker Skip was born.  A combination of my nick name, Skip, and the only thing the blog would post: sneakers.
sneakerskip-wasnt-getting-the-love-needed-a-narrow-sneaker-niche
I had learned about how to use the tumblr platform, but Sneaker Skip wasn’t getting the love I was hoping for.  What’s worse? There were people following, but there were requests and submissions for sneakers that I didn’t even care for.  How could I be posting things on Sneaker Skip that I wouldn’t want in my closet or on my feet? I needed to get even more specific.  And that’s when the audience really started to grow.
just-jordans-just-right

Here’s what I did that has gained over 37,000 followers on tumblr:

1) Niche Wins

Pick a passion: Be knowledgable, truly love your topic, and dedicated.
My passion for sneakers was obvious, but the perfect formula was specializing in just one line, my favorites, Air Jordan’s.  What I had such a love for would end up being the right sized niche and triggered a similar obsession in followers.  They were happy to share, submit photos and really engage.  I even had one kid ask about how he could get a better vertical after a post of me dunking in high school (wearing Jordan’s).  The Just Jordan’s blog is more than just followers, its got raving fans.
Pick a topic that has limited range for posts, but a lot of depth on the topic.  In my case, there are a limited number of Air Jordan sneakers, but infinite colors, retro versions, what to wear with them, and most importantly, celebrities, athletes and everyday people wearing them. The depth of the topic created a larger bank of images on one topic, instead of giving more variety.  Being specific helps, especially to develop loyalty and engagement with your followers.  Without the depth of any topic, the authentic, obsessed conversations cannot happen.

build-a-nation-of-fans-on-your-tumblr

2) Don’t get followers, get a nation.

You often hear about “nations” of people who follow a person or brand – build one!
Let people ask you questions, and write your “ask” page in a way that provides you with good questions, feedback and points you in the right direction.  I made ours a request.  Yes, I was willing to be a google-er for the sake of making one of my followers happy.  It wasn’t always easy, but within the niche, I knew the scope of search would be manageable and it was my passion, I knew exactly what they were asking for (even if it was all slang).
It wouldn’t be left either, I would respond once to the message saying, “thanks, got those coming up for you” and a second message with a link to the post when it was live.  By doing this I could get a least one activity.  A minimum a like, best-case a reblog and a shoutout.
Posts started to get action.  Everyday there were a few notes on each post, then hundreds, then thousands of notes every day. The top post ever on Just Jordans doesn’t even come close to the viral posts with hundreds of thousands of notes, but I’m super happy our top post having 13,978notes.  That’s the nation of sneaker heads sharing a great post.  What I like even more is the average number of notes per post is over 170.
Being that everyone sees the most recent image when they log in or refresh, it was very important to have good quality photos.  This meant finding good pictures from good photographers.  There are a limited number of Air Jordan’s out, so the camera angle, story the picture was telling or even who was wearing the sneakers was very important.  It was almost like having never-ending evergreen content.
After getting 1200 followers after posting 100 pictures, the community was headed in the right direction.  Celebrating the milestones with relevant Jordan pop culture was also really important and fun. Time to utilize another feature, opening up submissions.

3) Turn on the Submit feature

Leverage the best feature on Tumblr!  Its an instant community builder.
Everyday you could take a picture of your sneakers and submit to #WDYWT (what did you wear today), an acronym used everywhere to tag your outfit. That one tag alone had people sending in a photo every day.  Everyday there would be 50+ submissions in the inbox and not all of them would get posted.
submit-your-jordans
Tip: set criteria for your posts, submission or not, set a standard for what gets published.
More than half everyday would get rejected because it didn’t meet the criteria:
  1. Had to be an Air Jordan or Jordan brand
  2. Same photo couldn’t be submitted more than once
  3. Bad quality pictures wouldn’t be posted
  4. No Fake sneakers would never be posted
The submissions were great because people would be put into the queue and would check back on the page for their pic to be posted.  It was always reblogged by the person who submitted with a pretty awesome note attached with it.  There’s nothing like social proof!  Another reason this was great was breaking the habit of only being on your feed.  Every social platform has this problem.  Profiles are under viewed because the feed is so incredibly useful.  For a content creator or distributor, this means you need to crank out more content in hopes that you’ll make the feed at the exact time your audience is looking.  By having a reason for people to look at your profile, you’ve won a huge battle.  In an environment like tumblr where you can fully customize your page, it matters even more.  Once you have people on your site, its best to keep them there.  Make sure your content is easy to navigate.

4) Categorize using tags & shortcuts

Tag posts from day one and you’ll be creating sub-sections by default.  These will become your landing pages for sub-topics.
The pages feature on tumblr is awesome because you can set up each URL as a redirect.  It seems very small to be cutting out one word, but each category that I felt relevant got its own URL redirect that I included with every post that had that keyword.
Currently on the site there are over 50 redirects like this on the site.  They are all used in the notes of the original post so that people can come back to see more of the same sneaker or same type of photo. When you are publishing, you need to remember each tag exactly, it creates awesome consistency and really helps your brand grow.
link-back-for-tumblr-posts
These shortcuts are very important because when someone reblogs, they can edit the text (but usually it stays), but the tags fall off.  This is a really smart feature from tumblr for 2 reasons.  First, it makes sure that the search engines don’t see a lot of duplicate content and lower the ranking of every tumblr page with that reblogged post.  And, second, it allows for each reblogger to tag as they need.  I didn’t see this as much with the Air Jordans, but with the air max sneaker site that I started in the same fashion, I saw the tags changed all the time based on where they were in the world.  The same shoe was called a sneaker, kick, trainer, sneakers, runner, etc… depending on where they were in the world.
max-air-max
Last thing about setting up redirect shortcuts.  Since you have people submitting and a bank of the same type of photos, the old posts actually get more action.  You’re helping your content become timeless.  It becomes less dependant on being in the feed and more about being a great post.  The submitters appreciate this and keep submitting.

5) Give credit

Ask people to include their social handles and give them a shoutout.  It helps you both.
In the submission form, it asks for other social handles so they can get a shout-out.  Only choosing to distribute the photos on other channels when a handle was given (so we wouldn’t be “stealing” any photos) it helped expand beyond tumblr to twitter.  I see that now it would be crucial to get this content on instagram, Facebook, snapchat and email.

The bottom line here, its just doing the right thing.  I didn’t like posting anonymous submissions because I couldn’t give credit and I didn’t know who the photo actually belonged to.

6) Utilize the Queue

No one wants to be posting around the clock, but you want to be showing up in people’s feed around the clock. Automate it.
As I mentioned above, you need to constantly be in the feed to be noticed. This goes without saying for any social network.  You must create thumb stopping content that is rolling around the clock.  Being a blog dedicated to Jordans, the queue is set for 23 posts per day.  It doesn’t take very long to get a post published, so batching the work is very efficient.  At the peak of Just Jordans, there were over 50 submissions per day coming into the inbox.  Putting 23 in the queue and publishing a couple at the time, mainly because I thought it was a great pic, easily filled the day’s quota.
just-jordans-queue
Could this have been increased?  Absolutely!
Would that have lead to higher growth?  Only if the quality of post stayed the same. 
Quality over Quantity wins on tumblr because of the reblogging.  Each reblog gets back into their followers feed.  While you may not be hitting your direct audience, you’re actually helping grow your audience by keeping the quality high.  I think approximately one post per hour is about right.  The volume was coming it, and each post we were the original poster.

7) Stay true to your Niche and Nation – don’t reblog

You have all of these people submitting to be featured on your Tumblr, ask everyone to submit.
One popular strategy for people on tumblr is to go around asking everyone to “reblog my whatever and I’ll follow you.”  Let me tell you this.  You’ll never grow your audience like that.  Its just not sustainable growth.  However, there is some truth there to being the original publisher of a post.  Most of tumblr is reblogged.  But the original URL always sticks.  No matter how many notes are on there, you still have that credit.  There is a way to remove it when you reblog, but the stats still count.
original-poster
Knowing that everything on Just Jordans was posted there first, pushed people to the submit page.  It made for an easy answer for all of those questions – just submit it, we only publish if it meets those criteria above.  Its not rude.  Its just the truth.  And it got respected.

Advice.

By far, this was my most ambitious and dedicated community that I’ve ever created.  There’s few topics that compare to being a sneakerhead, the years of playing sports, working for Nike, and talking the talk.  If I think back to the first pair of kicks I saved up for, the Air Turbulence that Damon Stoudamire wore for the Raptors in the late 90s, until these blogs started in 2010, I was going in with 12+ years experience.
I can’t think of something that I lived and breathed for over ten years; every single day.
I stopped.
There isn’t a good reason.  No one milestone in time.  Nothing that justifies why I stopped maintaining the Tumblr accounts.  My goal for Just Jordans was to hit 23,000 followers (obviously) and it has far surpassed that.  Priorities changed for me. I guess you could say I got busy, but that’s a terrible reason for anything.  Being busy is such an easy excuse.  So, I have no excuse.  Its time to reboot and start it up again.  I hope this is just a new benchmark to kickstart growth again.  After all, 37,000 followers is an amazing accomplishment, but its also small compared to the top accounts on tumblr.  I know there is still room for growth.
There is no shortage of activity, the reblogging and follows is probably more than the average account on Tumblr.  At some point between zero and now, we surpassed the tipping point and have some momentum.  How long will it take to build back to the momentum back to where it was?  I really don’t know.  I hope the community of sneakerheads starts back up like I do.
If the community is anything like me, they’ll still be passionate about kicks, have their collection and be ready to share.  While there isn’t a good reason to have stopped, I have a good reason to get started again.  I was in the mall over the weekend with my family and saw a few old favourites up on the shoe walls.  We got our daughter another pair of kicks and I can’t wait to share the love and contribute my pictures with the community that already submitted lots of their photos of parents and kids with matching sneakers.
This is my first post back on Tumblr, in case you want to see what’s next. This is the line being drawn in the sand.  Everything after this post is part of the new growth.
groomsmen pic air jordan iv

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