Over the last few days the popular micro-blogging site Tumblr had a massive outage leaving its 6,000,000 users scrambling to find alternative ways to communicate with their followers and readers. For those of you not familiar with Tumblr, it is a social blogging platform that lets users “reblog” and share content. It is quick and easy to use. The New Yorker, Newsweek and other old guard media have Tumblrs but there are a wide variety of Tumblrs that focus on everything from haircuts to fashion. Over 1.5B Tumblr pages are viewed in a month.
I’m reminded of another huge outage that took place on a December day when AOL was first starting to own the emerging Internet space. On a stormy snowy day in the Northeast, many workers decided to telecommute via AOL. They soon discovered that AOL’s modems were not up to the task. AOL continued to face moments like that but they one thing I remember was their proactive communication. They were able to overcome the moment and continue their ascent into Web leadership (but not without a few more outage events). Examining the way Tumblr handled this crisis is a reality check for those who continue to view crisis communications as a “nice to have.”
How did Tumblr handle the outage? Did they communicate proactively with media? Did they provide regular updates by Twitter? Did they create an information central blog on another platform and redirect customers to that? No. No. No.
Tumblr may have learned some important things about how to avoid another server meltdown. More importantly it needs to learn from how it screwed up its communications. Instead of owning the message and using the moment to build their brand as a customer centric company, they let their users define their brand via thousands of messages many of which included “Tumblr Fails”, “Tumblr Sucks” and even worse.
How did Tumblr use Twitter? They issued exactly 4 Tweets to its 56,000+ users during the two days of the outage. That’s right, 4. What a missed opportunity. How did Tumblr use the media? They didn’t. They media used them. TechCruch ran multiple stories without Tumblr commentary. Stories mocking Tumblr, its outage and its users appeared throughout the news cycle unchallenged. Again, a missed opportunity.
In fact their messaging consisted of increasingly embarrassing messages that users saw when trying to login to their blogs saying “Well be back shortly” while the outage stretched to more than 24 hours. Instead of using that screen shot for valuable customer communication, it became yet another thing to anger Tumblr’s users.
I’ve written about the need for crisis communications plans for companies in the past. I’ve written these plans and many times requests come in after the crisis. But in today’s age of 24/7 uptime, not having one is risky for any busiess. But it is absolutely shocking that Tumblr’s investors and management, given the popularity of the service, clearly did not have one. Or if they did, it wasn’t a one that even approached the minimum any company should have.
The service will continue to have growing pains. They will only be able to go to the well some many times. The next time they experience an outage, they need to be better prepared. Update: Tumblr continued to have sporadic outages for the next day. The Journal’s “All Things Digital” has good post on Tumblr’s outage today.