Stand aside Twitter. Pipe down Facebook. You’re old news. With its hive of niche markets, fervent and anti-fakery consumers, and controversial or conversational ‘Ask Me Anything’ Q&As, Reddit is a little corner of the digital world that packs a powerful punch. Gareth May finds out how a brand can get a splash on the ‘front page of the internet’.

Image: Reddit

Rock ‘n’ roll is built on gambles. When The Doors got banned from The Ed Sullivan Show in 1967 for refusing to change the lyrics to ‘Light My Fire’, they could’ve turned their back on nationwide exposure. Instead, they stuck it to the media ‘man’ and earned a reputation as principled and cool. Likewise, when the Beatles went to India, renounced drugs and took up transcendental meditation, did they kill creativity? Not on your nelly. The trip was the most productive period of song writing for the band. Not all risks are worth taking, however, and in a world brimming with social media channels and online opportunities, the resolve of digital marketers to stay straight is permanently tested. 

As forbidden fruits go, Reddit is an apple with a whole lot of shine. When the social news and content rating site launched 13 years ago, no-one could’ve imagined where it would be today. The numbers speak for themselves. In 2015 alone, Reddit had 83 billion page views and in October of 2018 Reddit hit 1 billion video views per month. In terms of worldwide traffic it ranks 25. It’s a massive platform and outwardly a perfect foundation from which to build brand awareness and drive crazy amounts of traffic to a product or brand. But the key word there is ‘outwardly’. 

Sure, Reddit is viewed as one of the biggest ecommerce opportunities in 2019. But Reddit is also a pretty impossible egg to crack because unlike other mega, international sites such as Facebook and Twitter, Reddit is moderated and controlled by its users in a (pretty complicated) democratic process. Reddit is broken down into segregated forums or groups (known as subreddits) with each one having its own community or moderators and users. These can be anything from r/Brexit to r/scoobydoo (even r/marketing exists). 

Each page or forum is made up of a series of posts (videos, links, discussion points etc.) with each one of these subject to community ‘karma’, with members leaving positive and negative feedback in the form of points called upvotes and downvotes. Posts with the most upvotes rise to the top of the thread and are therefore more likely to be read and shared, whilst downvoted posts disappear into oblivion. The day’s most successful posts make the ‘front page’ or homepage and have not only earned the community’s approval, but also exposure to 400 million active monthly users. Reddit is a force. It’s also fickle and even if its own story is one of resounding success, for brands wanting to get on-board, it’s a case of extreme boom or humiliating bust. 

A temptation too far 

Ilan Nass, chief strategist, Taktical Digital, says Reddit rivals Facebook and YouTube as the social platform to tap for marketing profit, due to its size, scale and breadth. But he warns that this is a place where they have “robust conversations on myriad topics, share private inside jokes and running gags” and despite the richness of community and engagement – and huge volume of people – it’s also the dealer of fatal errors, especially for nascent brands. “The best marketing on Reddit often includes humor or honesty and if you take the time to communicate with its users, you will also get credit. What the Reddit community don’t like is to feel like they’re being deceived or gamed, even if they’re not. That’s the way to get bad blood.” 

“The best marketing on Reddit often includes humor or honesty and if you take the time to communicate with its users, you will also get credit. What the Reddit community don’t like is to feel like they’re being deceived or gamed, even if they’re not. That’s the way to get bad blood.”

Ilan Nass, Taktical Digital

Take the example of KFC. They successfully overcame the downvote problem with humor, getting a PR company to post a screen grab of the people the fast food brand follows on Twitter revealing 11 familiar channels: five spice girls and six Herbs. A riff on their famous secret recipe. The post got an 84% upvoted rating. But what’s the first comment? “Locked thread due to everyone getting itchy about hailing this corporate.” 

Redditors are a brutal bunch, but that doesn’t mean they’re barbarians. Far from it. They’re acerbic and righteous. They’re also well informed and knowledgeable. The lesson for marketers: don’t underestimate that which you don’t know. Reddit does not suffer falls lightly. 

Reddit has a litany of what Nass calls “legendarily disastrous” PR episodes. When Morgan Freeman held an Ask Me Anything (AMA), Reddit’s equivalent of a Q&A, to promote 2013 film Oblivion, the actor’s interactions were so obviously handled by his public relations team the crowd of moviegoers quickly turned on the star of The Shawshank Redemption. Google’s Site Reliability Engineering Team similarly hit a wall when, during an AMA, Gmail crashed worldwide for 50 minutes leaving the engineers open to nonstop ridicule.

And in 2017 when video game developers EA took to Reddit to defend criticism of Star Wars Battlefront II’s use of loot boxes (extra payments made by fans that had already purchased a game) one post from an EA exec during the discussion became the most unpopular, or downvoted, comment in Reddit history. Nass says that on Reddit, all that exec had to do was tell the truth. “If they had said we thought this would be a great revenue stream and it would allow us to spend more on the next game, it wouldn’t have been trashed. The worst thing you can do as a PR or marketer on Reddit is be disingenuous.” 

The human factor

Reddit very much sees itself as a counterculture publication. A standpoint, Nass explains, that stems from its history. Reddit was an online channel that grew on its own, it built its own principles, on free speech and independence, for example, and when it was acquired (Alexis Ohanian and Steve Huffman were 22 years old when they sold to Condé Nast) there was “a lot of sensitivity that it would become a den of advertising”. Reddit’s users see the site as the beating heart of the internet and they have “gatekeeping in their blood”. They don’t like the community changing and, in particular, corporate advertising designed to go viral. They pride themselves on having content that is organic, that comes from real people. “What Reddit wants is the human element. That’s the way to cut through to the community,” says Nass. 

Reddit is a crucible of authenticity. It’s also an opportunity. “Reddit has the ability to really humanize a brand,” explains Nass. “Brands can jump into conversations and tackle issues directly, they can take their time with an AMA to address particular concerns, or engage in conversations with other brands. Companies like Duckduckgo and Uniqlo have been really successful because they answer customer service questions and host special meet ups and product launches, just on Reddit. One year, Uniqlo drove 3% of all their sales from Reddit. When done well, it can be an incredibly powerful channel.” 

Reddit has the ability to really humanize a brand. Brands can jump into conversations and tackle issues directly; they can take their time with an AMA to address particular concerns, or engage in conversations with other brands.

Ilan Nass, Taktical Digital

Bill Gates gets this. When he did his sixth AMA to promote the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Microsoft man chatted about everything from his friendship with Steve Jobs to what he left his children in their trust funds. In these rare exchanges with real people, Gates introduces himself and his foundation to a whole new generation and comes across as just another guy on the block, just another Jimi Hendrix fan.

But how do you instil in a brand the sense of being genuine? “I’ve encouraged brand managers to use first person tense so, instead of saying ‘we’ and coming across as some kind of automaton, say ‘I’,” says Nass. “Generally speaking, having a friendly and personable tone, which is challenging because that’s not the natural tone of a brand, can also help. But essentially it’s about making a brand realize that even the smallest of gestures can go a long way; just five minutes of a brand’s time can make a huge change. 

“If you can get Redditors to go, ‘Wow, this company really cares’, you’ll usually earn brand ambassadors and evangelicals: people that will promote a brand for you without being on the payroll and that kind of goodwill can’t be bought,” he continues. “No ad, or commercial, or billboard, can buy that. It has to be earned the hard way and Reddit is a shortcut to that.”

Listen up

Reddit’s subreddit system can be daunting to outsiders, yet in amongst its lingo of TL;DR (Too Long; Didn’t Read), Karma Whores (redditors who repost links to crank up their karma score) and Cakedays (membership birthday), this hidden network is the key to a unique kind of brand engagement. Because the community self-segregate into interest groups, Redditors are separated into neat little niches, opening up the opportunities for advertisers to engage with readymade, organic consumer groups. 

The benefits of such access is manifold. It’s a great way for brands to listen to their clientele and understand how their customers view their product. For example, Nvidia make graphics cards but their reach would be far greater than the one community. They’d be able to tap into numerous communities, from the little known to the obvious, with a scope that included the build-a-PC community, the graphics card community and the video gaming community at large. As such, subreddits allow brands to really zero in on what consumers want, across a broad range of demographics; they might encounter specific problems to solve (solvent producers can tap into what people are using to get out stains and vets could get insight into how dog owners deal with a pet with cancer), or a brand could uncover something they’re doing well without knowing they were doing it. 

Because the community self-segregate into interest groups, Redditors are separated into neat little niches – opening up opportunities for advertisers to engage with readymade, organic consumer groups.

“When you’re a marketing person you can become numb [to criticism],” says Nass. “It’s assumed that every product you’re selling is the best, that your company is the best and sometimes, as a marketer, that leaks through [into the marketing decisions you make].” In this sense, Reddit can cleanse a brand’s perception of itself, let them reboot and recalibrate with their customers. 

Strangely, success on Reddit can also come at a price. What is it they say? Leave them wanting more. Redditors know no such restraint. Win on Reddit and you don’t always reap the rewards. Sometimes Redditors can drive so much traffic to a site they cause it to crash. Something known as the ‘hug of death’. In the words of Queen: too much love will kill you. Too true.

Photo by Thomas Charters on Unsplash

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