THE BLOG
07/25/2013 10:22 am ET | Updated Sep 24, 2013

An Executive's Guide to Reddit

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Presenting itself as "The Front Page of the Internet," Reddit is technically the largest social news website. Unfortunately, this designation misses the core significance of Reddit. Reddit is the central point of interaction between the unique culture of the online community and that of the offline world.

This is a crucial designation, as the online community is largely resistant to outside influences, anti-corporation (despite being pro-capitalist), and difficult for the uninitiated to navigate/tolerate. Reddit is more lenient on these fronts than other bastions of internet culture (such as 4chan) and thus is often derided by these communities. Don't let their dismissal fool you -- Reddit is an effective avenue for interaction with the online community and an accessible barometer of online opinion (sites like "What does the Internet Think" are next to useless in comparison).

Promotion on Reddit

If your team tells you Reddit is an effective place to inexpensively market a product, they are either demonstrating a keen understanding of current trends in advertising or a reckless abandonment of your company's best interest in favor of short term professional gain.

Ads on Reddit can have some of the highest ROI of any online ad placement, so long as they demonstrate sensitivity to and an understanding of Reddit culture. This is doubly true when ads are placed within relevant subreddits (high-trafficked yet commonly-derided subreddits such as WTF andAdviceAnimals are great bargains in terms of ad placement if you don't mind the associations).

On the other hand, trying to game Reddit's voting system (using bots, vote buying services, or shills) to increase visibility for a post containing product placement, brand promotion or a release promotion is incredibly risky. While such tactics may yield tremendous short term ROI, their accompanying risk is so extreme that adopting them is a universally a bad idea (a social media manager who suggests such tactics is not worth his/her salary).

If You Anger the Reddit Community You are Going to Have a Bad Time

Attempts to game a system are typically met with a transitory and proportional blowback of negative PR. This is not true on Reddit.

Take the case of gaming the New York Times Best Sellers list through buying large quantities of books soon after a release. If you are caught, you gain a reputation for dishonesty. Nevertheless, the visceral reaction of those involved in the voting process (through buying books) will be weak, as people do not buy books with the intention of raising their ratings on the bestseller list. By gaming this system, you play the New York Times Best Sellers algorithm for a rube and only personally damage other authors.

If, however, you are caught having artificially raised the rating of a post on Reddit, you are turning every individual who legitimately upvoted your post into a rube (a group who supported your brand/product before you betrayed them) and making a personal attack on every individual who spent time submitting his/her own post by unfairly burying something he/she took time to create (even if you weren't the cause of the post being unsuccessful, many people will assume you were rather than take responsibility for a poor quality post).

Why does it matter if Reddit hates your company? Are Reddit users not, after all, a comparatively small demographic? When some communities are offended they, at worst, respond by purchasing your products at a lower frequency. Reddit, however, has a history of actively attacking brands that are seen as having betrayed them; this is accomplished through various tactics such as "vote bombing" your products on Amazon or Yelp. However, such active tactics are a relatively rare form of backlash.

Another potential source of damage, largely relegated to online publications, is a site-wide ban on links to a website. This was the response to revelations that a number of Redditors were being paid to upload content from certain publications including the Atlantic, Bloomberg Businessweek, Psy.org, Science Daily, and the Global Post. The ban lasted only a few days for Buisnessweek and Discovery News, but approximately a month for the Atlantic and longer still for ScienceDaily, Phys.org, and the Global Post. The relatively short nature of most of these bans and the small backlash from the Reddit community in contrast to the increase in traffic received from gaming the system likely made the tactic cost effective. However, this is not always the case. When Quickmeme was found to be owned by one of the moderators of /r/adviceanimals (who was using bots to artificially raise memes made using Quickmeme) the resulting ban on The site led to a complete crash of the company in a matter of days due to its heavy reliance on traffic from Reddit.

For executives who are not in the media industry, the real damage from gaming the system comes not from a ban but from Reddit's opinion not staying on Reddit. The manner in which Reddit cross-pollinates the online community and major media outlets enables resentment and dislike to experience significant amplification.

How Reddit Influences Mainstream Media

While news outlets are loath to admit it, a non-insignificant portion of their material is influenced by Reddit, especially during slow news cycles. Hatred of your company on Reddit increases the portion of negative stories about your company that make it to the front page of the site, which thus increases the visibility of these stories to mainstream media.

If you find it difficult to believe that news outlets gather material from Reddit, consider their incessant need for fresh material that will resonate with the public. Reddit is essentially a giant pool of individuals willing to uncover stories while simultaneously gauging those stories' ability to drive clicks. As Reddit is free and constantly updated, even though it only comprises a small slice of such news outlets' target demographic, it is a difficult resource to ignore (at the very least it is fertile source of leads during slow news cycles).

Even if a news outlet does not draw directly from Reddit; some link in the chain upon which they rely for material is directly influenced by Reddit. Editors of many outlets are not aware that the practice of drawing material from Reddit is common among their younger reporters.

How Negative and Positive Reputations Reinforce Themselves on Reddit

When Reddit loves or hates you, the effects are rarely portional, as the site is a giant echo chamber. Most Redditors make posts with the intention of getting upvotes (posts without upvotes languish in obscurity). When Redditors see a post that has made it to the site's the front page, they know that posts on a similar topic (but from a different angle) are more likely to succeed and thus post related content at a higher frequency.

Familiarity begets fondness. If Redditors who review new and rising posts see negative or positive posts about your company at a very high frequency, they will likely vote them up (these individuals have higher proportional influence on what content makes it to the front page than the Reddit population at large; even six downvotes given to a new post can kill it for good). At an extreme, posting content about liking or hating your company on Reddit can become the cool, insider thing to do, which creates a "safe effect," keeping discussion about your company on the front page for weeks at a time and permanently burning your reputation into the mind of Reddit's community (eg. the positive association Redditors have with the potential release of "Half Life 3" has been regularly reinforced for years, as it has come to exemplify any situation in which one feels a fanatical anticipation for a products release).

Getting Reddit to Like You

How can you get Reddit to like you? There is an active and passive approach. The active approach involves interacting with the Reddit community. The passive approach involves utilizing Reddit's voting system and comment threads as a way to determine Redditor's complaints about your current products, future product or feature releases, and service quality.

Actively Giving Back to Reddit

As an executive, you may adopt an active approach through an AMA (Ask Me Anything, found under /r/IAmA), in which you respond to questions from the Reddit community. To increase the effectiveness of an AMA at building positive sentiment, block out a significant, uninterrupted portion of a day to answer questions (if you only alot half an hour, you will likely do more harm than good). Don't use shills who ask pre-approved questions; it is blindingly obvious to seasoned Reddit users and does not paint you in a favorable light unless you are already well loved (as an example, President Obama's AMA did not damage his reputation- even though it is largely believed that almost every question answered was posed by a shill [no executive other than Gabe Newell could count on a similarly muted reaction to shills]). Before attempting an AMA, be sure to read through the subreddit's tips on leading one.

The second active approach you may take as a company involves encouraging your team to visibly interact with Reddit and adapt to suggestions made during these exchanges in a timely manner. Riot Games, maker of the world's most played game, "League of Legends," has mastered this method through its employees' frequent interaction with fans on Reddit.

Passively Learning from Reddit

The passive method is using Reddit for market research, which can be useful in getting a broad idea of what people think of your product as the community yields specific examples, varied perspectives, and multiple arguments as to how problems can be remedied (all voted upon). While utilizing Reddit for customer insights is useful in many cases, doing so is absolutely crucial if your core target demographic is comprised of 20-something males.

As an executive targeting this a younger male demographic, a cursory analysis of what Reddit is saying about your product or potential new features could save you your job. Take the issue of DRMs in video games. A basic understanding of the Reddit community's (and thus the larger online community's) stance on DRMs and the proper way to implement them may have prevented the resignation of John Riccitiello, CEO of Electronic Arts, or spared Mark Pincus, head of Microsoft's interactive entertainment business, from being forced into the position of CEO of Zynga (transitioning from a position running Xbox to being CEO of the plummeting gaming company was unlikely a voluntary decision). Both of these resignations came within months of PR disasters due to the incompetent implementation of DRMs. Even the most cursory knowledge of what the Reddit community was saying about such implementations would have made their fan bases' reaction evident and would have offered alternative methods of curbing piracy.

When a forum exists for users of your product to make suggestions and then vote on those suggestions in large numbers, you will be missing a large opportunity by not taking advantage of it.