Reddit to brands: You say you want a conversation? Put your money where your mouth is

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It’s no secret that Reddit is trying to monetize the giant, somewhat anarchic community it has built up over the years: general manager Erik Martin and co-founder Alexis Ohanian have talked about it a number of times over the past few months, and about what the site believes it can offer to advertisers. The hard part is that anarchic communities don’t always take kindly to advertising pitches being thrown at them. The real question, Martin says, is whether advertisers actually want an authentic conversation — because if they do, they’re not going to get anything much more authentic than Reddit.

The risks of going after monetization were summed up fairly succinctly by Kevin Rose, the former Digg founder and now Google Ventures partner, who knows a lot about how to screw up a thriving online community: changes made at Digg that were designed in part to appeal to brands ended up choking the life out of the site, and it was sold for scrap. As Rose recently told the New York Times:

“One of the things you have to be careful of when you have a site that’s 100 percent community-driven is how best to support that community and not make them feel like you’ve sold out. You just don’t want that community to blow up on you.”

Like so many other communities, the downsides of Reddit are the mirror image of its strengths. Members are anonymous (or pseudonymous), and this gives them the freedom to discuss all kinds of things without having to worry about the impact on their “real” lives. That freedom is something Reddit feels very strongly about, as Ohanian described in a recent post about his investment in another anonymous community, the app Secret. Unfortunately, advertisers typically want to engage with users they can identify — and they might not like some of the content that gets produced by Reddit users in the name of free speech.

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Real conversation — warts and all

So what can Reddit offer that gets past these barriers? In effect, what the site offers is a challenge: most brands and advertisers say that what they really want is a “conversation” with their users, but few actually put their money where their mouth is. A promoted tweet or a heavily-moderated discussion on Facebook may serve the purpose, but it’s a bit of a Potemkin village compared to the free-for-alls that happen during some of Reddit’s “Ask Me Anything” interviews or emerge in its sub-Reddit communities. As Martin put it in a Q&A earlier this year:

“To be frank, when brands talk about engagement, they say it, but a lot of them don’t actually want to or aren’t ready to engage with people. If you’re looking to push your message in a one-way platform, there are better platforms out there. But Reddit is absolutely a space where brands can have their voice and talk about what they’re doing.”

Reddit has also recently introduced some tools that might help it in this battle: the “live update” reporting tool, for example, was designed to make it easier for users to post information about breaking-news events such as the war in Syria, but Martin says the site has already seen sub-Reddits using it to have live conversations about other topics. Although he didn’t specifically mention it, that kind of tool could make it much easier for brands to have live discussions. Some Redditors have also suggested that ad revenue could even be shared with sub-Reddit moderators.

Whether Reddit can manage to marry advertising and its anonymous, free-speech principles without ruining the community remains to be seen, but the possibility shouldn’t be ruled out: after all, Twitter was another fairly anarchic network not that long ago, and it seems to have managed the transition fairly well.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Shutterstock / Syda Productions

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