By Matt Burrows, Account Manager
In the 16 years since its launch, Reddit remains a unique social media platform largely untapped by journalists, brands and agencies alike. This is because at its core, when it’s not upending Wall Street through the power of GameStop, Reddit is much more “topic-driven” than “personality-driven” like other social media networks. Much of the interaction on the platform must naturally be built up through the site’s upvote/downvoted system. You can’t just drop in, leave a press statement, and leave. Not that doing the “drop-in/drop-out” strategy is a good idea in the first place, but it’s especially self-wounding here.
That’s because it’s not the kind of platform that takes to shortsighted, pre-drafted statements and boilerplates well. The subreddit r/HailCorporate exists solely to lambast shoddy marketing done through reddit, and the single most downvoted Reddit post of all time is a PR statement made by EA on the lootbox controversy of the Star Wars Battlefront 2 video game. While that may have more to do with a paper-thin defense of a highly unpopular program (and defying the universal truth that you don’t block access to Darth Vader), it shows that Reddit requires a more nuanced approach than other social media platforms — and perhaps a different one entirely.
Many Communities in One
In a recent webinar hosted by Jeremy Caplan of the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism, employees of Reddit themselves pulled back the curtains on the site a bit — or rather, on the thousands of sites that make up Reddit. To approach Reddit as a single site in the wrong approach. Instead, Reddit should be treated as an amalgamation of 100,000 communities, called “subreddits,” each focused on its own topic and with its own volunteer moderators and members. From perennial favorites such as r/todayilearned and r/AmITheAsshole for checking daily facts and checking if you’ve socially made a mess of things, to subject boards like r/journalism and r/gardening to highly specific niches like wondering what animals look like without necks, subreddits covers all topics, tastes and interests.
It stands to reason that some of the groups are not as large as others, so there’s a lower barrier for entry for locally focused media or companies looking into their own backyards to be part of the action. For example, the Dallas Morning News has an active presence on the r/Dallas subreddit. As a local-focused community, it makes sense for a paper of record to participate with that. However, this participation comes with one very important caveat: you actually have to BE part of that community.
Participation, NOT Promotion
Every post or comment a profile has ever made is visible to all — there’s a running record not only how often one has posted, but how they’ve posted or participated in discussion. To cut to the quick, Reddit frowns on self-promotion, and you have to engage and be part of various discussions to even be able to post your own content to a heavy extent. If all you do is talk about yourself, there’s an easily found record of that, and you will be obliterated for it.
You have to EARN the right to post original threads in many cases, so on some subreddits, you must participate in the first place to have any chance of “getting the word out” at all.
As a positive example, the Dallas Morning News can now publish their stories to Reddit, but it took months and years of building up with comments and non-promotional additions to the conversation – including information sharing and reader responses. They were participating in conversations well before they tried to lead them.
In a very navel-gazing post on the Public Relations subreddit, I found a quote that really encapsulated this concept for me (bolded for emphasis):
“You need to add new information into the public domain, not just slap your brand on an existing piece of knowledge or social trend. You need to provide more value to the audience. Something that will genuinely entertain or inform. The vast majority of PR fails to do this. Reddit is probably the most cynical, ad-weary, PR-weary audience you could choose to disseminate your message to. Your work must be of the very highest standard to succeed here. A huge amount of it isn’t, and thus gets spotted as an obvious PR attempt immediately. That means heaps of opprobrium.”
I’d add on to this by saying it takes not just the highest tier playbook, but throwing out the entire playbook for a fresh one. Staying on message? Forget it. The “spray and pray” tactic of blasting out statements far and wide? You already know that won’t do it. Treat each community likes its own culture, with a unique strategy and approach for each. If PR is at its best when it’s individually considered for target, audience and publication, then engaging with the audience should have no less consideration put behind it.
Besides, if all you’re using Reddit for is a speaking platform, you’ve missed the point.
Listen from an Unfiltered Source
As both PR agencies and brands, we sometimes can overly focus on social media as an avenue to publish, not an avenue to listen and participate in discussions. This is one of their strongest use points: you cannot fake the genuine feedback or opinion of the userbase. As EA painfully learned with the Battlefront 2 example, jumping in at first chance with a statement won them no favors – it was time to gather feedback, see what people were saying, and consider a decision based off what they were seeing. It was time to listen.
For me personally, the potential of Reddit (screennames and all) is very evocative of the old-school discussion forums for the niche video game series I was a fan of back in high school and college — a community gathering spot for fans to swap opinions, discuss the latest news and occasionally be graced by the presence of the developers who wanted to know our feedback for polls and what have you.
In his own analysis of Reddit for journalists, Jeremy Caplan advises the budding young writer to “use reddit to engage with communities, develop new sources, and come up with fresh story ideas.” Sometimes this can be in a very direct way — USA Today turned to redditors for their direct opinions on the 2018 elections.
From a brand’s perspective, this open-faced honesty of opinion can be invaluable for product reviews and feedbacks, or even just market research. What better way to find out what problems a product could potentially solve than just seeing what problems people are discussing anyway. Even suggesting some helpful pointers (that aren’t self-promotional) can go a long way to building trust. For agencies wondering how they’re going to reach the media, keep in mind the media wants to know what’s on the public’s mind right now. For the 98.2K members of r/SmartHome for example, Smart Doorbell installations and turning “dumb” products like gates into smart products seem to be top of mind. Your next pitch topic could very well be on Reddit — if you’re willing to put down the keyboard and listen or look for a while.
Ask Me Anything … I’ve Got a (Human) Answer
One of the more successful avenues for brands and celebrities to engage with the public on Reddit is the ever popular Ask Me Anything (AMA), which affords its own subreddit and often has threads appear in subreddits offering the enticing chance to have burning questions answered. What are Bill Gates’ thoughts on the handling of Coronavirus? What were the thoughts of Lindsey Graham’s challenger for Senate?
AMAs work best when they tap into the public conscious of the moments (such as COVID-19 or the elections), or if they offer a unique experience, as the daunting life story of a man forced to fight in the German anti-tank division of WW2 does. (Note how Reddit labeled that last thread as “Unique Experience.”)
An AMA is a crash course in honest, straightforward storytelling with minimal “message workshopping” that also shows the power of interesting anecdotal storytelling, one of our pillars of business storytelling overall.
Even in its own guide to AMAs, Reddit reminds people to “Remember the human. Your responses should sound the way they would in an in-person conversation, not talking points. Answer questions covering a wide variety of topics, do not just focus on the project you’re promoting.”
That bolded emphasis is Reddit’s by the way, highlighting how universal a truth it is to leave your messaging at the door when it comes to the site.
ELI5: Think Like People Do
Even exploring the 101 of Reddit provided to the press, one commonly used Reddit lingo phrase pops out and deserves special mention, “ELI5.”
“ELI5” or “Explain Like I’m Five” is, in the words of Reddit, used for “when you need a complicated answer in simple terms.” It evokes advice we give junior staff when it comes to explaining dense technical topics – “How would you explain this to your family?” or “How would a journalist explain this to the public?”
Once you’ve gained the ability to post new topics outright in a subreddit (which again, is not automatic depending on the community, requiring it to be built into based on the amount of upvotes your participatory comments have gained up to that point), clear, concise messaging, plus transparency that the communication is coming from a brand or agency, will help immensely. (Though be prepared for some scorn/snark, anyway. That’s just how Reddit is.)
TL;DR: Reddit as a Resource — Not a Channel to Win
One of the other core concepts on Reddit is the end of post “too long; didn’t read” summary, or TL;DR. Here’s your TL;DR for this post: If you approach Reddit as an avenue for quick fire announcements and press release drops, you will lose on the site quickly. If you treat it as a resource for customer engagement and feedback, community building and a channel to be built up over time, you’ll stand a fighting chance.