Reddit is ready for advertisers, but are advertisers ready for Reddit?
Chris Tuff has not yet had a client advertise on Reddit. But he came close. Once.
As executive VP and director of partnerships and content marketing at 22squared, Tuff had a client intrigued enough in the platform that the brand commissioned his agency to craft a campaign to run on Reddit. But draft after draft, the campaign’s initial concept weakened. That often happens with any campaign running anywhere, but the risk is higher when running that campaign on Reddit.
“With that watering down, we got way too close to being susceptible to the backlash [from Reddit’s audience, commonly called ‘Redditors’]. You’ve got to be very careful. We’re not going to touch that unless we’re pretty certain that this is something Redditors will embrace,” said Tuff.
Tuff’s is far from an isolated example of Reddit’s reputation for scaring off advertisers. Executives at four different major holding company agencies declined to be interviewed for this article because the platform has not gained much adoption among their clients due to brand-safety concerns. Those concerns range from worries that ads will appear on controversial “subreddits,” or topic-based message forums, to fears of campaigns being flayed alive by Redditors on anti-advertising subreddits like HailCorporate.
However, underlying Tuff’s statement about brands being wary of how they will be embraced by Reddit’s audience is the notion that brands do want to be embraced by Reddit’s audience, perhaps now more than ever. With more than 330 million people using its platform each month, the self-described “front page of the internet” has become too big for brands to ignore or to classify it as fringe.
Reddit is “not something our clients have been interested in. But we’re starting to see it pick up more. We’re starting to get questions like ‘What about Reddit?'” said Andy Amendola, senior director of digital strategy and media at The Community.
Any question about advertising on Reddit is typically followed by a question about whether it’s safe to advertise on Reddit. In the past, the answer was often a “hard no.” Now, it is softening as Reddit strengthens its efforts to cater to advertisers. “Reddit has become way more brand-friendly in the last year or so,” said one agency exec.
However, Reddit has not done a sufficient job in making advertisers aware of those efforts. Heading into a major redesign of its site in 2018, Reddit doesn’t appear to have a brand-safety problem as much as a brand-safety perception problem.
The rough side of Reddit
“They call it the front page of the internet, but it’s more like the street. Anything can happen on the street, ” said Amendola.
Sometimes on the street, people get punched in the mouth. The same goes on Reddit. Last week, Redditors took to a subreddit dedicated to video game “Star Wars: Battlefront” to complain about a pricing scheme employed by the game’s maker Electronic Arts in its latest edition. Then the brand entered the fray. Electronic Arts used its brand account to respond to the comments and explain the pricing scheme. Its attempt to address the controversy head-on backfired. Hard. On Reddit, people can upvote or downvote comments; think of these as similar to Facebook’s “like” button and its nonexistent polar opposite. Electronic Arts’s response became the most downvoted comment in the history of Reddit.
“If agencies are being responsible and looking out for their own livelihoods, then they’re warning all brands to be very, very careful because Reddit is — take the most critical, bullying group of individuals on the internet and throw them into one community; that is Reddit,” said Tuff.
That is not only Reddit, though. Not anymore. Over the past year, advertisers have become increasingly aware that, just as Reddit has a rough side, so do Facebook and Twitter. “Reddit used to be seen as this place that had a lot of fringe elements, but now those elements are coming to the largest social platforms. There’s trolls on Twitter. There’s fake news on Facebook. It used to be that kind of stuff lived on the dark corner of Reddit. But now everywhere is being plagued by the same issue in this new normal,” said Amendola.
That new normal doesn’t mean that advertisers are necessarily more or better equipped for Reddit’s rough side. But they may be more tolerant of it. As Amendola put it, “When everything else becomes less safe, Reddit becomes a new option where brands can try something new and innovate.”
The upside of Reddit
As with all things polarizing, there is a positive complement to the negative side of Reddit. What led people to rail against Electronic Arts’s comment is also what led them to rally around a subreddit dedicated to one of the brand’s products. Redditors aren’t categorically opposed to marketing. They’re opposed to bad marketing.
“I think there’s a lot of great opportunity on Reddit. It takes a particular brand and a brand that has no weaknesses because the community there will exploit it. If you do it right, it’s an amazing opportunity and you’ll have a passionate group of people talking about your brand. But if you don’t do it right, it will blow up in your face,” said Amendola.
Reddit is “really for clients looking for extremely passionate users who are active and really leaned-in and opinionated about certain topics or products,” said Sherwin Su, director of social activation at Essence.
Reddit’s audience is simultaneously its albatross and its advantage. As much as people express their interests on Facebook, Twitter and other social networks, Reddit revolves around those interests. People don’t use Reddit to see what their friends are up to or what’s going on in the world; they use it to see what’s going on in their various personal worlds, whether that’s the world of “Star Wars: Battlefront” or any of the other 100,000-plus subreddits dedicated to specific interests. In a way, Reddit can be more personal than other platforms, which can explain why its users can be so protective of the platform.
“The audience on Reddit is very sensitive. Advertisers pay for their influence, and the trade-off is they’re very sensitive to what they allow in the community,” said Tuff.
Even advertisers wary of whether they would be allowed in the community recognize the value of that community, which Tuff described as “the backbone of the internet in terms of surfacing what most people end up seeing [on other platforms] with a day-and-a-half delay.” While none of The Community’s clients have used Reddit’s ad products, they use Reddit “a good amount” to track what Redditors are saying about a brand, its products or its category, said Amendola.
“If you’re a brand that has a subreddit dedicated to you or you see that active conversation about your brand there, even if it’s not all positive, it shows there’s an interested audience, a passionate audience. I would say brands will want to lean into that conversation,” he said. But if that conversation is able to convince brands to lean in, is Reddit ready to catch them?
The business side of Reddit
Since Reddit co-founder Steve Huffman returned to Reddit as its CEO in July 2015, the company has worked to make its platform more attractive to advertisers. It has rolled out a self-serve platform to make it easier for brands to buy its ads. In addition to keyword-based targeting and negative keyword targeting, it has added interest-based targeting so that brands can target those ads based on the subreddits that people browse, with an option to exclude people from their target audience based on the subreddits they browse (such as the ad-opposed HailCorporate crowd). It has expanded its ad product portfolio from text-and-link ads to autoplay video ads and sponsored versions of its flagship feature, Ask Me Anything (AMA), a communitywide Q&A session hosted by an individual or business on Reddit. And it has assembled a dedicated agency development team tasked with working with shops like Essence to lower the barrier to entry for brands.
However, for all the progress Reddit has made, the company “still has a lot of work to do,” said Su.
For example, brand safety is still considered a major roadblock despite inroads that Reddit has made. Advertisers’ primal fear is that their ad would appear on a controversial or otherwise undesirable subreddit. But Reddit has worked to ensure that can’t happen. The company has manually compiled a list of subreddits considered safe for ads to appear on and only allows ads to appear on those whitelisted subreddits. To ensure those whitelisted subreddits stay safe, Reddit monitors the posts published to them using language analysis technology. If it finds posts that violate its quality standards, it turns off ads for that subreddit.
“We have a principled approach to the question of ‘where should ads appear?’ that relies on a combination of technology, tools and service to ensure that ads only run in environments that are brand-safe and relevant,” said Reddit’s VP of sales, Zubair Jandali, in an emailed statement.
The blind side of Reddit
Reddit has tried to make advertisers more aware of its efforts to make its platform more palatable to brands. It has a brand strategy team that works with brands such as Anki and Toyota to craft large-scale campaigns. And its agency development team works with agencies to educate them on the platform and receive feedback from them. Essence’s relationship with Reddit’s agency development team likely explains why Su said his clients are aware of the steps Reddit has taken to address brands’ safety concerns — and why that’s not the case elsewhere. Tuff characterized clients’ awareness of Reddit’s moves as “not great,” and Amendola concurred.
“They have done a lot [to address brand safety]. But I don’t think that information has really trickled down to the actual players making decisions, the media agencies and clients and creative agencies,” said Amendola.
Even if brands were more broadly aware of Reddit’s whitelisting, the brand-safety issue pivots to an issue of trust. Brands buying ads through Reddit’s self-serve platform have no way of knowing whether their ads actually appeared on safe subreddits. Reddit does not provide these advertisers with reports listing the subreddits on which a brand’s ad appeared, though it does provide these placement reports to brands placing large direct buys.
Similarly, marketers seem to be unaware of Reddit offering brands its own version of Facebook’s Pages. Reddit unveiled these profile pages in March for certain users, including brands, to operate their presence on Redditt, the way they do on Facebook, Twitter and elsewhere. Instead of posting messages to a subreddit, users can publish posts to their own profiles, which other users can follow.
“I don’t think most brands are aware of [Reddit’s profile pages]. Most people think of Reddit as a place that you can’t have your own channel,” said Amendola.
To be fair, Reddit’s profile pages are not widely available. The company plans to roll them out more broadly over the next few months to brands as well as individual users, and brands will be able to create theirs toward the end of the year, said a Reddit spokesperson. But it’s not like Reddit has been shy about how brands can use these profile pages. In September, Audi ran a sponsored live video AMA that people could watch on the automaker’s profile page, marking the first time an AMA was hosted on a brand’s profile page. Reddit does plan to make brands more aware of its profile pages as the company opens them up to more marketers. Its teams will inform current and prospective advertisers about the new feature and teach them how to use it, and it will host webinars to extend that education to more brands, said a Reddit spokesperson.
As more brands become aware that they are able to have their own channel on Reddit, the question becomes should they. One consideration is what resources a brand would need to dedicate to that channel, said Su. Another is what protections would a brand have in managing that channel. “If you have a negative post on Facebook, you can hide it easily or delete it,” said Amendola. “The fear with going into a space like Reddit is it’s a little more dangerous to have a brand message.”