Aleksandra Szczerba
Reddit: what do we need to understand about “the front page of the internet”?
audience, insight, social
15 mins
Dubbed “the front page of the internet”, Reddit has now been attracting teenagers (and adults) for 15 years. It is a rather unorthodox social network with a relatively niche following, but it is an increasingly notable player when it comes to adolescent audiences and fandoms. And it is growing rapidly, with its daily user numbers growing 44% YoY from 2019 to 2020. As the site has seen rapid growth thanks to the pandemic, and the company has recently been making new notable acquisitions (more on this shortly), it is worth taking a look at the platform to understand exactly what it is, how it works, who frequents it, and if it can be utilised by brands today.

Founded in 2005, Reddit has had a steady but rocky journey to the niche juggernaut it is today. Currently valued at $3 billion, boasting 430 million monthly active users in 2019 and 52M daily active users in October 2020, it is showing no signs of stopping. It is however a much smaller and much different place than other social networks. In the past, the user base was estimated to be as much as 70% male; today the numbers are not as extreme, but it is still a largely male leaning (57%) platform that appeals to Gen Z and Y users (58% are aged 18-34). The fact it has always been “young, white and male” has meant that it has been perceived as a bit of a “4chan lite”; a space that isn’t inviting to a diverse audience. However, with the growth of numerous varied communities the demographics of the site are changing, and although the main areas of the site still may lean more white and male than Instagram or TikTok, there are communities across the site that are more vibrant and welcoming. 

It is due to this “4chan lite” reputation that Reddit is still an undeniably controversial platform. Going way back to its roots the platform has been built on the values of free speech. It was co-founded by Aaron Swartz, the internet activist known for the creation of the Creative Commons license, and hacker who was arrested for hacking JSTOR archives. This notion of “free speech” has often ended up meaning “anything goes”, and at times Reddit has seen subreddits become hubs for hate speech or inappropriate (and illegal) content. From racist and sexist communities thriving, to Russian propaganda around US politics, to sharing of private intimate photo leaks, Reddit has done and seen it all. Attempts at weeding out these communities were met with scorn, and when Ellen Pao, an Asian-American woman, was placed at the helm of the site in 2015 following some of its bigger scandals in an attempt to clean it up, she was ousted within months by a user base who did not take lightly to her new anti-harassment policies and likened her to historical tyrants. Today some controversial subreddits remain, but most have been shut down. The site is not free of issues - what social platform is, after all - but its ecosystem is visibly changing, and the platform is working to change how it is perceived, also making changes at the executive level

Reddit doesn’t just differ in who it attracts, but how it works. It generally does not host content, instead being primarily a link aggregator site that collates content from other places on the web. Users can also post images and videos (which also have to be hosted elsewhere), as well as text posts - the only format that is directly posted on the site itself. The mechanics are then very simple: the posts are voted up or down by users and commented on. “Controversial” or “hot” posts float to the top, and those that attract fewer votes and comments sink to the bottom. What users see is limited to the “subreddits” - communities - they follow, with some subreddits being the default ones that aggregate content from other places. There are over 2.6 million subreddits on the site today, with 1940 new ones created within the last 24 hours alone at the time of writing this. It is estimated that 100-150,000 subreddits are currently active - and some research states that these places foster a sense of community like no other platform online. Almost 90% of users say that there is a community for everyone on Reddit, and about 7 in 10 say that conversations on Reddit are more engaging, on topic, and relevant to them than anywhere else online. 

As the website grew, new mechanics were introduced. “Reddit Gold”, the paid premium subscription (now called “Reddit Premium”), allows users to award “gold” to posts they deem high quality and provides them with an ad-free experience. In 2014 the site added “Reddit Live”, a section for fast-updating live threads which keep users up to date on developing current events stories and events. In 2019 Reddit entered the era of live streaming with “Reddit Public Access Network”, the platform’s own live video streaming service, with its own rules and special functions. And finally, the company made waves at the end of December 2020 with the acquisition of Dubsmash, a growing competitor to the giant TikTok. Still considered fairly niche, but boasting a diverse audience (reportedly 70% of the app’s userbase is female, and 25% of all Black teens in the US are on the app), the app has potential, and might help shift perceptions around Reddit too 

But should businesses be on Reddit, if that’s where their desired audiences are? The answer is both yes and no, as it really depends on what we mean by “being on Reddit”. As it should be evident now, Reddit is not like other social networks, and thus does not lend itself to marketing campaigns the same way something like Instagram or Facebook does. The format and the culture of the website will prevent traditional campaigns from being successful - users are likely to reject any attempts at direct marketing to them. The internet does list examples of “successful” Reddit-based campaigns, but tracking down the posts on the site itself proves that calling them successful might be an overstatement. The posts usually have few comments and upvotes, and some feature comments calling the campaigns out for being marketing. 

That’s of course not to say that you cannot use Reddit to your advantage, and there are a multitude of ways that this can be done, from partnerships to advertising. It can be a wonderful social listening tool, for one, being home to active fan communities on thousands of topics: in 2020, the r/animalcrossing subreddit grew 1771.8% YoY, James Charles was the #1 mentioned influencer globally, and in the UK, Doctor Who was the most popular TV show based on community activity. It is a great way to directly connect with these communities, for example through the “IamA” subreddit (one of the site’s biggest) which has hosted “Ask Me Anything” Q&A sessions with Barack Obama, Bill Gates, David Attenborough, and other celebrities, scientists, politicians and more. In some cases these sessions are part of a promotional campaign; the most popular IamA session in 2020 was with Sacha Baron Cohen as Borat. Reddit now offers official brand partnerships, and these AMA sessions are part of the partnership toolkit. You simply have to remember that these Q&As cannot be explicitly promotional; they need to be honest and interactive. If a company or celebrity is there to just promote their new release in every response, they will go down in infamy for giving a disastrous interview (trust me, this has happened before). 

Beyond interaction, there is also the classic ad model. The platform boasted of $100 million in ad revenue in 2019, and expected 70% YOY growth in 2020. In terms of best audiences to reach, Reddit claims to have more console gamers than Twitch, IGN and GameSpot combined, or more aficionados of TV and film than Netflix, Hulu or IMDB. The success stories on their website are varied, but lean towards gaming, technology and retail, all aimed at Gen Z and Gen Y audiences. The Reddit user is also said to be a more informed consumer than users of other platforms - Redditors reportedly carry out quadruple the research sessions when purchasing a product, and then are nine times faster to make a purchase decision. With all this, the platform is trying to appeal to brands and advertisers - and clearly seeing some success in that regard. 

To summarize, Reddit is a peculiar beast. Filled with dedicated and enthusiastic communities, as well as small pockets of hate and darkness, it is sometimes referred to as both the best and the worst of the internet in one. It is slowly becoming better known, in part thanks to the pandemic, and its growth cannot and should not go unnoticed - as it is likely to continue. Teenagers (and tweens) in search of community and connection are now increasingly finding it on Reddit too. It is therefore important we know what to expect from it - as marketers, as parents, and as internet users ourselves.  

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