Erik MartinWhen you hear about brands on social media, Reddit still seems like a distant cousin. It’s not usually included among the dominant networks like Facebook and Twitter. How come?

It can be scary for brands. Reddit allows for people to talk back and to interact with companies, and more importantly, interact with each other.

That’s a new thing and of course it’s going to be a little overwhelming. But Reddit isn’t anti-brand. There are whole communities built around users that are genuinely passionate about a brand or a specific subject.

Reddit recently collaborated on a study with Sonic Boom. By analyzing conversations on Reddit, the study found people value individualism, fairness and innovation when it comes to brand interactions. That doesn’t exactly count as news. What did you take away from the report?

It confirmed a lot of the patterns we have seen over the years. When you think about online communities or social networks and how they have changed the landscape, it makes sense.

You now have – especially with the younger generations – people who are used to sharing their thoughts online as they think them. You have the ability to have very direct connections, not just with brands and big companies, but also with governments and celebrities and people in the media.

People want a behind-the-scenes view and they want to know that the interactions and processes are fair. You also have all of these platforms, trends and technologies bubbling up so quickly – something like Instagram that goes from being a brand new startup to a huge platform in just a couple of years – so it’s not surprising that people are now expecting companies to have a direct and human connection with them.

We hear a lot about how brands need to engage with their audience through conversation on social media. Reddit is built for online conversation. So why aren’t more brands conversing there?

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.

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.

A spirit brand, Maker’s Mark, did a fun campaign around the Kentucky Derby and in the ad space they asked Reddit users to come up with fun horse names. They came up with names like “distill my heart” and “be still Bourbon” or “no woman no rye.” People had fun.

On the other hand, other beer or spirit brands might come in and answer really detailed, really technical questions about the process for making their product, about how they care about quality and why they aren’t available in a particular state or city yet. So there are lots of great ways for companies to interact.

Maker's Mark Reddit screenshot

Maker’s Mark created a sponsored post on Reddit that has garnered more than a thousand comments.

You have mentioned Reddit’s ad platform, which is part of a move towards profitability. What makes it appealing to advertisers as opposed to other, more popular platforms and social networks?

One thing is that our targeting is based on self-organized communities, or subreddits, so unlike some other options out there, you can go and actually see and sort of touch and feel the community.

If you’re interested in talking to an audience that cares a lot about cycling, you can go to the cycling subreddit, see what they’re saying, do a search for your brand, see what the tone of the community is and then directly target them. That’s very powerful.

The other big difference is that just like with posts on Reddit, you have a huge amount of creativity and flexibility. You can share a video, image, or link. You can embed a tweet, you can ask a question or you can post 10,000 characters of text if you want, or lay out your entire story.

There was a recent British advertiser, a coffee company that simply asked, “What do and don’t you like about getting coffee at a shop?” And it generated thousands of comments.  So the ability to start whatever kind of conversation you want is unique. We even have people come on and say, “check out our new website and rip it to shreds.”

Reddit's self-serve ad platform allows brands to connect directly with audiences via the ads' comment threads.

Reddit’s self-serve ad platform allows brands to connect directly with audiences via the ads’ comment threads.

And people on the network are okay with being approached by brands?

The weird thing is that as an industry we’ve got this mindset of, “Oh we’ve got to make something viral. You have to be cute and clever and you have to add cats and make it likable.”

On Reddit it’s almost a throwback, where yes, really good content is really good content, but that’s not really interesting to people. If you have a product, people want to talk shop. They want to ask questions about it, they want a human response from someone about why various choices were made about the product or distribution or things like that. It can be a very focused or product-driven conversation.

For some reason online marketing has moved away from that. And I think that speaks back to the findings of the report, that people want human and they want innovation – they want to talk nuts and bolts sometimes.

The United States’ Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is embroiled in controversy because of a new net neutrality proposal. You are a proponent of the open internet and so is the Reddit community. Why?

In the grand scheme of things, we haven’t really had the internet that long. It’s still a very fragile system and all sorts of good decisions by companies, governments and researchers along the way have gotten us to this amazing tool.

The internet allows small companies and groups to have a big impact, which I think most people would agree is a really positive and powerful thing, so any sort of regulation, burdens or overly aggressive use of existing laws can have a big impact.

The open web is one of the few things we’ve seen in recent history that has a chance to put a dent or have an impact on large structural issues, so we’ve really got to protect it. We’ve got to be careful anytime we start pulling at the threads that weave this whole thing together.