A 2012 Reddit Meetup. "Redditors" are extremely active online, making Reddit a trend hunting hotspot.

Last month Karen Klein, a 68-year-old bus monitor from New York State, was ruthlessly harassed by a group of students. The incident was recorded, uploaded to YouTube and before long found its way to the social news site Reddit. Almost instantly, the video went viral and – as is often the case when a story pulls at the heartstrings of Redditors – a fundraiser was born.

The story has since been featured on every major news network, has over 2 million shares on YouTube and most staggering of all, the fundraiser has raised over $650,000 – enough to send the beleaguered bus monitor on a much-deserved vacation (and then some).

As impressive as this outcome might seem to most, those familiar with the Reddit community won’t be surprised. And that’s why brands should be paying attention to Reddit.

Reddit is social, responsible and viral

Hardly a week goes by without a sizeable amount of money being raised for charity on Reddit. Back in 2011, Redditors (as Reddit users are known) raised $55,000 for a three-year-old who needed a bone marrow transplant. Just last month they raised $30,000 to send a 23-year-old Vancouver man dying of cancer on a trip of a lifetime.

Then there’s the $80,000 that Reddit users donated in just 24 hours for a man whose face was slashed with a machete while singlehandedly defending a Nairobi orphanage with 35 children inside.

While not all fundraisers gain as much media attention as Karen Klein’s, I’ve always wondered why major brands and agencies have such little presence on Reddit, despite the clear opportunity for positive PR. What could be holding them back from what seems like a no-brainer?

The Reddit community raised over $80,000 for this Nairobi orphanage so that it could buy supplies, gardening tools, security guards and a fence to keep violent intruders out.

Learning to let go of the conversation

At 2 billion page views and over 35 million unique visitors a month, Reddit remains a misunderstood gold mine. The problem for marketers is that Reddit’s massive and highly active community is a little too authentic.

Unlike the messages on a billboard, a display ad or a TV commercial, no one controls or dictates Reddit’s content. Redditors have no obligation to stay on topic. They feel perfectly comfortable discussing whatever they want, whenever they want and however they want.

Arthur C. Clarke once opined that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” For brands peering into online communities like Reddit, the corollary might be: Any sufficiently large community of authentic, unrestricted users is indistinguishable from chaos.

What this means is that marketers hoping to approach Redditors with a campaign had better be prepared for that one-way message to become a two-way conversation.

How good messages can turn bad

Woody Harrelson’s PR team learned this lesson the hard way. The plan was to gain exposure to Reddit’s huge audience through an open-access online meet-up called “Ask Me Anything” in advance of Harrelson’s film, Rampart.

But instead of letting Reddit users engage on their own terms, Harrelson and his PR team hijacked the conversation with thinly veiled attempts to keep their answers “on message” and steer the discussion back to the film.

The result was a PR disaster. It spawned a massively popular meme, thousands of “dislikes” of the movie’s YouTube trailer and millions of dollars worth of negative press.

Failed PR stunts like this represent a colossal missed opportunity on the part of brands, which don’t know how to leverage the site or else ignore Reddit altogether.

Nevertheless, the Reddit audience has an uncanny ability to make good content go viral, making it all the more astonishing why brands have such a limited presence in the community.

Max Sidorov started a fundraiser for Karen Klein using Indiegogo after watching a video that went viral on YouTube and Reddit.

Turning conversations into PR opportunities

Why hasn’t a major hotel chain, for example, offered Karen Klein a free stay at any one of its worldwide locations? Why haven’t Nike, Reebok and Adidas pledged to provide the Nairobi orphanage with top-of-the-line sports equipment, or matched the donations of the Reddit community?

Perhaps the one exception is Southwest Airlines, which gave Klein and 10 friends a free trip to Disney. But even then, the company didn’t jump on board until after the story had blown up.

Instead of drastically over-thinking the approach or trying to move mountains to “engage” their target audience, major brands should be asking themselves what in-progress Reddit stories people are already interested in and how they can become a positive factor in them.

Even if Reddit’s audience isn’t your ideal target demographic, every day the site becomes more prescient in detecting (or creating) viral content: It’s where you discover the Karen Klein stories before they hit CNN.

Reddit offers a solution to PR firms that wish to find unobtrusive, inexpensive and impactful ways to positively influence people’s lives. In short, it’s the best friend brands don’t even know they already have.

A version of this article appeared in the Dx3 Digest.