Wildly Social Communities Like Reddit Don’t Just Discuss News, They Make It…
“Come gather ’round people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
…For the times they are a-changin’.”
- Bob Dylan
Two weeks ago the video of a 68 year-old bus monitor from Greece, NY, being ruthlessly harassed by a group of students was uploaded to YouTube. Not long after the clip found its way to the social news site Reddit and the rest, as they say, became history. Mere hours later the video had already gone viral and, as is often the case when a person-in-need gets embraced by Redditors, a fundraiser was born. Within just 13 days it had been featured on every major news network imaginable, had been shared millions of times and, most staggering of all, had lead to over $650,000 being raised to send the beleaguered bus monitor on a much-deserved vacation (and then some). To say Karen Klein’s story went viral might very well qualify as the titanic understatement of the year.
As impressive as this outcome might seem to most, those familiar with the Reddit community won’t be surprised. The thing is, there is hardly a week that goes by on Reddit (or other social news sites like it) where a prodigious amount of money isn’t raised for someone who could use it. Back in 2011, Redditors raised $55,000 for 3-year old who suffered from a rare immune deficiency and needed a bone marrow transplant. Then, just last month they raised another $30,000 to send a Vancouver man with cancer on the trip of a lifetime as it was unlikely he would live to see his 24th birthday. Sometimes the generosity and compassion isn’t just demonstrated in dollars and cents though, like when the community dispatched a deluge of letters, art supplies, music and other random acts of kindness to a terminally ill man with down syndrome. Finally there is the $80,000 that Reddit users donated in just 24 hours for a man named Omari whose face was slashed with a machete while singlehandedly defending a Nairobi orphanage with 35 children inside. The original goal of $2000 in order to build a barbed wire fence to protect the orphanage was surpassed in a matter of minutes – testimony to the enormous power of social giving from a community like Reddit’s.
It’s true that, of this small sample of the Reddit community’s fund-raising exploits over the years, the Karen Klein story received by far the most substantial amount of mainstream media coverage. What has always bothered me about each one of these instances, however, is one troubling question. I’ve always wondered why major brands and agencies seem to be completely absent from the equation every time, despite the fact that joining in with the charitable spirit strikes me as a clear opportunity for great PR. Why are millions spent on blockbuster ad spots or massive microsites when there are events like this which present a clear way to help a worthy cause, show significant goodwill and put their brand in front of millions of the exact demographic they spend so much money trying to reach every year…for a fraction of the cost? What could be holding them back from what seems like a no-brainer?
At two billion pageviews and over 35 million unique visitors a month, Reddit and its hyper-engaged audience still seems, bafflingly, like a misunderstood and neglected goldmine of the internet – at least to the multi-billion dollar digital advertising/social/PR industry that seems to cautiously regard it with equal parts horror and confusion. The problem, as you can almost hear marketing professionals confide to eachother in their strategy meetings as they tackle such monumental questions as how to inspire “socially influential millenials” to buy more soft drinks, is that its massive audience of highly active community members is a little too authentic.
Built from the ground up as a no-frills, no-tricks community-driven conversation and sharing forum, the “problem” with Reddit’s community is that it’s simply not receptive to marketing messages that it deems inauthentic. Unlike the audience of a billboard, a display ad or a television commercial, Redditors (as users of Reddit are known) exist in a forum where conversation is dictated and controlled by no one — regardless of whether control is desired or not. They have no obligation to stay on topic and feel perfectly comfortable discussing whatever they want, whenever they want and however they want. As a result, any brand hoping to approach Redditors with a marketing message of any kind had better also be prepared for that message to turn into a two-way a conversation – a conversation over whose direction, and perhaps even topic, they would have little to no control. This lack of control and the uncertainty around what direction a conversation might take once started might be one of the reasons why so few companies risk venturing into the maelstrom of the Reddit world. Arthur C. Clarke once famously opined that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”, but for brands looking in online communities like Reddit from the outside the corollary might as well be that any sufficiently large community of authentic, unrestricted users can seem, at first glance, to be indistinguishable from chaos.
This is the lesson that Woody Harrelson’s PR team learned the hard way when they sought to force an ill-conceived promotional pill down the collective throat of the Reddit community. The plan seemed simple enough, albeit completely misguided: get exposure to Reddit’s huge audience via an “Ask Me Anything” interview in order to drive ticket sales to the upcoming release of Woody’s new movie “Rampart”. AMA’s, as they are known, are an extremely popular component of the site and, when done correctly, can be a great chance for famous celebrities (like Joss Whedon or Louis CK) to connect with a multitude of fans that are the ideal demographic promised land of most companies: educated, socially influential, proactive and, for the most part, armed with disposable income (as is particularly evident in their propensity for charity). The trick is, though, that doing an AMA on Reddit isn’t about talking about what you want to talk about and it certainly doesn’t necessarily entail a blatant marketing message. It’s an “Ask Me Anything” interview, which means you’ll end up talking about what the Reddit community decides they want to hear. This makes the experience a whole lot different than a typical press interview wherein your interviewer is typically an industry insider who knows they have to stick to pre-approved questions and topics or risking losing future interview opportunities.
It was this exact point of contention that Woody (or his PR person in disguise) encountered when he sat down to give a half-hearted, disingenuous Reddit AMA interview without fully understanding what it was, how it worked or what kind of audience he was dealing with. As a result what began as an inauthentic attempt to promote an upcoming film became a runaway train where half-hearted answers and thinly veiled deflections quickly caused the discussion to turn to the star’s notorious sexual exploits and other “off-topic” questions that had, in the eyes of the movie star in question (or his hapless PR handler), frustratingly little to do with the topic he wanted to discuss: his movie and how he could get more people to pay to see it. The result was a disaster, and the Reddit community quickly turned on what became increasingly clear as a misguided attempt to disingenuously shill a product. Fast forward to a week later and the fallout from the botched interview had spawned a massively popular meme, thousands of “dislikes” to the movie’s YouTube trailer and millions of dollars worth of negative press. Now the very name of the movie “Rampart” is a notorious honourary member of the internet’s ever-increasing list of running jokes. Jobs (and millions of dollars in ticket sales) were almost definitely lost in the process.
But I digress…
What ultimately this all comes down to is what I see as a colossal missed opportunity on the part of brands who either ignore Reddit altogether or don’t seem to know where to start when they don’t. It’s an audience with an uncanny ability to make good content go viral and when it comes to the coveted (dare I say it) “social influencer” demographic it’s practically the holy grail. This is why I remain consistently baffled that more brands and their respective agency representation don’t put a lot more effort into creating stories worth telling in the first place, or making positive contributions to worthwhile stories already in progress.
As a case in point, I remain completely confused as to why no major hotel chain (like Hilton or Best Western) has yet offered Karen Klein, or the Vancouver man with terminal cancer, a free stay at any one of its locations worldwide. And I may never know why Crayola isn’t currently clogging up Scott Widak’s mailbox with free art supplies, or why Coca Cola or Pepsi aren’t calling day and night asking how to make his last days as special as possible. And why, to this day, haven’t Nike, Reebok and Addidas pledged to provide the orphanage Omari defended with top of the line sports equipment, or matched the donations of the Reddit community? Considering what each of those brands spend on tv spots every year, this kind of thing would be all too easy.
But let’s say all of the above had happened. Would all of it seem, at the end of the day, to be self serving? Absolutely, but it would certainly be no more self-serving than all marketing already is. The only difference would be that it would still mean people in need would be benefiting as well. Sure it would be great if companies donated free products and money to worthy causes every day without the benefit of good PR at the back (or front) of their mind, but in a pragmatic world that separation would be impossible to achieve even if it were desired. Perhaps it’s overly pragmatic, but at the end of the day I’ll gladly take a self-serving PR maneuver that results in someone who is down on their luck getting a little help over seeing that money spent on a hugely expensive commercial, billboard, online display ad campaign or elaborate social contest/microsite that ultimately helps no one.
There is, however, at least one exception to what otherwise seems to be the rule. Last week Southwest Airlines made an announcement via CNN’s Anderson Cooper that it was offering to send Karen Klein and nine friends/family members on an all-expenses paid trip to Disney Land. The move was hardly purely altruistic (you don’t make such an announcement via CNN if there isn’t self interest involved), but then again it didn’t have to be. What mattered was that a major brand had the foresight to realize that they could achieve far more for a fraction of the cost simply by contributing positively to a human story that had captured the world’s (or at least North America’s) attention. And just in case you’re skeptical about the results, type Karen Klein and Southwest Airlines into Google and see how many thousands of hits you get (including full articles in every major online news outlet imaginable). If you tack that kind of positive press coverage up against the cost of airfare for 10 people and a few nights stay at a hotel, the return is pretty clear.
At the end of the day, it ultimately comes down to the power of human stories and the potential for brands to create powerful messages that serve their business interests while also giving back. For although Communities like Reddit can seem daunting and alarming to the marketing world because they are so impossible to control, that misguided desire for control is an archaic relic of the past anyway. If there is one thing the internet should be teaching us, it’s that gone are the days when marketing and advertising was a one-way street where brands would tell “consumers” what they wanted them to hear. And instead of drastically overthinking the approach to this change, or trying to move mountains to “engage” their target audience, what major brands should be doing is asking themselves what in-progress stories people are already interested in and how can they become a positive factor in them. Even if Reddit’s audience isn’t your ideal target demographic, every day the site becomes more and more prescient when it comes to detecting (or creating) viral stories.
So here’s my proposition to major brands and the PR professionals that represent them: it’s time to change the way we think about “social media marketing”. It’s time to stop trying to reinvent the wheel with huge, expensive campaigns when there are way more positive, way less intensive ways to positively influence people’s lives. Give them a story to tell and show them why you are better than your competition with actions as well as your words. Places like Reddit are where you can find those stories before they’re on the front page of CNN because by then it’s already too late. In short, they’re the best friend you don’t even know you already have.
The times they are a changin’ and it’s adapt or die.