Alexis Ohanian Discusses Reddit, Publishing Today And Ads

Reddit seems to be in the news a lot lately as users flock to the platform in search of communities related to events or interests of the day, such as a “subreddit” on politics – or President Obama’s “Ask Me Anything” appearance – or how about cute cat pictures?

The community site has few ads compared to what one might expect for a website with 40 million users. But, that doesn’t mean co-founder Alexis Ohanian thinks that ads don’t have their place – they just need to make everybody happy as you’ll read.

Ohanian, along with his co-founder Steve Huffman sold Reddit to Advance Publications in 2006. And though he has since moved on to other interests, Ohanian remains involved as a board member. Advance Publications spun out Reddit last year from Condé Nast.

Ohanian is speaking at AdExchanger’s Human Centered Automation Conference on September 20.

He spoke to AdExchanger this week…

AdExchanger: What makes and keeps Reddit important?

ALEXIS OHANIAN: It’s Reddit – communities continue to generate fascinating content. There are so many sub-Reddits now. Thousands of active communities of people doing everything from talking about “Breaking Bad,” to US politics, to cute photos of corgis. It is this limitless, 24/7 font of good content.

What I think has finally started to happen, is for years many members of the media were reading Reddit in order to get an idea of what they should be writing about, because if it was rising in popularity on Reddit it was only a matter of time before it was all over Twitter and Facebook. Finally, we’ve hit this critical mass where now so many people are just coming directly to Reddit – 40 million people last month – to see this content first hand, or in some cases, participate in it and help create it.

It’s funny… you look at the 24‑hour cable news networks, and they are trying so desperately to fill their medium.  I think [the challenge] emerged during the Gulf War when there was a story constantly being told every day. Despite the fact we are at war in Afghanistan – except for 9/11 – and some other events, there isn’t a 24/7 feed of content that would satisfy these news networks.

It becomes a challenge to fill time in a useful and entertaining way. Comparatively, the Internet is a 24‑hour, seven‑day‑a‑week fountain of content. The problem is most of it is bad, or it’s not very interesting. What Reddit does so effectively is it aggregates all the best of it. When we harness the attention and the hard work of millions of people all over the world using the Internet, what you’re going to get with a good platform like Reddit is a 24‑hour, seven‑day‑a‑week feed of content for any community you can think of.

It’s exciting because, yes, I can’t believe we had the President of the United States doing an “Ask Me Anything” interview [during the last week of August]. On top of that, he was doing it from Charlottesville, Virginia, which is where my co-founder Steve [Huffman] and I started the company that would start Reddit. Seven years later, everything came full circle.

You now have this place where not only can you discover new content or create it, but you have these sections within it that people are capable of inventing. The Ask Me Anything subreddit was created by a user of Reddit. It wasn’t created by any Reddit employee. We don’t even know who this person is. We should actually look. It would be fascinating to look up some of these original creators of some of the more popular subreddits. It’s a testament to what happens when you build a platform, when you build a tool that anyone can use to quickly come up with something clever.

What should a large newspaper or media company involved in web publishing do to hook into what Reddit is doing? Maybe work with Reddit? Or should they aggregate and create thought leadership in their own way?

That’s an interesting question. We’ve been working really hard to help un‑train publishers and journalists who for a few years got very used to gaming a system like Digg’s in order to get their content seen. Unfortunately, having a predecessor like Digg has required us to have to do a little bit of education because that was a system that was all about being manipulated. Publishers were basically being instructed how to make sure their content got on the front page.

Then, Reddit becomes the site in the industry, and they try to use the same method and get into a lot of trouble really quickly. The running advice that I have is focus on making good content. That’s it. Don’t even think about submitting it to Reddit.

Don’t you dare try to hire some social media consultant who’s going to make sure it’s on the front page and makes all kinds of weird promises. No, no, no. Don’t even bother.

If you see something start to take off and you’re, let’s say, the writer of that story, chime in on the comments and be helpful. If someone’s wondering about a little bit of back‑story, you can provide something useful. You can provide great content if you respond to their comment in a useful way.

If you’re linking back to an old article you wrote last week, that’s great, because if it’s useful, you’re providing a service to people. You’re not being a dick, and you’re getting some extra traffic for one of your articles, so everyone’s happy.

It’s a matter of just reminding people, “Hey, be a human being. Don’t try to cheat the system. Just be helpful.” It’s the “advanced” mode for publishers. A few of them have started doing this. I suspect a few will create a subreddit of their own.

It’s not a subreddit that’s limited to just their content, because that is a fool’s errand. If Reddit has shown anything, it’s that you can’t afford to be so walled in. If you tried to create a subreddit where only links from “The Atlantic” were allowed to be submitted, it would not be very popular because that’s not what people want to talk about.

People in the community of “Atlantic” readers – whatever community any publication has – they don’t just want to read articles from that publication. They may want to look at a photo of a dog. And you know what? That’s OK. If that’s relevant to that community, then let them be able to submit it.

If you’re coming from a non‑digital world, it’s a lot harder to imagine having a front page that you own that would have someone else’s content on it. You would never imagine looking at the front page of “The New York Times” and seeing an article that was explicitly from

In this age, you have no choice but to accept that your content is not always going to be the most interesting or the best. You just need to be able to create a destination where people are going.

Reddit continues to be this destination where people are going. There is some brand loyalty in that, especially on certain subreddits. They will call out certain sources. They’ll highlight a “New York Times” article versus Joe’s Blogspot because that community respects the journalism being done at “The New York Times.”

On the whole, users are fairly brand agnostic. They’ll discover…

You’re starting to see all these new [publishing] brands emerge like The Verge  — that’s an interesting one in tech reporting. The Verge has emerged in the last six or so months since its launch. Over time, as it continued to develop good content, it continued to develop the brand, it is now able to stand up next to links from Wired or – name your relevant, geeky, techie news site. That’s the power of the connected web where all links are created equal.

This is a two-part question. What’s advertising’s place on the Internet in your estimation? Secondly, Reddit’s tag line is “the front page of the Internet.” Does “the front page of the Internet” need an ad?

As humans, we have an interesting relationship with advertising. We’ve got a city in Brazil – São Paulo – that banned outdoor advertising in 2007. It’s pretty wild, because public space is something that has had advertising in it for quite some time now.

Now, you can look to futurist visions of the world like “Minority Report,” where advertisements are talking directly to you… there are all these visions for advertising in the offline world. It’s unclear where it’s going, but it looks like ads are here to stay.

What’s fascinating about them is there’s clearly a lot of conflict about our relationship with them. Some people really loathe them. Some people don’t mind them. Some people probably love them – maybe.

For example, there is a billboard that I might see routinely on the way to and from JFK along with other people, but it’s unclear as to how much of an impact that ad has on me. It’s something that has been done because it has been done for decades and people have found ways to show causal relationships where there’s correlation because, after all, if you put up enough billboards, maybe that’s going to drive sales. Popsicle sales go up in that region, ergo, it must be related to the billboards.

It’s hard to understand that [ad performance] in a scientific, empirical way. Yet, it is a huge part of the way advertising is done.

You go a step further and you start wondering about Nielsen households and who the hell these families are that have decided that “Two and a Half Men” is one of the best shows on TV, and yet “Arrested Development” is off the air. The Nielsen families determine the fate of television shows largely because they drive the “viewers” who we’re selling ads to.

Again, we don’t know when that “ad” is running, especially at a time when so many of us may be DVRing through most ads. There’s still this implied value. It’s weird. Don’t get me wrong… I got a billboard for Hipmunk (Ohanian advises travel info site Hipmunk) – plus we’ve messed around with a few TV spots.

It’s fascinating, the relationship that advertising still has to the offline world – there’s not a ton of data that shows it’s really as useful as we might think it is or if it’s as valuable as we think it is.

Now, with the Internet, we have a ton of people now taking out of a chunk of their lives and spending it online as opposed to offline.

When we show them advertisements, whether it’s on their phone, laptop, or on their tablet, we can see how many people click on and engage with those ads. We can actually see how many people saw those ads.

That number is not perfect, but it’s a lot better than the number of cars that went by and hypothetically saw that [billboard] ad for Coke and bought a Coke, and likewise with television and all the others. What’s fascinating to me is it’s still pretty early online.

If you look, the advertising spends are starting to shift online, but it’s not nearly the same amount. People don’t look at advertising online with the same value that they do as advertising offline.  I think in part because they have this irrefutable data now.

They have this data that says, “Holy shit. Only 100th of a percent of people who see my great ad is clicking on it.” It’s a lot easier to not think about it when you’re not confronted with all this data, and when you just know 100,000 people drive by this billboard every week.

Still, the value of advertising online hasn’t met the perception. People still perceive it as being much less valuable than some of the traditional offline forms of advertising. At some point this has to connect. There has to be parity here, because, like I said, if we look at the most basic reason for producing television shows, it’s to keep people’s attention in between the advertisements.

That’s their business. That’s not a judgment against it. That’s just the business. In the long term, television boxes – cable as we know it – is not going to be able to keep up with the content creation online. We know that it’s going in this direction.

How are we going to figure out how people consume advertising? I believe we’re still doing stupid advertising. Part of the reason Redditt has been so adamant about not doing a lot of obnoxious ads is because we hate them. We think it is rude to have you read our front page and have a giant Jeep Wrangler drive over the content you were just reading.

If that happens to me on a site, I get angry. Why would I want to do this to our user base, which is already providing immense value to us for free?

We’ve always been laggards when it comes to adopting online advertising because we never wanted to do anything to piss anyone off. We engineered our sponsored headlines as a way to mitigate that, because it generates great money, but in an unobtrusive way where these headlines live among the content and they can be commented on.

Lo and behold, smart business people actually use these sponsored headlines to get free focus groups. They run advertisements and then they acually get to discuss with their fans. Consumers are willing to get into commenting on these advertisements because they care. The fact that they care is a great sign.

I look at [Reddit’s] sponsored headlines and I think, “All right, this is just another another iteration on display ads.” This is where I hope Redditt can come out with some great stuff in the next couple years.

There still has to be this shift in advertising.  The ultimate model is a model where someone gets paid, where Coke gets paid and at the same time, a consumer actually gets what he or she wants. Maybe there is another third party in there. It’s somehow creating that market between them.

It’s not, “Here’s an ad for Coke. Click on it. Here’s our Facebook page. Like it.” It just feels broken. It feels like we’ve just been adapting models that have always worked to a model that we’ve never seen before. It doesn’t feel like those pieces are fitting into place yet.

Some smart folks are going to do it and make a ton of money from it. I think at the core of any awesome business model, are a lot of happy parties. You are going to have supply meeting demand in a way that doesn’t piss off your visitors, in a way that makes them feel happy, actually enjoying that experience. If you can do that, get out of the way, because it’s going to be huge.

Follow Alexis Ohanian (@alexisohanian) and AdExchanger (@adexchanger) on Twitter.

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