Reddit spent most of 2015 in a state of turmoil – executive shuffles and users in revolt over policy changes amid concerted and ongoing efforts to cut down on trolling and unsavory content.
Reddit’s reputation: not necessarily the most brand-safe environment.
That instability led to the return of Steve Huffman as CEO of Reddit last year after more than a decade away from the site he co-founded in 2005 with his University of Virginia roommate, Alexis Ohanian.
Over the last year, Reddit has been working to transform itself from a safe space for trolls into a platform that adheres to the original vision, to be what Ohanian called “the home for conversation online.”
(Although there continue to be a few hiccups in that regard. Huffman recently came under fire for using his admin privileges to secretly edit a pro-Trump user’s posts.)
Regardless, “brands can be part of that conversation in a way that’s native to the platform,” Ohanian told AdExchanger. “Over the last year it’s become a kind of mission to try and make advertising suck less.”
It’s a work in progress.
Reddit’s advertising products were pretty much on ice since 2011, Ohanian said. That was the year Condé Nast, which bought Reddit in 2006, spun out the site as a wholly owned subsidiary.
Although Reddit flirted with the notion of native advertising, it didn’t activate. But over the last year, Reddit has been head down on its ad products.
Reddit has a self-serve ad platform that brands can use to create banner ads or promoted posts built off of Adzerk’s native ads API, and advertisers can target against tens of thousands of Reddit communities – anything from r/flyfishing to r/cats to r/doctorwho to r/apple.
An in-house creative team established earlier this year “gives advertisers feedback and helps them gut check copy,” Ohanian said.
Reddit is also investing in original video content with video versions of its Ask Me Anything format.
In July, Reddit introduced a function called multi-subreddit, which allows advertisers to target a single message to more than one subreddit at a time. And in early November, Reddit launched interest group audiences, which allows advertisers to bucket users according to their interest in topic areas, including food and drink, entertainment, travel, pets or politics, even if those users haven’t explicitly subscribed to a particular community.
The pitch to brands is around “depth of engagement,” Ohanian said, and the better Reddit is able to quantify and measure that engagement, “the better advertising will get both for advertisers and users.”
But Reddit needs to tread lightly with its audience. Part of Reddit’s attraction – and what can make it a complicated platform for brands – is its anonymity. Although Reddit has access to verified email addresses that could theoretically be tied to specific user behavior, user-level targeting appears to be off the table, at least for the moment.
“Our users are our most important asset,” Ohanian said.
One-to-one targeting is almost de rigueur these days, but platforms like Reddit, Twitch and Snapchat seem to get a pass because of their desirable audiences. Regardless, posting to r/flyfishing arguably reaches a targeted group of users.
“A lot of this stuff is table stakes for our ad partners and we’re aware of that, but we’re shipping updates almost every week now,” Ohanian said. “When Steve and I came back, it became a priority to start thinking about Reddit as a business. And this is too big of an audience for advertisers to ignore – a quarter of a billion people use Reddit every month.”
It’s traffic that’s becoming increasingly mobile.
In April, Reddit finally launched mobile web and native apps for iOS and Android, which already account for about 40% of screen views. Reddit generates roughly 250 million monthly visits overall. But It’s not clear how much of that traffic is being cannibalized by the numerous unofficial Reddit apps out there, including reddit is fun and BaconReader, which are popular in their own right and sell advertising to boot.
As for why it took Reddit so long to get its mobile ducks in a row, there’s no good reason for that, Ohanian admitted, although complacency might have played a part.
“Before we had mobile apps, people were loading the desktop site on their phones and pinching and zooming,” he said. “It’s a testament to the content, the community and the engagement we have, but it clearly wasn’t optimal.”
In terms of desktop, Reddit’s experience looks pretty much like it did when Reddit first launched more than a decade ago, but Ohanian hinted at changes on the way.
“If you’re looking for the best foreshadowing of what will come for desktop, look no further than the design for mobile web,” he said. “But the most important thing will always be the content, function over form. There are countless beautiful websites that no one visits. People come to Reddit because they can have a great conversation, not because we chose a specific shade of blue.”
Redditors, not known for their love of advertising, will actually engage with sponsored content – if it’s done right, Ohanian said.
Toyota is a good example. As the follow-up to a TV ad starring actor James Marsden driving his Rav4 on Mars, Toyota posted a promoted conversation on Reddit asking community members to share their ideas for what to name the first Mars colony.
Redditors responded in earnest, with answers like “Sagan Station,” “Mars McMarsface” and “Best Detroit.” Toyota rewarded top comments with gold, the currency of Reddit’s subscription program, which gives users access to extra features, like the ability to create custom avatars and private subreddits.
More than 2,000 people commented and 23% of people who engaged with the Toyota campaign revisited the thread at least one time.
“Native ads on Reddit can be a living discussion – I mean, when else to do people actually say, ‘I need to go and check out that ad again?’” Ohanian said. “We’re not playing this silly game of sponsored content just to buy page views. That kind of engagement feels authentic, intimate and genuine because it is authentic, intimate and genuine.”