How publishers can and should be taking advantage of reddit
Insights from a conversation with Erik Martin
By Dena Levitz
It’s amazing how the leader of the free world appearing on a digital platform can get people talking about the medium’s significance and potential.
Owner: Advance Publications
Monthly unique visitors: 39.7 million
Countries participating: 172
Monthly page views: 3.2 billion
Just ask reddit.
The social news website, which is owned by Advance Publications, has been around for seven years, soaring in popularity particularly over the last year. But what really catapulted reddit into the mainstream was a surprise AMA (Ask Me Anything) with President Barack Obama.
However, AMAs are just one reddit feature. The site started off as a veritable bulletin board of user-drummed-up information where the Internet-savvy could post content and then vote it up or down according to their definitions of relevance. It’s now grown into a major force in the Web world as a gauge of popular culture and the subjects on the minds of its 40 million monthly unique visitors.
As such, mainstream news organizations are – or should be – using the platform in a variety of front- and back-end ways, from a reference in the newsgathering process to a check on community conversations they should be in on.
Erik Martin, reddit’s general manager, said the site’s role as a traffic generator for newspapers and other mainstream media outlets is usually the first function that comes to mind.
“But I also believe it’s the least important. Reddit can generate traffic for local and national publishers, but that’s just traffic. What’s really powerful about reddit is it’s a bunch of people talking online,” he said.
“Whether about politics or local happenings, you’re able to see what’s most interesting to the community. … It’s the leading indicator of what is connecting with the online audience.”
Big moments for reddit this year
SOPA – Reddit was one of the first and more prominent Web companies to shut down its operations in protest of the Stop Online Piracy Act on Jan. 18.
Colorado theater shooting – As the deadly shooting at a screening of the newest “Batman” movie consumed the country’s attention, reddit became a go-to social network for users to disseminate news – as it happened – from mainstream media as well as from eyewitnesses to the tragedy.
Obama’s Ask Me Anything – Without prior promotion or much notice, the president took to reddit to answer some questions from the American public. His appearance drew tens of thousands of comments and almost crashed the site’s servers.
This water-cooler quality – possessed also by Twitter and its trending topics feature – makes reddit a natural fit for story lead generation. For example, Martin said, reporters can monitor reddit’s front page, notice that a substantial number of people are talking about a change by the Transportation Security Administration, and then adjust coverage accordingly.
In addition, reddit can provide good, quick feedback for a news organization’s published and posted content. The main difference with reddit is that it’s not links to articles by and for a news outlet. Self-promotion is not allowed; registered users are the ones posting everything from cat photos to breaking news accounts
“So of the 50 things we just published, (if I’m a news organization) I can notice which ones are coming up organically and being posted by readers,” Martin said. “Then I can take those leading indicators and promote the heck out of them on Twitter and Facebook and other social media.”
Martin also pointed to organizations such as TechNewsToday, which are creating their own reddits to great success. Rather than try to market stories they have worked on, staffers will use the customized reddit as a conversation hub to interact with enthusiasts before and after their technology-centered podcasts.
The other trick is to stay within the rules of reddit, which forbid blatant self-promotion, particularly by media. In recent months The Atlantic and Businessweek were banned from reddit for doing just that.
The reason for prohibiting egregious self-promotion, Martin said, is that it taints the mission to keep information prioritization organic and done by the larger user base. Besides, “overpromoting,” as he called it, often will bring down a news organization’s brand credibility in the eyes of reddit’s opinionated community.
That community skews male, young, tech-savvy, early adopter. Politically, it’s fair to call it liberal, but there’s certainly a conservative element, Martin said. Most active in the United States, reddit users are truly international and access the social site at all times of the day.
Perhaps the most critical common denominator is their appetite for information, to interact and engage, and for authenticity. What they are passionate about can range as much as the offbeat subreddits, with mentions of serious reports alongside recipe sharing.
By Martin’s estimates, half of redditors use the site like a massive RSS feed, which is how reddit began. Between one-third and half are starting threads themselves with questions about current movies and cultural items, personal insights or anything else striking their fancy.
“This is one of the most powerful parts,” he said. “This community interaction is why we’re still around.”
Another strong pull for people to come to reddit, especially lately, has been the AMA, Obama’s chosen way to converse digitally with Americans. Thus far, some celebrities who have allowed redditors to ask them anything include Jimmy Kimmel, Bear Grylls, Zach Braff and Joy Behar. Noncelebrities with intriguing viewpoints have also gained fame and attracted dozens of questions, explaining what it’s like, say, to be a location scout for the TV show “Breaking Bad” or to hitchhike regularly around the nation.
Journalists have increasingly participated in AMAs, taking their specific knowledge to a format where they can give further background and insights.
Martin named an AMA by reporter Jodi Kantor of The New York Times as a favorite. Kantor, who also wrote a behind-the-scenes book about the Obamas, did not even know what reddit was but had some amazing exchanges with readers hoping to dig deeper into the book’s subject matter, he said.
Kantor even returned to reddit days later to respond to questions, letting the conversation flow past the initial time block.
Frank Rich, formerly of The New York Times and now a writer for New York Magazine and the HBO show “Veep,” also was an AMA favorite. His responses to redditors delve into a wide array of topics, including what he does to stave off writer’s block, his stake on the survivability of newspapers versus magazines and his suggestions for an English-major-turned-porn-clerk’s career prospects.
That’s precisely the beauty of the reddit AMA, in Martin’s view. Greater access to the people behind bylines only increases their credibility and followings, which in turn helps their news organizations.
“The best AMAs are more like a conversation,” he said. “There’s really no right or wrong style as long as it’s interesting. Some will answer 80 questions. Cory Booker probably only got to 10 or 15 but answered each with multiparagraph responses. It’s really whatever the person is most comfortable with. Just make sure you set aside a couple of hours to take part.”
Reddit’s staff is small yet interested in engaging further with both users and news publishers.
One way this fall is through the Internet 2012 Bus Tour, which will take reddit’s key staff and founders from Colorado to Kentucky (locations of presidential election debates). Along the way they will meet with startups, the public and local media organizations about how the Internet has altered their existences.
Tips Martin offered on how news organizations can use reddit include:
- Understand the tone and community present on reddit before posting and fully jumping into the conversation.
- Track submissions from content and reporting by users to see what’s resonating.
- Host offline meetups with local redditors. It’s a great way for news organizations to connect, in person, with the community.
- Search subreddits for topics the newspaper covers to generate story leads.
Poynter’s guide for journalists
Forbes goes ‘inside the reddit AMA’
First Published: September 10, 2012