"Marketer's Note" is a regular column informing marketers about the rapidly evolving, digital marketing technology ecosystem.
This week it is written by Melissa Parrish, Executive Director, AdExchanger Research.
Reading about Reddit’s struggle to find its stride – both from a culture and advertising standpoint – left me feeling a little nostalgic and a little disappointed. Nostalgic because from 2000-2005 I held a bunch of different roles at Bolt.com, a site that we would now call a social network, but which before Facebook, MySpace and even Friendster we called an “online community.” Disappointed because it sounds like today’s marketers still struggle with understanding how large and fiercely loyal social audiences can be valuable – even if they’re anonymous.
Bolt’s audience, like Reddit’s, was entirely anonymous. In fact, the whole point at Bolt was that an online platform gave teens and young adults a place where they could experiment with ideas and interests that weren’t part of their offline identities. People spent hours and hours on Bolt, talking with other members they only knew by their usernames, but forging friendships that have lasted straight through to today. And because we gave them a place to do that, they trusted us and were loyal, too.
That gave us a unique opportunity with marketers, much like Reddit has now. Sure, we sold ads. But we also sold highly custom packages and programs that we created with our clients to make sure that we could help them reach their goals and add value to the community.
One of these custom programs grew out of a need that already existed in the health category of the site. One subsection, kind of like a sub-Reddit but with editorial content and games as well as message boards, was reserved for girls to help each other out as they navigated uncomfortable or embarrassing questions about their maturing bodies and minds. Our community moderators participated in all of Bolt’s activity and swept every post to keep the conversations flowing and free of TOS violations, but we didn’t have health experts on staff to answer these girls’ questions.
One of our clients did have this expertise and we pitched a program that would allow them to participate in the forum as a branded member. Initially they were concerned about being associated with embarrassment, ickiness or frank talk. But the brand realized it had an opportunity to help its core customer and establish itself as a trusted expert.
That ended up being one of Bolt’s most endearing client relationships and one of our members’ most frequented subcategories. But other brands weren’t as progressive. Some just wanted to get popular members to stamp their logo on their profiles and call it an “influencer strategy.” Some tried to pose as regular users just to promote their brands, just as some marketers are apparently doing on Reddit. And some would work with us on subcommunities they could use as quasi-focus groups, but never actually intended to do anything with the feedback they got.
Now that it looks like the cycle is repeating with one of the world’s largest remaining anonymous communities, here are three things to consider if you’re a marketer thinking about a bespoke social program on a platform like Reddit:
- Pretending to be a normal user in these communities almost always fails. Long-standing members can spot a fraud from a mile away. In fact, most of these communities are so tight that they know the moderators personally too, and will report you before the moderators even log on for the day. Worse: Communities with this kind of loyalty also have long collective memories. If you really make a fool of yourself, it’s not going to blow over like it might if you made a Twitter blunder.
- If you’re going to ask questions, you have to care about the answers. If what you need is to improve brand recognition or purchase intent, a program where you ask for feedback about your products is the wrong way to go. There may be some virality if what you’re asking users to evaluate is especially interesting, but if your request for feedback is insincere and you don’t intend to do anything with it, well, revisit my comments in No. 1.
- If you’re going to answer questions, you have to actually want to help. A short list of canned responses that highlight your brand without actually answering the question won’t help anybody. If you don’t have experts, or if your legal and PR teams are nervous about unleashing them in a community you don’t own, this isn’t the program for you.
As you can tell, this stuff is still close to my heart. I know from experience that anonymous communities can be a huge boon to marketers beyond just banner ads, but you have to know what you want to accomplish and you have to think of it as a partnership rather than a media buy – a partnership between you, the platform and the community.