Reddit is home to more than 50 million daily active users (DAUs) who discuss a huge variety of topics across its more than 100,000 communities, known as subreddits. While its size pales in comparison to other social networks like Twitter (229 million DAUs), Snap (332 million DAUs) or Facebook (which, despite suffering a fall in DAUs for the first time in its history, still has more than 1.9 billion), its active communities are an attractive prospect for anyone looking to tap into a highly-engaged fanbase.

Recognising this potential, Reddit has been taking steps in recent years to improve its marketing and advertising appeal. We previously wrote about its moves to court publishers and open up the platform to partnerships with media organisations like the Washington Post, which represented a distinct departure from Reddit’s traditionally hostile attitude towards publications self-promoting.

In Q2 of 2021, ad revenue on Reddit topped $100 million per quarter for the first time; Reddit also took the step of discontinuing programmatic advertising last year in favour of selling advertising through its own platform, and rolled out a new native ad format called Conversation Placement.

Reddit has also begun announcing more major partnerships with brands including the National Football League; the National Baseball Association; Netflix, ahead of the release of season 4 of Stranger Things; and the Australian Football League, which became the first major sports league to launch a range of Reddit avatars. Reddit’s partnerships have typically revolved around the hosting of official AMAs (Ask Me Anything, a Q&A format that Reddit is famous for) or the creation of themed avatar ranges. However, in the run-up to the eighth season of Love Island, which has just begun airing, Reddit and ITV announced a more wide-ranging partnership, billed as the “first of its kind … in the UK”. Reddit will be the “official fan partner” for Love Island in a deal that will see an official Love Island brand account interacting with fans in the Love Island subreddit, r/LoveIslandTV. Sneak peeks and behind the scenes content will be made available to members of the subreddit, plus AMAs with crew, producers and executives; and Reddit-style questions posed to ‘Islanders’, their friends and family.

While Love Island and Reddit might seem an unlikely combination on the surface, r/LoveIslandTV is a 74,000-strong community of fans of the show who avidly discuss past seasons, predict couplings, trade theories, analyse Islanders and reminisce fondly about favourite moments. However, the news of an official partnership came as something of a surprise to members of the community, some of whom were ambivalent about being at the centre of a major marketing campaign. In this article, I’ll look at what took place and the lessons marketers can learn from it about how to approach a new platform or community, with thoughts from two experts in community engagement: Adam Tinworth, a veteran digital journalist and consultant on audience engagement and content strategy, and Michelle Goodall, Chief Marketing Officer at Guild, a platform for creating professional digital communities.

Understanding Reddit community norms

News about the upcoming partnership first leaked via a job posting on LinkedIn that revealed ITV was searching for a ‘Reddit Producer’, leading members of the Love Island subreddit (or “sub”) to conclude that there would soon be an official ITV presence in the community. Reactions from the community were mixed, with users sharing fears that it would change the tone of the community. One wrote,

“One of the best things about Reddit, it’s meant to be further away from the people involved. If producers and people from the show are going to be here, why not just go to their Instagram to share our thoughts?”

Another member made a similar distinction about the feeling among different social media communities: “There’s the Reddit crowd, the Twitter crowd, the FaceBook crowd…Are they getting all this too, or will all the attention be turned to us? It’s important to recognize that every sub is a community that has its own ways of operating”

The Reddit Producer job listing specified that any potential applicant should be a “Keen Reddit user” and “understand the platform terminology”. The fact that Reddit is an interaction-heavy community whose users prioritise discussion over being broadcast to, and who also tend to be wary of attempts at promotion, is well-known among those familiar with the platform. However, initial activity from the official u/LoveIsland Reddit account appeared more promotional than interactive, with the brand account publishing threads but not engaging with discussion or responding to community members’ questions.

These kinds of slightly awkward brand-community interactions are reminiscent of the earlier days of social media, when brand engagement on platforms like Facebook and Twitter was very new. Nowadays, brands almost always have a dedicated strategy for different social platforms and tend to understand what will be most effective on each social network. However, when expanding to a new platform (such as Reddit) and especially when interacting with an established community, it’s important not to lose sight of the need to research well and tailor your approach – even if this means taking a few risks, like giving social media account managers more freedom to interact with the community. Otherwise, there is a greater risk of making early missteps you may not be able to come back from.

“We’re not a market to be bought”

Not long afterwards, details of the full partnership between Reddit and ITV were revealed in a blog post published by Reddit – leading to more concerns and dismay from the community, many of whom felt as though they should have been consulted before a partnership was agreed to. Members also expressed concerns that the u/LoveIsland account would have the power to ban members or remove content, as well as over the prospect of their comments and usernames being broadcast on live television.

While the community’s volunteer moderators were able to assuage these concerns – and Love Island’s official user account clarified that community members’ names would not be used without permission – one measure that could have alleviated the situation is a dedicated announcement geared towards the community itself.

Reddit’s blog post is more suited in content and tone to a media or marketing audience, with a quote from Reddit’s UK Marketing Director Laurelle Potter enthusing about the r/LoveIslandTV subreddit’s growth and engagement: “Over the last year, we’ve seen the appetite for Love Island grow on Reddit with over 140% increase in engagement and over 52% growth in subscribers in the r/LoveIslandTV community and we’re excited to celebrate the friendships, connections and fun-filled moments with the community on the content that matters most to them.”

Words like “content” and “engagement” are second nature to those of us in marketing (or marketing-related media) but can sound jarringly corporate to the average person. As one community member expressed in a thread discussing the news, “We’re not a market to be bought, this is a community that has, up to now, grown and worked itself out organically.” While there were a number of announcements within the partnership blog post for fans to be excited about – such as news of a Reddit-oriented video content series; sneak peeks of Casa Amor; AMAs with ITV executives, producers, and crew; and the opportunity for Reddit users to be “part of the conversation” on Love Island’s daily podcast and weekly show – these might have been better received in an announcement that addressed the community directly, using more appropriate language and answering concerns specific to the community.

“People not platforms”: Two experts on the community management lessons from Reddit and Love Island

I turned to two experts for their thoughts on the Reddit/ITV partnership and the lessons about community-building and engagement that it has to offer. Adam Tinworth, a digital journalist and consultant who specialises in the intersection of audience engagement and content strategy, noted that there is a tension inherent in the fact that Reddit does not own the community on r/LoveIslandTV, but neither does the community own the platform on which it resides.

“On one hand, the problem Reddit (and, by extension, ITV and Love Island) have is that they host the community, they don’t own it,” he said. “And so when they suddenly, dramatically change the conditions around the community, they’re going to see resistance.

“Think of it this way: people have been going to their pub for years. Sure, it’s a bit run down, and there’s a few dodgy types doing deals in the snug (in this case, sharing links to less than legitimate streams of episodes), but it’s their pub, and they like it, cos all their friends go there. And then the brewery suddenly decides to invest a whole bunch of money in it, and they clean out the dodgy types, and attract a new bunch of people into the place. The regulars lose the space they loved.

“On the other hand, this is what happens when you build your community on a platform you don’t own. (A Facebook group I’ve long been part of was rather abruptly closed down by Facebook a few months ago.) They can pull the rug under you at any time, and that’s what’s happening here.”

Tinworth assessed that there is a “real community management challenge” present for Reddit in “upgrading the community, ushering in new folks, without completely alienating the people who made it successful in the first place.” If this effort isn’t managed well, he remarked, “it wouldn’t surprise me to see the core of the existing community decamp somewhere else.”

Michelle Goodall, Chief Marketing Officer at Guild, a platform for building professional digital communities, acknowledged that the situation is a “delicate” one, with neither Love Island nor Reddit having “trodden particularly lightly” or perhaps working closely enough with the community’s moderators and founders. However, she doesn’t foresee many of the community’s members abandoning it altogether: “Perhaps they might peel off and create a new subreddit if the exclusive content isn’t a valuable enough exchange and the shape of the community changes with a new influx of members.”

More importantly, said Goodall, the situation serves as a “clear warning” to brands and businesses working with organically-created communities “that the collective ‘we’ can be a powerful force if they feel marginalised in decision making about their grassroots community.” Above all else, she emphasised a people-oriented approach. “It’s unlikely that every member of a community will accept commercial deals, regardless of whether that community is on Reddit, Discord, Guild or elsewhere, but I can’t stress how important it is to apply a very different approach to community than you would with straight up media deals. As with influencer marketing/working with creators, it’s “people not platforms”.”

Ultimately, the r/LoveIslandTV community seems to have survived these bumps in the road with the subreddit settling into its excitement for the upcoming season. However, it’s clear that the approach to introducing an official presence into the sub could have benefited from more research, planning, and a tailored strategy for interacting with Reddit. While some of the interactions from the u/LoveIsland official account have been well-received, others continue to be perceived as too promotional and met with cynicism and low engagement, with users expressing scepticism as to whether the account managers are familiar with Reddit.

Although the subreddit’s community is large and well-established enough that members are unlikely to leave, these missteps represent a missed opportunity for ITV and Love Island to engage closely with fans of the show and learn from their suggestions and feedback – as well as being seen to be open to engagement and input from fans.

For businesses who want to branch out to a new platform or market to an established fan community, this underscores the importance of becoming familiar with that platform or community and its members before marketing to them; and of applying that understanding in a dedicated strategy – one with the flexibility to adapt and change tack if things don’t work out as planned.

Community Strategy Best Practice Guide