Reddit, the self-styled “front page of the internet”, is moving to position itself as a new digital distribution point for publishers.

Historically, the 13-year-old internet community has been a fairly hostile environment for publishers, due to staunch rules against self-promotion and commercialisation.

Journalists looking to share their content on Reddit have run afoul of Reddit’s “1 in 10” rule (in which only one in ten links shared by a user is allowed to be self-promotional), while others have experienced backlash over mining the community for story ideas without giving proper credit.

But in a series of moves to open its platform up to partnerships with media organisations and other brands, Reddit has welcomed a number of publishers onto its platform. The site now has a dedicated Head of News and Journalism, a growing media partnerships team, and boasts various tools and features designed to make it easier for publishers to share and track content.

In an age where many publishers are struggling to attract new audiences, and held at the mercy of algorithm changes from Facebook and Google, Reddit might just be the answer to their prayers.

But for the site itself, the changes that Reddit is making may prove to be a double-edged sword: by inviting publishers and brands onto its platform, Reddit risks jeopardising the very qualities that make it attractive to them – and that have driven its success.

Why publishers are hopping on the Reddit bandwagon

In 2018, Reddit is a force to be reckoned with. According to Alexa Internet, it’s the ninth-most popular website in the world and the fifth-most popular in the U.S., ranking above Amazon (which sits at #10 globally) and Twitter (which sits at #11).

The site currently has more than 330 million monthly active users, again putting it on a par with Twitter, which is hovering around 335 million. But where Reddit really outstrips all its competitors is in engagement: Reddit users engage with the site for an average of more than 13 minutes per day, surpassing time-sinks like Facebook (which averages 10 minutes) and YouTube (which comes in at just under 9 minutes).

At a time when major social networks’ fortunes are fluctuating – with Facebook dogged by privacy woes and data-sharing allegations, and both Twitter and Facebook plagued by bot accounts and extremist trolling – attention is turning to Reddit: a highly popular, and largely untapped, internet frontier.

And Reddit is ready to seize the moment. Beginning in 2016, the site started gradually implementing features that would make it more attractive to publishers, such as the ability to embed Reddit posts on external websites – allowing journalists to better source and credit Reddit discussions in their articles – and an integration with CrowdTangle, which helps publishers discover trending content and track the reach of their own articles.

One of the biggest changes came in March 2017, when Reddit began alpha testing profile pages for select Reddit users. This feature – aimed specifically at brands and content creators – allowed users to publish content directly to their own space for the first time, instead of being subject to the rules of Reddit’s individual moderator-run discussion spaces (subreddits). It was a big shift for the site.

Among the publications that have taken advantage of Reddit’s new friendliness to publishers are the Washington Post – which has embraced Reddit’s memeified culture with a variation on its motto, “Democracy Dies in Dankness”, and reportedly has more than 40,000 followers – and Time Magazine. Digital publisher Quartz also has an account, and manages a subreddit for its Quartz Obsession newsletter, r/ObsessionObsessives.

Publishers on Reddit are not likely to see a huge surge in referral traffic from the site; while the occasional popular post on Reddit can produce great traffic, it’s not a reliable traffic source. Reddit does not appear in the list of top 10 external traffic referrers compiled by analytics platform (which makes it officially worse for traffic than Yahoo! News), and a spokeswoman for Chartbeat, another analytics company, called the amount of traffic driven by Reddit to its clients “fairly negligible”, according to Editor & Publisher.

Instead, publishers have been using their Reddit presence to focus on engagement – specifically, engagement with an audience that they won’t find on other platforms. 81% of Reddit users reportedly don’t have an Instagram account, while 51% aren’t on Twitter.

This might seem surprising considering that Reddit’s userbase is also a young one: a Pew Research poll in 2016 found that around 64% of Reddit’s users are aged between 18 and 29, with a further 29% aged between 30 and 49. Newspapers like the Washington Post need to have a relationship with this demographic in order for their business to be sustainable into the future.

Trust in the media is also at a low point worldwide, with young people reported to be particularly sceptical of the news they consume (according to a Knight Foundation study). Being present on a platform like Reddit allows publishers to promote transparency, give an insight into their reporting, and appear accessible and approachable.

The Washington Post’s Gene Park responds to reader criticism on Reddit.

While interacting on Reddit, with its in-jokes, memes, references and internet slang, might be a very different experience to posting on more mainstream social channels, if publishers can get it right, there’s a lot in it for them.

But what about Reddit? After eschewing contact with media brands for most of its lifespan, how can Reddit reconcile this about-face in policy with its community-centric, anti-commercial ethos?

A new age for Reddit

Reddit has achieved its status as one of the world’s most popular websites, and its reputation as the go-to place for all things internet, by sticking very closely to a specific set of values.

Historically, it has put the community first, and advertising and brand interests a very distant second, prioritising quality of discussion (with policies such as the 1 in 10 rule), allowing the site’s community moderators to make their own rules for each subreddit, and relying on a premium membership option known as Reddit Gold together with the occasional investment round to raise funding.

But over the past year and a half, that has changed dramatically. The introduction of profile pages, which encourage brands and content creators to promote themselves on the site, is just one of many moves that are transforming Reddit into something much more like a social network. (Though it’s often classed as a “social network” by commentators, Reddit is technically more of a messaging board or forum community).

Earlier this year, Reddit announced a complete redesign of its classic, 90s-BBS-style website interface – the first in more than a decade. The new “card”-style layout, with larger images and a “Best” algorithm to help users sort through content, hasn’t gone down all that well with many of Reddit’s long-time users, who feel alienated by the direction the site is taking.

But it may be that Reddit can’t afford to rely on memberships and investor funding to turn a profit any more. The site is also beefing up its ad offering and pitching itself more aggressively to advertisers in a bid to become a larger player in the digital advertising space.

As with its moves to welcome publishers, Reddit may have timed this move just right, striking at a time when advertisers are growing leery of the likes of Facebook and Google, and casting around for other options. And as with its offering to publishers, Reddit’s young, highly engaged and largely untapped audience make for compelling selling points.

However, much of Reddit’s vast userbase make the site their home specifically because they dislike the promotional, brand- and advertising-filled experiences they receive on other websites. If Reddit moves to emulate them too closely, it risks losing what makes it unique.

What is the upshot of all this for marketers?

In my opinion, Reddit’s moves to court publishing brands are a good thing for both parties, allowing publishers to give something back to a community that they’ve benefited greatly from, while still requiring them to interact with the site on its own terms. As I mentioned before, the timing couldn’t be better, putting Reddit on the map for digital publishers at a time when they’re looking to diversify their promotional channels away from Facebook and Google.

Reddit might even have the potential for a new source of revenue in introducing premium memberships aimed at publishing brands, giving them access to an optimised Reddit experience. If the site is producing good returns in terms of exposure and interaction, publishing brands will consider it worth their while.

But Reddit isn’t stopping at opening itself up to publishing brands, and that’s where things get tricky.

Spin Sucks has an excellent piece which posits that Reddit has the potential to be a powerhouse for content marketing, arguing that Reddit users are passionate fans who love content, and will respond to it extremely well, delivered in the right way. The fact that Redditors don’t come to the website to be “social”, but to discuss ideas and be themselves, makes for a much more valuable interaction with content creators, according to author Mike Connell.

But with a major site redesign, an increased brand presence, and a new wave of advertising potentially taking over the site, Reddit might be in danger of pushing in too many new directions at once. If Reddit’s core userbase perceives the site to have “sold out” or lost what makes it unique, the new Reddit might not be sustainable for very long.

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