Fearing the Duopoly and Rooting for Reddit

Originally published on LinkedIn.

The online media duopoly of Google and Facebook seems more entrenched than ever. Recent quarterly earnings reports suggest that Google will command nearly 41 percent of the $83 billion Internet advertising market in the U.S. this year. Facebook will come in just under half of that at about 20 percent. Amazon aside, a digital media landscape that was once fragmented and chaotic has become increasingly tame, stable, and even predictable.

One wild card (and likely opportunity) in all of this is Reddit. Although a relic from the mid-2000s, it has emerged as an increasingly intriguing platform for brands. In 2016, it welcomed Matt Huffman back as CEO after a period of scandals and bad press. Co-founder Alexis Ohanian is more visible than ever, not least because of his very public engagement to tennis star Serena Williams. And a recent $200 million investment backed by Silicon Valley A-listers like Andreessen Horowitz and Sequoia Capital values the company at a cool $1.8 billion.

It’s easy to forget Reddit, however, partly because it’s been around so long and has mainly made news for its trolls (a concern the company is actively addressing). Reddit is also very dated looking with a structure and layout that’s much more Craigslist than Angie’s List. And brands do have to worry about safety. Reddit surfaces not merely the best of Internet, but some of the worst as well.

Still, advertisers besieged by two increasingly dominant alternatives shouldn’t run away. The first reason is scale. Reddit has a massive audience by any media standard, especially in the United States. According to Alexa, it is the fifth-most-popular site in the country, ahead of Twitter, Wikipedia, and LinkedIn. According to Ohanian, it gets 100 million U.S. visitors per month and over 300 million in total.

Redditors are also passionate, which explains the success, among many things, of its social experiments. In April, for example, more than a million users spent 72 hours creating Reddit Place, a massive artwork constructed one pixel at a time. Another example is Robin, a chat room created by Reddit developers. When you joined, you were put into a conversation with one other random Redditor. From there, you could vote to either "Grow," "Stay," or "Leave." Eventually, the chat room grew so large, it crashed and was shut down

Reddit is also finally mobile. While Google and Facebook have touted mobile-first audiences for years, Reddit was late to the game and only launched a mobile app last year. And the app is great. In a time when mobile feeds can quickly fill up with partisan politics and presidential tweets and reactions, Reddit’s mobile feed is still fed the old-fashioned way: by users voting up and down the stories and topics they like. The result is a refreshing mix of humorous video, insights, and global news.

Finally, Reddit is one of the few places on the Internet where users can break out of their bubbles. The content is always raw, fresh, and intriguing, and a great way to get away from a go-to list of influencers. That also means Redditors are curious, and if you can provide them with great content, you’ll get noticed.

That also means that to succeed on Reddit requires a deep understanding of the platform to join the conversation without creating a backlash. As targeting and ad development become increasingly easy and automated, Reddit still requires serious effort to compose sponsored posts that aren’t mocked by the community. It demands great content and real community management because the best work on the platform is going to generate dialogue. Brands like Coke, Netflix, and Toyota have gotten it right in the past, but most brands aren’t actively asking for a Reddit content strategy or creative work yet.

Will Reddit’s upcoming redesign and pitch to marketers result in a serious challenge to the duopoly? It’s too early to tell. For marketers looking to break out of the digital rut many find themselves in, I’m rooting for Reddit and hoping brands are willing to take the time to give it a real try. 

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