On December 10, 2011, the comedian Louis C.K. experimented by releasing his fourth full-length comedy album, Live at the Beacon Theater, exclusively online at $5 apiece. No middleman, no Netflix—just old-school word of mouth. Two days later, he participated in a live text-based interview on reddit called Ask Me Anything, or AMA. Nine days after that, he announced that the album had grossed $1.1 million.
The sequence may seem coincidental, but to Lia Navarro, reddit’s one-woman sales division, they were anything but. “What we always recommend is for clients to be authentic, to have fun, to make ads that won’t suck and that the community will actually be involved in,” she says.
“I’ve heard several times that brands have received more views or clicks-through [via reddit] compared to Google. Which is crazy.”
C.K. understood the power of online authenticity. After all, he’s since returned for two more AMAs, each time answering users’ questions directly, honestly and thoroughly. It’s brilliant branding because it doesn’t look like branding. It’s a testament to the power of innovative, human online marketing—a style reddit has been pushing for years, and that Navarro will explain at Dx2 2015 during her talk, How to Advertise to One of the Largest Communities Online, on March 12.
Lia Navarro – Sales Director, Entertainment Strategy at reddit
Navarro started at Condé Nast in 2006, when it bought reddit.com. Back then, she estimates maybe one out of 20 marketing agencies knew what reddit was, and the site saw fewer than 10 million unique visitors per month.
That’s changed. In September 2014, it saw 174,088,361 uniques, and Navarro says roughly 15 out of 20 marketing professionals get it now. “I’ve heard several times that brands have received more views or clicks-through [via reddit] compared to Google,” she says. “Which is crazy.”
Navarro credits the site’s exponential growth to the infrastructure’s organic development—a testament to how and why advertising works on the site. “They thankfully didn’t make any changes to the site,” she explains of reddit’s behind-the-scenes changes. “They let it be—which was key. ‘Cause if they made any changes or tweaks, maybe the community would have changed how it’s become now.”
That organic growth has led to a distinctly user-created experience. Users post, view and moderate the content; there is no Zuckerberg-style overlord controlling your experience or showing you annual event recaps. The site design is as primitive as it was in 2005. Content gets upvoted when it’s good, and downvoted when it’s lame. A lot of marketers, frankly, don’t really know how to deal with that volatility. (For an opposite marketing experience, look at Woody Harrelson’s now-infamous 2012 AMA, which abruptly ended after someone asked him about the time he allegedly crashed a high-school party and deflowered a student; Harrelson demanded they only discuss his latest film, Rampart, and got lampooned beyond precedent.)
The trick isn’t to push your product, as Harrelson did, but to engage the community naturally, a la Louis C.K. Brands are starting to understand that, Navarro says.
“Ads will always exist,” she says. “I think the future of advertising is when, in this case, from what I’ve seen on reddit, brands are real and have a voice.”
“The future of advertising is when, in this case, from what I’ve seen on reddit, brands are real and have a voice.”
She can offer countless success stories. The producers of a horror film once held a scary-story contest and received more than 900 replies; an upscale chair manufacturer garnered hundreds of upvotes during an exhaustive Q&A on chairs and posture. The top-voted comment? “You’re a great salesman, I hope they pay you enough.”
The lesson: reddit’s millions of regulars don’t hate being sold to. They just hate being condescended to. But if you want to earn your customers, there’s no better way.
“If you don’t risk, or test the waters, you will never know,” Navarro says. “It is a completely unpredictable world.”