Live from IRCE 2015: How to authentically build communities from the co-founder of Reddit

Building brand communities is an important element for every brand, but it’s especially important for ecommerce brands that live solely on the Internet. How can you build a positive community around what you’re selling? The answer is simple: be authentic.

At the MarketingSherpa Media Center at IRCE 2015, Daniel Burstein, Director of Editorial Content, MarketingSherpa (sister company of MarketingExperiments), sat down with Alexis Ohanian, Executive Chair and Co-Founder, Reddit, to discuss the importance of building authentic brand conversations, how to respond to negative comments, content marketing and how all of this translates into value for companies.

As Alexis describes it, Reddit is a “social news site,” as well as one of the largest social media platforms currently in existence. The company also has an impressive brand following. Currently, Reddit has over 170 million unique views, 7.5 billion page views and nearly 10,000 active communities within the site itself.

According to Alexis, a major component of Reddit’s success is creating authentic discussions with consumers.

“In a world where consumers have more and more knowledge every day and more and more choice every day, that is the only way you will win,” he said.

Alexis shared the following tips on the importance of creating authentic brand communities.

When it comes to community building, authenticity is key

What Alexis means when he talks about authentic conversations online is treating conversations on the Internet the same as you would conversations in everyday life. Building brand communities takes time — time that’s spent contributing to conversations and helping consumers.

He likens interacting on Reddit and online forums to talking at a cocktail party. If you were at a cocktail party, you wouldn’t interrupt every conversation you were a part of to sell your product. Instead, you would listen and respond to the conversation at hand.

“This is 101 cocktail party etiquette,” Alexis said. “Every other social media platform has trained us to be very unnatural, and Reddit’s the way to just go back to doing what we’ve been doing as human beings for thousands of years.”

Alexis mentioned Bernie Sanders, the first presidential candidate for 2016 to complete a Reddit AMA (Ask Me Anything), as a good example for using Reddit to build a community and, as a result, a positive image. Prior to his AMA, Sanders had already established himself as an active Reddit user, contributing largely to the r/Vermont forum.

He would often contribute to existing conversations in the community, from politics to agreeing with other users about which cafes are best. Sanders was an active user in the Reddit community so his AMA didn’t seem like a publicity stunt. It was a chance for users to communicate with Sanders on a platform where he was already an established user.

“He understands that an hour spent on Reddit just being a user contributing — being a community member — is worth days on other social media platforms because of the ROI,” he said. “Hundreds of thousands of people can see that comment.”

However, this success through authenticity doesn’t only apply to personal brands.

“The brands that are doing it well on Reddit are building relationships that are going to last them for decades,” Alexis said. “They are not thinking about the immediacy of, ‘Oh quick, let’s sell someone something.’ They’re thinking, ‘Let’s make someone love us so that for the rest of their lives they’re going to use us.'”

How to handle negativity in communities

As marketers, when we’re building brand communities, we hope all of our interactions with consumer are going to be full of praise. However, this is often not the case. Alexis’s advice for handling problems or negative comments about your brand is to remain authentic and give genuine, human responses.

“All I tell people is, ‘Imagine you’re at the cocktail party, and someone’s ranting to their friend about your product … How would you handle that situation?'” he said. “Whatever the words are that would come out of your mouth in real life, type those into the computer and you’ll probably be fine.”

Not only can communicating in this authentic way add value for the consumer you’re communicating with, but your response can add value to the community and your brand as a whole.

“When you respond to someone authentically on Reddit, the entire Internet can see it,” Alexis said. “That is where the value is because you are now just an awesome human being at a cocktail party that millions of people attended.”

Utilizing your community for content marketing

Once you’ve established a reliable and positive brand community, you can use your audience as a resource to learn what improvements your brand needs to make or what pain points your company has. Reddit even uses its audience to shape its content marketing.

According to Alexis, “Literally I post on [Reddit]. I say, ‘Hey, it’s Alexis. We’re really excited about making this series about X, Y, Z. We want your guidance. Who do we need to talk to?'”

This direct method of questioning was used to create Reddit’s podcast and newsletter. Alexis said the podcast, which was released just two months ago, just recently broke a million downloads, and the editorial newsletter, which is a hand-curated weekly newsletter, achieves open rates from 40-45%.

“The response has been overwhelmingly positive because of, instead of just getting an audience after the fact, you invest in the audience from the very beginning and help them help you build it,” Alexis said. “So not only is it better, but you have people who are incentivized, who feel like they’re EPs (Executive Producers) on the project because they helped bring it to fruition.”

“It’s this amazing symbiotic relationship that’s also a pretty good business too,” Alexis concluded.

The connection between communities and profit

While taking the time and resources seems like a great benefit for the consumers, on a surface level, it may seem too costly to businesses. According to Alexis, you can’t think that way. Investing in creating brand communities is about the long-term customer, not the short-term sell.

In reference to the cost of establishing brand communities, Alexis said, “The way to do this is thinking less about the initial conversion and more about the longer term relationship.”

According to Alexis, this is a method of advertising that marketers have been utilizing for decades. Why do brands spend money to put ads in the Super Bowl or invest in a billboard? Because they are investing in the long-term sale and the long-term customer.

“No one is selling me a specific thing at this moment when I see them, but they’re winning me over by building a relationship,” Alexis said.

“The way to build a brand that will last decades is through that long-term relationship,” he concluded.

Learn more from the MarketingSherpa Media Center at IRCE 2015.

You can follow Kayla Cobb, Reporter, MECLABS Institute, on Twitter at @itskaylacobb.

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