Alexis Ohanian Reveals How Brands and Publishers Can Thrive on Reddit

Reddit can be a dangerous place for brands. Everyone from Nissan to Google to REI has seen attempts to engage users on the platform go horribly wrong.

But as Fortune explained in a big profile of Reddit earlier this year, that danger has dissipated as the platform has focused its latest ad efforts on native content. Instead of leaving brands to their own devices, internal teams have used their intimate knowledge of Reddit communities to help brands build campaigns that pop off. The strategy appears to be working. A Coca-Cola campaign, for instance, asked Reddit users to choose which Marvel superhero matchup would make the best Super Bowl commercial, and over 400 people responded. Reddit reports that advertising revenue is on the rise, with 70 percent of advertisers staying on quarter over quarter.

Since returning to the company as executive chairman in late 2014, Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian has played a hands-on role in the company’s turnaround. Leading up to his keynote speech at Web Summit in Lisbon this week, Ohanian and I chatted over email about his activism, how Reddit is changing for brands and publishers, and the future of online communities.

You’ve been pretty outspoken about Donald Trump during this election season. What’s your take on the relationship between the tech industry and politics? Should industry leaders be more outspoken?

Technology and social platforms like Reddit have given everyone an opportunity to have a voice in the national conversation. As creators of these platforms, it’s important that we have a relationship with Washington since many of the decisions they make can have serious consequences for the future of the open internet and our industry.

I’ve had a long history of being outspoken on these issues that affect our industry (e.g., SOPA, PIPA, startup visa, net neutrality, etc.), but leaders in tech should at the very least be engaging with their representatives because it’s a lack of communication that often gets us into problematic situations.

What’s the future of internet communities like Reddit? It seems like there’s a huge financial gap developing between feed-based platforms (Facebook, Instagram) and communities built on one-to-one interaction (Reddit, Twitter).

Reddit is the internet’s largest example of a community platform, which has no peers, but does have an opportunity that the world hasn’t seen before: insight and access to the word-of-mouth conversations that influence us all. We’ve only started to see the potential of it with our native ads—these sponsored conversations have been huge successes for small companies and large multinationals alike.

When a brand like Toyota or Coca-Cola comes on Reddit, they can target specific communities and start discussions there that are actually engaging and enjoyable for users. You’ve never been able to digest and engage the zeitgeist in real time until Reddit—this is where people are deciding what shoes to buy and what movie to watch, and for the first time ever you can see the water-cooler discussion as it’s happening worldwide.

We’ve seen many huge brands come to Reddit to engage in a human way. Recently, Coca-Cola ran a campaign on Reddit that asked users which two Marvel superheroes they would most like to see battle it out in a Super Bowl commercial. Yes, an advertisement about an advertisement. And Reddit loved it—the discussion was 97 percent upvoted!

What we saw were huge organic engagement numbers. People were writing hundreds of long, creative narratives and, on average, spent 12 minutes reading this discussion.

What about publishers? Is there anything publishers can do to get their content to take off?

The easiest thing to do is start using our lovely embed tools to easily grab and attribute Reddit images, comments, and posts. We built these because writers were all using Reddit to keep tabs on their beats and kept asking for an easier way to embed the great content and give attribution to redditors.

That’s where I think the future of the media industry is headed, those niche dimensions of news that are vital to a functioning democracy.

When it comes to engaging on Reddit itself, imagine being invited to a dinner table where people are all discussing an article you wrote. How would you engage with them? This is exactly how you should think about engaging on Reddit. Often, introducing yourself and fielding questions from these highly engaged readers will generate new ideas and content. For instance, a New York Times reporter joined a conversation on Reddit (r/news) about a recent article he wrote on prison beatings and got so much out of it that he wrote a follow-up article just about the Reddit discussion.

Is the proliferation of a mobile, app-based internet a threat to Reddit?

It was an opportunity because we didn’t have a native mobile app. We had the chance to build one from scratch on iOS and Android. Over half of our traffic is already on mobile (web and native combined) and with a beautiful, beloved, and fast app in both app stores, we’re going to keep growing even faster on mobile.

So much of the content on Reddit is already created and hosted on Reddit itself that we can keep making bigger leaps in the user experience on mobile.

Nick Denton said he still thinks communities and user-generated content are the future of media. Do you agree, and, if so, what will it take for them to succeed?

I definitely agree. One doesn’t need to look much further than the discussions happening in communities like r/westworld or r/nfl right now to see content generated by redditors that is as good or better than traditional media outlets.

It’s not the latter’s fault, it’s just that a room full of even a thousand of the best-paid, smartest, most amazing writers is never going to be able to keep up with hundreds of millions of people across the planet using software to surface the best and most timely ideas.

A lot of content sites are going to struggle unless they’re providing the kind of expertise or long-lead-researched content that a billion disparate people can’t logistically do. That’s where I think the future of the media industry is headed, those niche dimensions of news that are vital to a functioning democracy, but not the tempting clickbait that’s just derivative of an article someone already wrote on Reddit.

This interview was lightly edited and condensed.

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