3 Digital Marketing Morals Learned From Reddit’s Recent Drama

Marketing in the digital age has graduated from shallow impressions. 

You can’t have a conversation with a billboard or the side of a bus. On the Internet, however, brands and consumers can come together, build a community and engage in a dialogue.

You’ve probably heard the name Ellen Pao floating around. Until recently, she was the CEO of Reddit. Over the last couple months, the Reddit community mobilized and demanded her removal. Last Friday, Pao acquiesced and announced her resignation.

Often billed as the “front page of the Internet,” Reddit.com is one of the most visited sites on the web, boasting 163M unique monthly visitors at the time of this writing. The site works like a big bulletin board. Users post content to an interest-specific discussion board (i.e. “subreddit”) and other users respond with upvotes, downvotes, and comments.

Reddit made the word “meme” mainstream. Reddit breaks stories that the media puts into living rooms worldwide. Reddit is the source behind most of the cute videos that fill your Facebook News Feed. Nothing goes viral without hitting Reddit at some point in the process.

From my own experience on Reddit, I think it’s better described as the epicenter of the Internet. It is the crucible where content proves its worthiness.

There are a few lessons that brands and the leaders behind them can learn from Reddit’s recent troubles. If you’ve been following this story closely, feel free to skip to the end. If you’re out of the loop on the details, strap in. This one’s a nail biter.

Brand ethics are more important than ever.  

It started with a lawsuit.

In 2012, Ellen Pao filed a gender discrimination suit against her previous employer, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, a prominent venture capital firm in Silicon Valley. The suit claimed that being a woman she had experienced workplace retaliation and unequitable consideration for advancement. She was seeking $16 million in damages.

The case went to trial this past February and was widely publicized. The jury eventually sided with the defendant, finding that Pao’s work performance was a determining factor in her experiences at Kleiner Perkins rather than unfair treatment. Pao vowed to appeal, claiming that this case was not just about her, but about all women in business.

Cue the Reddit pot stirring machine.

Let me take the opportunity here to say that the previous paragraphs do not give proper attention to the nuance of this case. Readers are encouraged to do their own research. Nothing contained in this post is intended to be a statement of opinion on Ellen Pao’s case, only its consequences in the Reddit melodrama.

Let me also take the opportunity to say that an anonymous forum is not always the friendliest place in the world. Despite its nobler qualities, the Reddit organism can sometimes adopt a mob mentality and pursue its own — sometimes skewed — view of justice.

Some of you might remember another story that broke recently about a woman named Rachel Dolezal. She was the white woman who identified as black and ran the Spokane chapter of the NAACP until Reddit “exposed” her.

My point is that no one is untouchable when a loyal community gets riled up. After Pao’s case went mainstream, people made a character judgement and decided she was not the right kind of person to be the face of Reddit, a site that millions admire.

Nothing makes the more unfriendly parts of Reddit pick up their torches and pitchforks faster than someone they perceive playing the victim card too liberally. Pao’s litigious attitude rubbed people the wrong way, and to many, her controversial case had become synonymous with the corporate brand.

In a time when digital backlash can quickly escalate, brands have to swiftly acknowledge and address community concerns. And while the result might not always end with ousting the CEO, we’ve seen several companies be placed on the hot seat when the community becomes riled up. Repeat retail offenders such as LuluLemon and Urban Outfitters have often butted heads with the community, resulting in several millions of dollars in lost revenues. Conversely, brands like AirBnB have quickly mitigated any community concerns that hosts might have due to a untrustworthy renter, by immediately increasing the amount of insurance offered and simplifying reimbursement due to special circumstances.

Whether it’s lost revenue or a dethroned CEO, brand ethics are more important than ever and the results can be dire if dismissed or ignored.

If You Give The Customer A Voice, You Better Listen

The backdrop to all of this is that Reddit is a huge brand with a huge user base, but it’s struggling to find a way to be the profitable media goliath that it aspires to be. The monetization process has been slow and deliberate. Reddit is only valuable as long as its community is intact.

The fact is that the people behind Reddit answer to their shareholders as much as they do their user base. It’s a delicate dance, but down the road to profitability, change is inevitable.

Ellen Pao was brought in to Reddit help facilitate some of that change. How much of the vision of a new, profitable Reddit she herself was responsible for crafting is unclear. Regardless, with all of the controversy surrounding her, there was an easy target when Reddit corporate started mixing things up.

In June, the Reddit admins (the paid staff who keep the site live and functional) shut down five subreddits “based on their harassment of individuals.” The names of those subreddits cannot be repeated in polite conversation, so you can imagine they weren’t the friendliest of places to hang out. Still, the Reddit community at large saw censorship and they weren’t happy about it.

In response to this, a petition was created demanding Ellen Pao’s removal as CEO. Before about two weeks ago, the petition only had about 10K supporters. If that were it, Ellen would still be in charge.

Before being closed, the petition topped out at 213K. So how did the big bad Reddit villain inspire 200K more people to jump on the coup d’etat express? By kidnapping the princess.

So even if profits are top of mind, if you’re going to give your customers a voice — you have to listen.

Your Core Users Have Different (And Likely Higher) Standards

One of the most popular subreddits is called /r/IAmA (Ask Me Anything). People come to this subreddit and offer themselves up to be interviewed by the community.

It’s a big draw for power users and first-time visitors alike because celebrities and notable personalities, from Keanu Reeves to Barack Obama, stop by to answer questions. Until recently, these guest appearances were coordinated by Victoria Taylor, Reddit’s Director of Talent.

Countless AMA threads have begun with a greeting and a disclaimer that “Victoria is helping me out today.” Aside from helping verify that the person answering questions was who they claimed to be, Victoria was one of the only connections between Reddit corporate and the Reddit moderator community.

Every discussion board on the site is moderated by power users, who are all volunteers. Moderators are often elected from the community within a particular subreddit. They set ground rules for etiquette and police as needed. They are the Reddit equivalent of local government.

It was generally perceived that Victoria represented the moderators’ interests to Reddit corporate. Two weeks ago, Victoria was fired suddenly and without explanation.

In part confusion and part revolt, the moderators behind the most popular subreddits turned them private. This made these pages inaccessible to the public and essentially shut Reddit down for a day until the admins were able to assure the moderators that their needs would be met.

As the chaos unfolded it came to light that the moderators had been asking for help for years from Reddit administrators. These volunteers manage millions of users and they had been requesting tools to make that task easier for a long time with little or no response from Reddit Inc. Victoria’s firing was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Promises were made, and the site was restored. But the damage was done. Ellen Pao tried to keep things under control as best she could. She made apologies for the lack of communication, but to many, she had lost credibility. When she did make a statement about the Reddit blackout, it was to the press rather than the user community, further solidifying her “out of touch” reputation.

In the course of about two days, the petition to remove Pao got 200K more supporters and a Reddit lookalike site called voat.co saw a serious uptick in popularity.

The point being, if your company or brand is teling your community to ask you anything, don’t opt for selective hearing when you decide it’s not what you want to hear.

As of now, Reddit co-founder Steve Huffman has resumed his role as CEO and the world keeps turning. Huffman stepped away from the company in 2009. Only time will tell if Reddit will be able to move into the future while holding on to its roots.

Too Long, Didn’t Read

1. Brand Ethics Matter More Than Ever

2. If You Give The Customer A Voice, You Better Listen

3. Your Core Users Have Different (And Likely Higher) Standards