Reddit: Lessons for Brand Communities

Lithium Alumni (Retired)

People have asked me what I think about the recent problems at Reddit. A lot of other community experts have shared their thoughts, including Gina Bianchini, Rachel Happe, Patrick O’Keefe, and Chuq von Rospach. But for people who build brand communities, I think a few more words are necessary.


Everyone has a frame of reference. Not everyone knows it, but everyone has it. My frame of reference is shaped by the hundreds of brand communities that I work with every day as Chief Community Officer at Lithium. These communities are different than Reddit. For the vast majority of the companies who create them, community is a critical part of their business, but it isn’t the business itself. In other words, they make money from selling products and services, not directly from operating a community.


They are different in another way, too. Collectively, they generate more than a hundred million unique visitors every month, just like Reddit does. But, individually they are much smaller, ranging from one-tenth, to one one-hundredth, to one one-thousandth the size of Reddit. There are some unique problems that come from massive scale. It isn’t the same when you are significantly smaller.


url.jpgBut there’s another big way that brand communities are different than Reddit. Reddit is dedicated to the principle of free speech. This is a promise — sometimes explicit, always implicit — that Reddit makes to its members. Now what I’m about to say may sound controversial, but brand communities don’t make that promise to their users. They make a different promise. A computer hardware manufacturer promises that people who are looking for help and ideas for using its products will get that from its community. A retailer of beauty products promises that people who are interested in beauty will get advice and how-to information. Both companies, like most other brand communities, also make an implicit promise that you will have an experience consistent with their brand — which means, if you visit the community, you will have a positive, rewarding experience — not a negative, offensive, or irrelevant one.


What that also means is, if you want to debate the superiority of your religion over other religions, you won’t be permitted to do that in a brand community. Not because they don’t approve of your message, but because the topic conflicts with the promise the brand has made to its community.


As our chief scientist, Dr. Michael Wu, often notes, creating satisfying customer experiences doesn’t begin with delivering the experience. It begins with the promise you make about what that experience will be. Fall short of the promise, and you will have dissatisfied users or customers, regardless of any other ways your experience might be objectivity good or even superior to others.


Let me cut to the chase: I have no idea how to fix Reddit. But I think perhaps there are lessons here for anyone who runs a brand community. First, here’s what the lessons are not. For brand communities, the lesson is not that the internet is a wild place and cannot be tamed. That may be true of the Internet at large, but it isn’t — and cannot be— true of brand communities. Because if it were, you can forget keeping those promises.


The lesson is also not that empowering members is a bad thing because they will use their powers against you. You can’t have a successful community without a partnership with your users, and empowerment is part of that partnership.


Finally, the lesson is not that you should avoid relying on key members of your staff because those members may leave, either voluntarily or because you decide they should. Change is the nature of organizations and communities. We have to build communities that can survive and even welcome change, not resist it.


Ok, so are there lessons for brand communities from what’s happening at Reddit? I think there are, and as Patrick O’Keefe notes, they are not new. In fact, they testify to the principles I see at work every day at the most successful brand communities:


Leadership is communication. Communities, like other forms of social organization, depend on leadership to achieve their goals. If you’re in a position of leadership in a business or in a community, you may be doing many things, but if you aren’t communicating, you aren’t leading. Reddit CEO Ellen Pao noted that failure in her apology: “We haven’t communicated well.”


Superusers should know more, and know before. Communication must begin with your superusers — in Reddit’s case, their moderators. Your most active users feel a sense of ownership over the community — and that’s a good thing. Don’t present them with major changes they don’t see coming and don’t understand. Pao: “We have surprised moderators and the community with big changes.” Know more — communicate — and know before — don’t surprise.


Empower your community manager. If your community manager can’t get things done for the community, they will lose members’ trust. Even worse, you will lose your community manager’s trust, and they will “go native” or leave. In either event, you’ve lost the power to lead the community, which depends entirely on trust. Often these failures center on platform issues, as happened at Reddit. “We have apologized and made promises to you, the moderators and the community, over many years, but time and again, we haven’t delivered on them.”

Make no mistake: I have respect for the ambition of Reddit’s mission, and also for the efforts of its better members, moderators, and manager. Don’t be surprised if some more positive lessons come out of this. I’ll be following their efforts in the days and weeks to come.




Joe CothrelJoe Cothrel is Chief Community Officer at Lithium Technologies.  He is Lithium’s top expert on community and social best practices and has helped more than 300 companies execute successful social efforts.


 He is active on Twitter @cothrel and is a regular contributor in the Lithosphere where he is JoeC