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Case studies

5 lessons learned from my adventures in Reddit-land

Estimated read time: 14 minutes

Reddit is serious business. It’s known as the front page of the Internet for good reason. But, how can you use it to get more eyes on your content  in a way that doesn’t upset the community? Imperial College London’s Andrew Youngson explains…

Almost exactly one year ago, I created the Imperial College London Reddit account – a new social media channel for us to share our stories on, and a chance to break out of our bubble to speak directly to people of all sorts of interests.

To be honest, it look about nine months for me to pluck up the courage to create it. Why? Quite simply, Reddit terrified me. The ‘front page of the internet’ has a bit of a reputation for being a Wild West frontier, where trolls (mixing metaphors, I know) hide in waiting to pounce on you.

And yet we were seeing big spikes in referral traffic from Reddit whenever third parties were sharing our news stories on the platform. So I was tasked with figuring out how we could establish a presence on there without angering the trolls.  

One year on, here are some insights I’ve gained on my road to Reddit enlightenment from initial steps, to where I am today.

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1) The importance of listening and learning

In my opinion, anyone’s first tentative steps with Reddit should be all about lurking online and learning from others.

In the UK HE sector, use of Reddit is still largely in its infancy, so there aren’t loads of experienced users to learn from. But I was lucky to find a few experienced folks to learn from, firstly the great people at Understanding Animal Research, who have been active on the platform for years, especially running Ask Me Anythings (AMAs) on the Science subreddit researchers who use animal models in their work.

Second of my gurus was Tim Watkins from the University of Reading. As if the social media manager isn’t a hero enough (he’s the guy behind the famous ‘Jog on’ tweet), he’s also a super generous and knowledgeable Reddit user.

My third mentor in Redditland was the internet, and Reddit itself. Googling, YouTube-tutorial-ing, hanging around subreddits taught me so much. Armed with insights, I created my own Reddit account and started to spend some time on subreddits which corresponded most strongly with Imperial specialisms e.g. r/Science, r/Space, r/LondonStudents, r/Imperial, r/Energy and so on.

Each subreddit has its distinct community and rules of conduct, so it was really important for me to get a feel for these differences so when it came to actively engaging I knew what kind of content flies and what dives.

2) You need to figure out what you want it for

As with any social media channel for your organisation, it’s vital to firstly take a step back and consider what you want to do on the platform. What do you want to say about yourself? Who do you want to engage with? What content do you have at your disposal which will help you achieve your goals?

Here are the questions (and answers) we considered:

  • What do you want to say about yourself?
    That we are a leading voice on many matters. But more importantly, that the doors are open for people to ask us questions about who we are and what we do.
  • Who do you want to engage with?
    Each post we make or AMA we hold is for a distinct audience. Depending on which subreddit we are on, we could be speaking to fellow scientists, interested amateurs or complete novices. This is what we wanted – the ability to engage with any number of new audiences.
  • What content do you have which will help you achieve your goals?
    Thus far, our assets have been news stories and experts – the former for posting story links on to appropriate subreddits, and the latter for being the figurehead of AMAs.

With these questions answered, I went ahead and finally created our Imperial College user account on Reddit. It’s from this account that I post all content (e.g. text posts, links to research stories or third party content, plus images and videos). It’s also the account that we run a lot of our AMAs from.

Why do we have an official Imperial College account? Because on Reddit, transparency is key. If we are posting links to our stories, we need to be absolutely honest about it. If we were to set up an account that in any way hid our affiliation to Imperial, Redditors would sniff us out within seconds. Our posts would be ignored at best; reviled and ripped apart at worst.  

Which brings me to my next lesson…

3) Follow the rules, regulations and Reddiquette

One of the first things I was told about Reddit is that it is immune to – if not intolerant of – PR. Spin does not win on this platform.

Depending on the subreddit you’re on, Redditors can be pretty wild (take a look at the Dogtalk subreddit) and moderators can be very strict.

The rules of conduct which apply across the board include:

  • Content policy: The official policy from Reddit Inc.
  • Reddiquette:  “an informal expression of the values of many redditors, as written by redditors themselves”
  • Rules on self-promotion: Guidelines on what you should and shouldn’t do when talking about yourself

On top of this, each subreddit has its own codes of conduct: from rules about the type of content you post, to parameters on the tone you take when commenting. For example r/Science has 10 rules, including:

  • Content/posts must be peer-reviewed research
  • Your posts should contain no editorialized, sensationalized or biased titles
  • Research must be <6 months old
  • No off-topic comment
  • No abusive or offensive comments

Sounds like a minefield? Not necessarily. It’s great that Reddit has such a passionate usership, and a strong code. That’s why engagement on posts can be higher than any other platform – because the people on it care.

But it does mean that, unless you stick to the codes, you can find yourself kicked out of the party.

4) When it works, it works. And when it doesn’t…

Within a few months, we had some big successes on Reddit.

Our strategy (as it remains today) was to post stories that were objectively interesting to the redditors of specific subreddits. The more specific the community the better. That’s why this post on a ‘fat but fit’ study ended up flying on r/Science (resulting in 29,500 referrals to our news site), this one on an ancient gauntlet went stratospheric on r/history (resulting on a whopping 64,000 referrals), and this one on magic mushrooms went intergalactic on r/Science (more than 90,000 referrals).

By October we had run our first Ask Me Anything on r/Science on the topic of Dark Matter – engagement was solid, with 46 comments, 220 upvotes and 2,100 views. And our numbers have grown with each new AMA, namely on the topics of: multiple sclerosis, Bitcoin, climate change, and respiratory infection.

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But with the ups have been a few downs. Well, one down in particular.

The Health subreddit moderators took issue with me posting a link to a health-related article on our news site. They banned us from posting anything again. I messaged the moderators to ask why, and to apologise for crossing the line of self-promotion. This is the reply that came back:

“You are spamming reddit with your website. As soon as the mods of the other subreddits detect your activity, you will be banned.”

Yikes! This certainly put the fear of Reddit back into me, and ever since I’ve been doubly cautious over the content I post on there. More than anything, it’s been a healthy reminder that subreddits are something to engage with, not just post on. So don’t be afraid to engage in other ways – add your voice to discussions and vote on other’s posts. Like any social platform, it’s all about getting involved in the conversation.

5) Widen your pool of subreddits for hosting AMAs

One subreddit that has been particularly welcoming of content from Imperial is the Science subreddit. With more than 19 million subscribers, it’s a pretty darn powerful platform for sharing your news on, and conversing with a broad spectrum of science enthusiasts.

Until very recently r/Science has been the place to host your Ask Me Anythings. However in May, the Science moderators decided to scrap their AMA programme, and shifted all existing AMAs on their schedule over to the IAmA subreddit. I was one of those people whose Science AMA was shunted over.

I was worried (as you can guess, that’s my natural state): the Science subreddit team were so supportive they would set you up with special accounts for each AMA, they would strictly moderate all sessions to make sure no nasty questions came your way, and they provided access to their huge subscribership. By contrast, the IAmA moderators are fairly hands off, and the nature of the subreddit is such that anyone can host an AMA on any topic.

This means that IAmAs take place outside of the science bubble, or any bubble for that matter. This is good and bad – on the plus side you truly are speaking to a wide cross section of the public; on the minus, you need to be prepared for responses from a wide cross section of the public, and they might not all be supportive.

So far, so tentative, but it’s looking encouraging overall. For example, our first foray on IAmA was a success, with our session resulting in 54 comments, 215 upvotes and 24,000 views.

To sum up…

So what have I learned? Reddit is an amazing social platform, where people genuinely care about the content that’s put on there. You will be hard pushed to find better engagement on any other platform. But with that passion comes occasional fire.

It’s been a healthy reminder that the content we create needs to be made with one person firmly in mind: the end user.