Engagement is the watchword for publishers – you can see it in every new memo from BuzzFeed and every financial statement from News UK. Engaged audiences are more likely to buy, to subscribe, to keep a media business alive. Somewhere along the road to scale media companies forgot that, but now it’s back in a big way. Some of the bigger players are even, ah, fudging the numbers to promote their own engagement statistics.
The challenge has always been in identifying areas in which there is the opportunity to create true engagement among a large enough audience to support the production of news and features. As indiscriminate ad-funded publishing becomes harder to sustain, finding such an environment is an ever harder to reach goal for publishers.
It’s especially frustrating because there are a number of places online in which those audiences already exist. On Reddit, the self-styled ‘front page’ of the internet, millions of users cluster round niches they’ve self-elected to be engaged with. Combined, those 138,000+ communities have over 330 million users, whose traffic makes it the fifth most visited site in the US per Alexa data.
Its success is partly because the structure of reddit sublimates its brand (most logged-in redditors subscribe to individual sub-pages or ‘subreddits’ rather than visit a generic front page), partly because the platform was a UGC free-for-all, but recently those tenets are shifting. Its press site now brands Reddit as ‘a growing family of millions of diverse people sharing the things they care about most’. ‘Family’ is probably an apt way to describe it, given that many of its subreddits cordially detest the others, but the message is clear: Reddit is trying to become more brand-friendly.
Back in April the company grew its 75 person-strong brand partnership team by 50 percent, with the stated goal of making the site more brand-friendly (and attracting more advertising money onto the platform). It was part of an ongoing endeavour that also saw a redesign of the layout (which remains mildly controversial among its audience) and the removal of some of the more outright offensive subreddits.
Additionally, Reddit’s own native video platform has seen significant success, with the announcement earlier this month that it was hitting a billion video views a month on-site. Despite recent bad news around video metrics on another platform, publishers are seeking to capitalise on undeniable growing audience appetite for video content.
That process is still ongoing: At the time, Digiday’s Kerry Flynn reported that “despite Reddit’s recent efforts to make itself more brand-friendly, the company is still struggling to convince agencies of its worth.”
So the site itself isn’t necessarily the safe haven that publishers looking to capitalise on the ‘premium’ aspect of digital publishing need. But the real benefit for publishers making it work on Reddit isn’t related to its own ad revenue generation potential – it’s in that engagement with niche audiences.
Publishers have long attributed huge great spikes in traffic to one of their articles reaching the coveted front page of reddit. The issue has always been that, until recently, publishers had just as much a chance of reaching the front page as any other piece of content (and probably significantly less chance than the hugely sharable content posted to r/rarepuppers, the knowingly surreal r/trebuchetmemes or the always fascinating r/Damnthatsinteresting).
However as part of that ongoing mutation into a brand-safe environment, Reddit has been removing the barriers to publishers seeking to use the site as a source of referrals. It removed the ‘one in ten’ rule that prohibited more than a proportion of content published by a user from being ‘promotional’. Last year it also worked with publishers including Time and the Washington Post to develop profile pages, with the partnership with Time eventually spinning off into a full-blown editorial partnership.
Those partnerships are predicated on the fact that those self-selected audiences are incredibly valuable for publishers, in ways that are less tangible than monetisation through ads or direct revenue. Kate Coughlin, the director of audience development at National Geographic Partners, points out that the audience that congregates around its channel is useful for flagging stories of interest to its wider audience, just as Guardian’s members and The Atlantic’s Masthead subscribers are helping editorial staff zero in on what matters to their most valuable members.
“With everything that’s going on with Facebook, we’re trying to figure out some other places where we can grow our audience and interact with them in smart ways,” said Connor Finnegan, senior audience development manager at Inverse, which launched an Inverse profile page on Reddit in January.”
Given that distributed publishing has been something of a non-starter, it’s only natural that publishers might balk at the idea of engagement off-platform, and of engagement with audiences without a formalised method of monetisation. However, that’s exactly what many YouTubers and social influencers are doing to great success. Everyone from gaming specific channels to Instagram beauty vloggers maintain active subreddits that let them both source ideas for content and to deepen the relationship with people who typically actually consume their content elsewhere.
As the volatile 2018 draws near to its conclusion, with the wreckage of distributed publishing and the pivot to video in its wake, the one surefire priority for publishers is audience engagement. Reddit could be a sleeping giant for audience attention if, as Time and The Washington Post are doing, they experiment with what works on a platform that was until recently seen as being anti-publisher by design.
Chris is a co-writer of our new Media Moments 2018 report, which dives deeper into the role of platforms in publishing over the past year, and what 2019 could bring. Download it here.