Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian shares the importance of being authentic in marketing – why it’s important, how it resonates with consumers, and what he went through to learn these lessons.
“I want to give you some advice that I think is applicable to anyone in this room,” Alex Ohanian begins his keynote. “I believe it will help you think like a startup.”
Alexis Ohanian is no stranger to starting a business. Alexis, along with his college roommate Steve Huffman, co-founded Reddit – a website which boasts over 230 million unique users and will have been accessed by 1/3 of the United States this month alone.
“How many people use Reddit?” he asks an audience of marketing advertisers, publishers, and experts. Across the Grand Ballroom at the Marriott Brooklyn Bridge Hotel in Brooklyn, New York, hands fly up. “These are probably the least productive people at the office,” Alexis jokes as the room breaks out in laughter.
Alexis is a Keynote speaker at Symposium 2016, a two-day long convention hosted by Rakuten Marketing. Alexis’ focus is the importance of content – from what makes content successful, to how marketers can create better content. Content, according to the Reddit co-founder, isn’t posted and viewed automatically anymore. If a marketer wants their content to take off, they must earn the attention of their audience.
Alexis shows this by drawing a comparison – a 12-year-old girl with a camera phone making videos of her cat and DJ Khaled can both create content that attracts as much attention, get shared as much, and earn as large an audience as some of the most popular, professionally made advertisements.
“With more devices in more people’s hands to make more content than ever before, there’s so much competing for people’s attention that you really have to earn it.”
The reason, Alexis claims, is authenticity.
“We, as people, want authenticity.”
Behind Alexis, projected brightly across a giant screen, is a blue tile with white writing that poses a question: are you doing good work?
“Good” is relative in this instance. That’s because what constitutes “good” is scalable to what’s authentic. And social media, accordingly Alexis, is one of the biggest determinants to what constitutes “good” because of the communities that cut through what’s garbage. There’s no room for dishonesty – people crave what’s real.
“Deep connection takes a lot of time, but it’s something we [as people] crave.”
That deep connection can come from any aspect of a person’s life. Social media and websites have empowered that. On Reddit, there are communities for people who are enthusiastic about the aesthetics of food, the upkeep and proper grooming of a beard, and frugal fashion shopping. Stories about users who upload pictures of their homemade Mexican-inspired creations, or who go on discussion threads and offer advice for people to make their facial hair shimmer, are essential to establishing those deep connections. These people don’t use their real names, but rather created usernames to participate. Alexis, however, argues that usernames are no less different than their real names because these people are sharing what they care about with people who are enthusiastic about the same.
Alexis highlights this concept with the story of one user who shared a picture of a Quesolupa she made on a subreddit called Food Porn. “[Her username] is not the name on her driver’s license. The people she shares her picture with are not her college friends. The community she shared it with are people who care about the things she cares about – in this case, pictures of food.”
Why was this picture so well received, despite this person not having her real name on it? It was authentic – to her, and to the people receiving it.
“Great founders don’t quit, but they do adapt.”
“We didn’t know how it was going to work,” Alexis admits when recalling how Reddit first came about.
Reddit’s birth, based on Alexis’ story, sounds sudden. Initially, he and co-founder Steve Huffman were developing a phone app called My Mobile Menu (“MMM, get it?”) as a way to enable food-hungry mobile users to order their food from their favorite spot and pick it up when they arrive, effectively eliminating lines (“we hated lines!”). The idea was exciting and novel, especially since at the time smartphones weren’t nearly as intelligent as they are today, and Alexis and Steve took the idea to Paul Graham during a speech Graham was giving in Boston. Graham loved the idea and, a few weeks later when Y Combinator (a start-up incubator) was announced by Graham, encouraged the two to come out and present.
Alexis and Steve did, and much to their dismay they weren’t selected. Graham reached out to the two after the news was passed along and reaffirmed that, while he wasn’t interested in an application, he encouraged them to come up with something, anything, browser-based.
Alexis and Steve got to work, presenting the idea for Reddit shortly thereafter. Alexis says that this was a critical moment because it taught him a valuable lesson: you may have a great idea, but if someone wants something else, you need to learn to adjust and move forward. Adapting, as Alexis tells it, is what separates successful people from people with good ideas.
— Manda17 (@Manda17) June 23, 2016
Adapting to meet the needs of someone wasn’t the only lesson that Alexis recalled. After getting the funding, he and Steve got to work, but three weeks later they got a call from Graham. Graham wanted them to go live and wasn’t sure what the holdup was. He told them point blank: you’re either waiting for your product to be perfect, or you’re incompetent. Either way, they were effectively “hosed” unless they went live.
— Jay Hover (@jmhover) June 23, 2016
Alexis couldn’t stress the importance of this lesson enough. “If you have a choice between getting something in front of users or not, err on the side of getting it in front of users. Everyone starts out janky.”
For marketers, this concern of going out before reaching “audience ready” can be stressful. For Alexis, the choice is simple: it will never be perfect in the way marketers might conceptualize it, so rather than striving for perfection, strive for engagement. If 12-year-olds can get engagement from their content, so can marketers. Seek authenticity, and learn to adapt as you go.
“The goal is not getting headlines; the goal is to create great service.”
— Rakuten Marketing (@RakutenMKTG_US) June 23, 2016
One of Reddit’s most popular features is it’s ‘Ask Me Anything’s – the ability to engage with anyone from vacuum and chair experts to President Barak Obama. Alexis says that while these two types of people sound disparagingly different, both can get an equal amount of attention.
Alexis says this comes from passion – passion for what you do, and what you talk about.
“Authenticity scales,” he explains. “Are you really just who you are on your driver’s license, or are multiple, complex versions of ourselves?”
What this means is that we’re people of varying interests and desires, but those interests are complex and hard to get to the core of. That’s why being authentic – in today’s marketing world – is so important. The ability to be authentic strips that complexity away into something relatable and deep. Social media, ironically, can be very anti-social and superficial in the way we present ourselves according to Alexis – it’s when we move past the filters and focus on what we care about that we touch on something truly authentic.
For marketers, these filters are trading authenticity and passion with glitz and glamor, or trying to find ways to present your product in a way that “tricks” your audience. Creating an intimate encounter goes a long way, according to Alexis, and “those intimate encounters of what you create now happen in front of 100’s of thousands of people.” It doesn’t matter whether you create jobs at the President of the United States or you’re passionate about chairs as the president of a company that makes chairs – that intimacy, passion, and authenticity causes your organization, product, and identity to rise up and be valued.
“Give a damn, give lots of damns.”
In closing, Alexis highlights that the most important thing a marketer can do is care and be passionate.
“If you think your product is boring, be passionate about it and suddenly it’s not boring.”
Authenticity is key. The 12-year-old with a video of her cat is passionate about her cat, and that resonates with people. Be passionate, authentic, and honest – and connect with your audience in ways that you couldn’t have anticipated before.
— Krystyna Lijek (@krysXtyna) June 23, 2016