By Alexis Ohanian, as told to Wook Kim
Advice from the Reddit co-founder on how to make social media work for you.
The reason people need advice on using social media is that they’re a much more complex and nuanced way to communicate than a conversation or e-mail.
I started learning about this complexity when I was a teenager. I used to go online and use the Microsoft Comic Chat program, which had an interface like a cartoon storyboard. You’d choose an avatar and chat with people via comic-strip speech bubbles. That was my introduction to the Web and, in a way, to social media. I was in awe! I was talking – as a cat – to random strangers.
The social-media landscape changes incredibly fast, so you have to be open-minded and nimble to keep up with it. In 2005, aeons after I was a talking cat, I founded Reddit with my fellow University of Virginia graduate, Steve Huffman. We wanted to create a front page for the Web. No avatars there – just pure social media, providing a way for people to share and discuss stories that interest them.
What I learned in the span between Comic Chat and Reddit is that in the social-media world, “personal” and “brand” are very closely linked, and that building a business based on social media is really just a strategic application of your personal and brand identities.
I have a MacBook Pro and a MacBook Air – I don’t go many places without a laptop – and I have a Galaxy Nexus. In other words, like a lot of people today, I can jump online in an instant. It takes discipline not to let social media steal your time. I use them on aggregate about two hours a day. My preferred platform is Reddit – surprise! But I use software called RescueTime to kick me off after an hour. And I maybe spend up to another hour on platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.
One effective way of curbing your dependence on social media is to build time into your day where you’re totally offline. I call that time girlfriend time. I live on the (US) East Coast now, so the first few hours in the morning work especially well, since everyone in the West is still asleep.
Being effective at social media, whether for business or personal use, means capturing people who have short attention spans. They’re only a click away from a picture of a funny cat, so you have to make your thing more compelling than that cat. And that can be a high bar.
This idea connects to my first rule of developing a social-media strategy: make sure your product or service or cause is something people want. It’s all about creating quality content. Maybe you can spam your way to short-term success, but that approach won’t work long-term.
Second rule: understand the importance of being candid and transparent. There’s a cliché about crisis being an opportunity, but when you do screw up – which shouldn’t be too often – think of that screw-up as a chance to show that you give a damn, that you are invested in your product or content. By admitting your mistakes and doing whatever it takes to make things right, you can win people over and even gain new users. The way you treat your users or customers, and how you personally present yourself through social media, is a way to differentiate yourself from your competitors.
Third rule: you cannot be less than 100 per cent committed. Hard work and hustle are just as important as the thing or idea you’re trying to sell. Anything you post must have a purpose. And you have to be relentless about engaging your users, your fans, your customers – respond to every tweet, comment on every blog post. This makes sense not only as a way to get a better understanding of your users, but you also never know if one particular response is going to go viral.
That said, using social media is not a popularity contest. Sure, it’s nice to be noticed by a big audience, but that’s not the most important metric. What matters is not the number of followers, subscribers or whatever the equivalent. You want to get a feel of engagement, sentiment and user morale. All of those are almost impossible to quantify. But anyone who pays attention to the conversations of their community will get a feel for these things.
Start by making your customers or followers happy – they’ll end up doing all the social-media magic. We had one Redditor (that’s shorthand for Reddit user) who was corresponding with a well-known hotel chain. He jokingly requested that his room be prepared with a bathtub full of Reese’s Pieces and a bed full of puppies. This person arrived at the room to find a bag of Reese’s Pieces and a handwritten note with an enclosed picture of a kitten. It was a small gesture – maybe cost the hotel just a few dollars – but it was a gesture of the emphasis the hotel puts on customer care. The Redditor wrote about the incident, and it made it to the front page, where it was read by hundreds of thousands of people and linked to blogs everywhere. So in pursuing their mission of delivering a great customer experience, this hotel chain ended up with more exposure and goodwill than a very expensive ad campaign could provide.
Ignore what your competition is doing. Shortly after we launched Reddit, we found out about another social-news site, Digg. We realised that what your competitors do should be irrelevant. Stay focused on your own plans and strategy. More often than not, what can ruin a business isn’t what a competitor does, but rather something that happens internally. When we started Hipmunk, a travel site, we were well aware of Kayak. We didn’t focus on being better than them. We just set about creating what we thought would be the best travel search site. This single-minded focus can be applied to almost every venture on the Internet.
Is there a real importance in creating a unique online identity? Well, I don’t want to get into this whole way of thinking that everyone is his or her own special snowflake (laughs), but I’ve found that if you are true to yourself and your product or idea, the differentiation will grow almost organically. And from differentiation comes success.
The social-media landscape today is very different from the one we faced when we launched Reddit. It was successful because it preceded this flood and stood out as something unique. Starting Reddit today would be much harder, but there are so many more ways for great ideas to spread online now.
So you have to keep in mind (that) success very rarely happens overnight. For those who use social media strictly for personal reasons, success is defined as engaging with people and communities you really care about. Regardless of your social-media goals, have patience and temper your expectations. Things need time to blossom, so you have to resist the urge to change tactics and embellish your plans. There’s beauty and strength in simplicity and clarity.
5 Things You Should Never Do When Using Social Media
(1) Talk to people any differently than you would if they were right in front of you.
(2) Feed the trolls.
(3) Engage in shameless self-promotion. Better to post positive things about other people’s work and then let the good karma work for you.
(4) Drink to excess. (If you do, disconnect from the Internet.) An inebriated slip of the thumb on your Twitter feed can do major damage.
(5) Be mean to@MollyRingwald. Seriously, she’s a big fan of Reddit, and she’s very nice.