A man walks into a pizza shop with an assault rifle, fires it, and points it at an employee. This isn’t the start of a joke. It’s what happened in Washington, D.C., in early December. A scruffy young conspiracy theorist had come to Comet Ping Pong Pizza brandishing and firing a gun in search of a purported child sex trafficking ring tied to prominent liberal politicians supposedly run out of one of its backrooms.
It’s not clear who gave birth to “pizzagate,” which cropped up shortly after WikiLeaks released John Podesta’s hacked emails. But much of the theory’s fleshing out happened on the social news aggregation site Reddit through a group of pseudonymous Donald Trump supporters on one of the many subreddits where conspiracy theories and far worse things sometimes flourish.
When CEO Steve Huffman eventually banned r/pizzagate from the site in an effort to prevent online witch hunts, users unleashed a spate of negative comments about the exec on the pro-Trump subreddit r/The_Donald. In turn, Huffman heightened fears of censorship when he admitted to editing some of those comments. Later he called the move a prank, and apologized. “The irony,” the CEO told Recode in December, “is they’re on my platform. I’ve defended their right to be on our platform many times. I don’t want to take your voice away. I just want you to stop being assholes.”
The pizzagate debacle represents one of the biggest challenges for CEO Huffman and cofounder and executive chairman Alexis Ohanian in their attempt to make the site profitable and sustainable in the long term. But despite years of trying to impress advertisers without alienating the community—one known for its fierce resistance to change—as well as to monetize the site through paid subscriptions and merchandise, Reddit has largely come up empty.
Today, in its latest bid at evolution, the site is launching a new interface for its self-service ad platform. The revamp is aimed at making Reddit, now more than 10 years old and boasting 12 billion monthly views, a real revenue generator. This latest push for ads comes as Reddit is also trying to appeal to more users. Last week, the site introduced profile pages, a repository for a user’s threads and commentary that aims to make Reddit more social, not unlike Facebook or Twitter. (Not surprisingly, the announcement unleashed a torrent of comments by hardcore redditors.)
Its first ad offering, released in 2009, put sponsored links in the Reddit feed. But these are often down voted by users, lowering their overall placement. User commentary on sponsored posts don’t shy from the issues. Former employees and others who have either personal or ideological contentions with a brand might speak directly on the brand’s posts. And if users smell even the faintest whiff of inauthenticity, they will call it out, as they did when it appeared Nissan loaded softball questions into a conversation with its CEO.
If you’ve never been on Reddit before, it looks like a site from a bygone era when message boards and chat forums were the way people met on the web. Its homepage, which has changed very little since it first launched in 2005, is a list of blue phrases that link out to articles, images, videos, and conversation threads posted by users. The hierarchy of each is determined through a community voting system. Discussions cover a broad spectrum of topics covering everything from Plato’s The Apology of Socrates to how to put in hair extensions. Users can also find like-minded individuals inside subreddits, which hosts content on a specific subject matter.
But Reddit, like its contemporaries Twitter and Facebook, was reluctant to dictate what sorts of conversations it would not tolerate and it was slow to mitigate hate speech. Over time, Reddit developed a reputation as a platform where bigotry and abuse were allowed to run unchecked. An unintuitive user experience also stagnated Reddit’s growth over the years, much like it did for Twitter. Condé Nast, which bought the company from its founders in 2006, oversaw the launch of a premium membership called Reddit Gold in 2010; the next year, it spun Reddit out as its own independent entity.
Since returning to Reddit in 2015 after a six-year break—and after a volatile period that saw the departure of interim CEO Ellen Pao—Ohanian and Huffman have cracked down on the site’s worst offenders. That includes the recent dissolution of two subreddits popular among white nationalists. “Literally one of the first things we did was update that content policy and build a team around it to enforce it,” says Ohanian, a tall man with a closely cropped beard and the most boyish of grins. Meanwhile, he’s also focused on generating revenue. Reddit now has over 270 million users and this year the company launched its latest ad-format: promoted conversations.
“Hundreds of thousands of people come here every day to have neutral discussions about politics in America and the world,” says Ohanian, “I don’t think there are many other places where this exists.” Ohanian believes much of this traction was due to the election as Reddit became a prime location for people to discuss politics. This year it was ranked the fourth top site in the U.S. in terms of traffic by Alexa analytics.
Still, the company’s repeated efforts at profiting from advertising, including adding ad targeting for subreddits last October, have been slower going than some in the company had hoped, The Information reported last April. Internal documents obtained by the website showed projected revenues of $20 million for 2016; the year before it made under $10 million. Reddit did not share financial numbers with Fast Company.
Reddit’s more recent forays into advertising has looked more promising. Brands can now create conversation threads that are then seeded to relevant users. In December, Toyota launched a campaign on the platform around its new self-driving concept vehicle and the future of mobility. It hosted a Reddit Live announcement of the vehicle plus three “Ask Me Anything” style posts. The campaign generated more than 650 comments in 12 hours and reached 80 million plus people.
To avoid some of its past brand debacles, Reddit has helped advertisers to run campaigns that are Reddit-ready. As one piece of its campaign, Toyota asked redditors what they would name a Mars colony if they were the first to arrive in exchange for Reddit Gold. Not only did Toyota award the Gold to answers users deemed satisfactory, the person running the account decided to only respond to questions and comments in Imgur meme form and doled out some sick burns. The hand-holding Reddit provides to brands is key to what make its new slate of ads succeed.
Global digital ad spending is expected grow this year, accounting for 33% of the market media intelligence firm GroupM estimates. “Advertisers are looking for other places to invest,” says eMarketer analyst Catherine Boyle. “They’re not so comfortable having all their eggs in one basket.”
But gaining a foothold in this arena will be difficult. Google and Facebook are still the dominant ad platforms with 32% and 13% share of the market worldwide respectively, according to eMarketer. Reddit doesn’t even yet register.
However, native ads, like the kind Reddit is hocking, are particularly hot among advertisers because they are believed to be the antidote to ad-blocking technology. But good native content isn’t enough on its own, says Boyle. “That type of branded content would have to be a compelling experience on a mobile device.”
This year in particular Reddit has made ads a priority. Today’s self-service ad platform redesign was done to be more attuned to the expectations of the industry. Through the update, advertisers will be able to run campaign with multiple sponsored posts and get access to more detailed performance metrics. Advertisers will also be able to pay at the end of the campaign—prior to this latest iteration, they had to prepay for campaigns and let Reddit balance out the spend difference later. For the mean time, larger campaigns, like the one Toyota ran earlier this year, will continue to be handled by account executives at Reddit. The ad-product team at Reddit has aspirations to offer more automated services to those clients later this year.
The ad platform redesign follows a handful of consumer-facing updates. Nearly a year ago, Reddit finally launched its own mobile app. Last week, it added profile pages to give users a landing page to aggregate their activity on the social site. And the company is now in the process of developing a new on-boarding method that will make the platform easier to navigate for new arrivals.
“We’re trying to get to where we should have been already,” says Jamie Quint, lead product manager at Reddit. If the overall Reddit mobile experience is slick for consumers and it can continue to give brands more control over campaigns, advertisers might just pay attention.
Corrections: An earlier version of this story incorrectly referenced the thread r/TheDonald, it is r/The_Donald; Reddit Gold was launched in 2010, not 2015; Alexa ranks Reddit as the fourth most popular site in the U.S., not the seventh; and a representative from Reddit says the site has been growing year-over-year, not stagnating over the years. The article has been updated to reflect these changes and we regret the errors.