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Marketers v. Redditors

Reddit Founder Alexis Ohanian on which companies should fear the Internet
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By now, all companies have had to figure out their approach to social media. But as anyone whose Facebook feed has been decorated with ads for ChristianMingle.com knows, there are ways, and then there are ways. When a panelist asked a room full of people, "How many you have bought something from an ad served to you off of your Facebook news stream? How many people enjoy getting those ads in their Facebook news stream?" at the Aspen Ideas Festival on Saturday, no one raised a hand except for the one guy who sheepishly admitted to a recent banner ad purchase.

In the already ad-hating landscape of the Internet, no user is more likely to loathe unsophisticated targeted advertising more than Redditors. Sometimes called "the front page of the Internet," Reddit is the digital home of the web's gnarliest trolls and most tech-savvy users. The website's founder, Alexis Ohanian, isn't hostile toward marketers, but he does think Internet users are particular about the way they experience ads.

"We didn't ever want the user experience on Reddit to suck because of advertising," Ohanian said. "What is fascinating to me is that social media is a great thing for companies making great stuff. The companies that have the most to fear from this change are the ones that are doing a shitty job. Word of mouth has always been king -- water coolers used to be really small. You'd have a discussion around the office about something, but today that water cooler is the Internet. Honest discussions from honest people about products and services now spread. Those are the things that tend to shape people's opinions.

"When I think about Reddit, I don't necessarily think it's anti-advertising -- it's anti-stupid advertising, it's anti-bad advertising."

It seems clear that companies making good products are more likely to launch successful advertising campaigns, because their products will sell themselves. But what might also be true is that companies that don't intuitively fit the profile of the Internet -- older or more complicated brands in particular -- might have a harder time figuring out the difference between smart, Internet-savvy advertising and annoying disruptions to the user experience.

To this point, Ohanian had some advice. "Don't flog your product. Be helpful. Be human. People forget as soon as they go online that they're dealing with other humans. No one would walk into a room and go, 'Blah blah blah, use my product.'" For marketers to succeed in the jungle of the Internet, it seems, they need to use guerilla tactics, posting things that would succeed on the web regardless of whether anything is being sold.

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Emma Green is the assistant managing editor of TheAtlantic.com, where she also writes about religion and culture.

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