In late August 2012, President Barack Obama hosted an “Ask Me Anything” (AMA) live session on Reddit, a social news website that reports up to 3.5 billion page views a month. While the President was only able to respond to 10 questions in the time allotted, nearly 25,000 comments and posts were generated by users from the online outing. Erik Martin, general manager at Reddit, spoke to eMarketer’s Danielle Drolet about the presidential discussion and what brand marketers can learn about the role of social media in politics.
eMarketer: What was the value of having the Obama AMA for your users?
Martin: We thought it would be a huge opportunity for our users to talk with the president and thought it would also be a great chance for them to discuss related issues with each other. The president was only able to answer 10 questions, but there were another 24,000 that came from comments and discussions from the users. From our standpoint, it was extremely valuable.
eMarketer: What kind of uptake did you see?
Martin: It’s hard to say. Reddit has been growing pretty fast, basically doubling every year since 2005, when it launched. We definitely saw an increase in traffic and media attention after the Obama AMA.
Election discussions had been pretty high to begin with. In September alone, Gary Johnson, the Libertarian Party presidential candidate, and Jill Stein, the Green Party presidential candidate, did AMAs. We are still trying to get someone from the Mitt Romney campaign to do one. We will continue to see candidates in smaller Congressional, Senate, mayoral and gubernatorial races.
eMarketer: Do you think people are changing their behavior on social networks to avoid controversial topics?
Martin: We see this on Reddit since it is a pseudo-anonymous site. Obviously, there are plenty of people who don’t mind discussing politics on Facebook and Twitter, but there are a lot of people who don’t want to because [Facebook and Twitter are] tied to their real identity. They may have very strong political opinions on a certain issue, but they’re not going to put that on Facebook because they’re worried about what their employer, colleagues or family might think.
Obviously, there are many people who are perfectly fine with that, but there’s definitely a large group of people who aren’t able to openly discuss some of these issues on Facebook or Twitter. Often those are the people who know about a certain issue, work in a certain field, including government and politics, [and have special knowledge of an issue] that is being discussed. Sites such as Reddit and others, which also can be anonymous, are where you can often find some really smart and detailed discussions.
eMarketer: We’re seeing data showing that people are going to be more apt to block or unfriend someone for posting too frequently about politics or something that they disagree with on a social network. If a brand uses the same pushy and frequent posting methods that campaigns are using, is that going to lead to people blocking and unfriending?
Martin: Worse. We recently saw this situation in Florida, where a pizza parlor owner gave the President a bear hug. It made the news because it was an interesting visual story. He had picked the President up off the ground and it seemed like a genuine moment, but people went on Yelp and were trashing his business. No matter what you think about the President or his policies or Florida or pizza, [trying to harm the man’s business] just sucks. I guess that goes with all the benefits and great things social media can empower, but it doesn’t make for a very nice environment for anyone.
“The whole point of social media for brands, as well as for people, is to be able to better express who you are, what you care about and what you believe in.”
eMarketer: Do you think brand marketers are closely watching how the campaigns are pushing their messages on social networks? And if so, what lessons are there for them?
Martin: Yes, brands are watching, although I worry that they’re going to take away the wrong message and be [less expressive]. The whole point of social media for brands, as well as for people, is to be able to better express who you are, what you care about and what you believe in. If that’s politics, fine. If that’s your local sports team, great. Whatever the case may be, we should encourage people to do that. Not everyone wants to live in a world where they know who their local pizza parlor owner cares about, but they still can respect him as a person and a pizza maker.
I worry that people will take these extreme, horrible examples and recommend that the brand or business owner not talk about the things that interest them. That’s not the right lesson. If you’re the type of person who’s running a company or you’re the type of brand where it doesn’t make sense to talk about politics in general, OK, but your boss should not be afraid because of a couple of bad examples. I understand that politics is not for everyone, but people should be involved in things they care about.
eMarketer: Since the onset of social media, marketers have felt uncomfortable about putting ads near user-generated content. With the election, obviously there are more eyeballs looking [at everything online]. Do you think marketers will be more willing to take the risk?
Martin: Smart ones will. In the AMA, there were about 24,000 comments on the thread, including many that were probably offensive or not brand safe. Obama did it anyway because the benefits far, far outweigh the risks. To brands that get a little uncomfortable and think, “Oh, we don’t know exactly what’s going to be next to our ads on YouTube or other sites,” I say, “It’s 2012. Get over it.”
A longer version of this interview is available to eMarketer Total Access clients only. If you’d like to learn more about becoming a Total Access client, click here.
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