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A seasoned marketer with more than 20 years of experience, Roxy Young has perfected the art of using the power of brand to inspire connection. Now, as Reddit's chief marketing officer, she has the unique role of doing just that for more than 100,000 communities across the platform. In this episode, Roxy shares how Reddit's brand attributes come to life in the experience, the strategy behind going all-in on a winning Super Bowl ad and how brands can benefit by authentically engaging with Reddit users.
Heather: At a time when people are yearning for real connection, the power of online community has never been more important. Just ask the 50 million loyalists who engage on the online network Reddit every single day. With over 100,000 thriving online communities and an impending IPO, it’s no surprise that brands are taking interest in the platform.
In fact, Reddit is on track to hit $1 billion in revenue by next year. To help us understand the power of the Reddit platform and what it reveals about where people turn for the source of truth is Roxy Young, Reddit’s CMO. A trailblazer throughout her career, Roxy has perfected the art of using the power of brand to connect people in retail, entertainment, and now tech.
And there’s lots that we want to cover today. So, with that, I will just welcome you. Hi Roxy.
Roxy: Hello. How are you today?
Heather: I am good and am really excited, because I feel like since I knew this was coming up. Reddit is now, like, everywhere that I look. And, in fact, I was going to a concert and the only place where I could actually understand who was going to go on and when was Reddit. There’s just this thriving sense of people in the know. What’s really interesting about Reddit is that it’s a brand, but it’s also a community of communities. So, I just would love to start with: What do people love about the Reddit experience?
Roxy: For those people who maybe aren’t as familiar with Reddit, I’d love to share a little bit more about who we are. As you mentioned, we are a community of communities, where people can dive into anything that they’re interested in—whether it be plants or parenting or fitness or football. There is a community for everyone on Reddit. And that is our mission: to bring community belonging and empowerment to everyone in the world.
And what I love most about it—and what I think is so appealing at its core—is that we’re fulfilling this human need that everybody has. Everyone needs to feel like they belong somewhere. And sometimes you just don’t have access to that in your close physical proximity. Especially over the last few years, as we’ve all been sheltering in place and trying to stay safe in the midst of a global pandemic, you can find that connection and that community on Reddit. You can find your people, as we have just shared in our most recent campaign, that are interested in the same things you are. And I think that’s what makes it really special.
Heather: It does feel that, in a way, it’s not a social-media platform. It’s not just a source of static information. What is it that really makes [Reddit] just the place that people turn to?
Roxy: One of the things that I observed when I first got to Reddit—this was back in 2017, when I was developing my thoughts and opinions on the role of marketing at a community-centric, user-generated community-of-communities platform—one of the things that I wrote down, and I look at this every day, is: Reddit is not ours; it’s theirs. Reddit belongs to the community. And so, while I know we oftentimes get categorized as social media—because, broadly, social media is equated to any place where users are generating their content—that becomes the way in which people engage.
What’s unique about Reddit is that it belongs to the community. People start and create communities, because they’re passionate about something and they want to share that with other people. So, we aren’t dictating what comes onto Reddit. People are creating communities, people are contributing in communities, and people are voting on content that is contributed in communities. It’s a very people-powered place that truly belongs to the community.
Heather: Any interesting tidbits or trends that you’re seeing? I know it changes every day, but what’s been particularly hot?
Roxy: There have been a lot of things that we’ve seen over the last few years, and we take a look at this every day. We’re constantly analyzing and evaluating what people are talking about on our platform. One of the interesting things that I’ve been observing is just how a sport like Formula One has been emerging and growing and becoming one of the most popular sport-related topics on Reddit. It could potentially be fueled by the Netflix show and maybe more global interest. And it could also be that, you know, maybe it was one of the sports that was actually taking place during the pandemic. We also saw during the pandemic people coming to our community around unemployment and trying to piece together all of the information that they needed to make sure that they were able to get by at a time when it was just incredibly confusing. In any given week, there are all kinds of things that are emerging on Reddit—and it’s really fun to analyze and evaluate and see what people are talking.
Heather: One of the things about being at the helm of a brand like this is, as you said, it’s very interesting. It doesn’t, in a way, belong to you, right? That was one of your first insights. So, let’s go back. I really was fascinated by this. So, in February 2021, hot off a stock-market frenzy spurred by a Reddit group, you decided to seize the moment and debut a five-second ad at the Super Bowl in under one week. Part of the ad stated. ‘Big spots are expensive, so we couldn’t buy a full one; but we were inspired and decided to spend our entire marketing budget on five seconds of air time.’ That is bold. That is pretty amazing. Tell me about what that time was like, what the reaction was like, and the impact that you think that that move had.
Roxy: It was, you know, probably one of the most fun and exhilarating times in my entire career. And now that I have had the benefit of hindsight, I can break this moment down into three components. And those three components are passion, purpose, and empower.
And on the point around passion, Reddit is filled with passionate communities. In early 2021, we were seeing the power of these Reddit communities having real-world impact—and there was a community called r/WallStreetBets. They get together and, much like an investment group that you are a part of, people are on Reddit and are making high-stakes stock trades. They were coming together, and they were taking action. They were buying certain stocks and, as a result, the price of certain stocks was going up. And everyone was talking about the impact that this Reddit community was having on the stock market. I knew that it was something significant when my 76-year-old mother texted me and said, ‘What is happening?’ So, at the root was there were passionate people coming together on Reddit around something that they were interested in.
And as it relates to purpose in that moment, as the chief storyteller for Reddit, I reflected and knew that we had to use that moment as a springboard to share more about who we are and the value that we provide. So, on Friday, January 28th, we reached out to our fantastic agency partners, R/GA, and said, ‘Let’s regroup on Monday.’ And Monday was February, the first. ‘Let’s try to unpack what’s happening, and let’s think about the best response for us as a brand.’ And, and in that meeting on Monday morning, we talked about a lot of different ideas—ways in which we could show up and reinforce how people were coming together and the power of communities on Reddit. We talked about a few different things. Should we take out a full-page ad in the New York Times or Washington Post and share a little bit more? But the idea that we all really loved was this idea of a five-second Super Bowl ad, where we had a very purposeful message. It was this 10-sentence manifesto about the power of the collective and the power of the community coming together. And speaking of power…in just three business days, we wrote the copy, we developed the creative, we bought the media, we turned the ad into the network on Thursday, and then the ad ran on Super Bowl Sunday.
In that moment, we knew that it was a really powerful message and that it was resonating. You highlighted a couple sentences; but, in total, the ad was 10 sentences. It was a static image. We knew that, during Covid, people were sitting around in their homes and not out at bars—and that people use DVRs, and they pause, and they replay. So, I think we just had a really interesting set of circumstances and were able to come together and bring the story around passionate communities with a very purposeful message that had a significant impact.
And in terms of the impact that it had that night, it was the second-most searched ad on Google. I think people were trying to figure out what was this ad all about? It flashed on my screen for five seconds, but 64% of the people who became aware of Reddit were because of that ad. After the ad ran, we executed a brand tracker and said, ‘Hey, do you know about Reddit?’ And 64% of people said, ‘I do now because of the ad that you ran.’ Our brand perception increased by 20%, and our advertiser registration—people coming to try and reach and connect with our passionate communities—went up significantly by about 70%. So, it was a great moment where we were able to tell the story of our passionate communities.
Heather: Oh my gosh. It was a bold and brave move and one that clearly paid off. I love hearing those stories. Just for a moment, were you at home just watching and waiting for it to come on? Give me a little bit more, because it’s so exhilarating.
Roxy: Yes. We all came together—Reddit’s internal team and R/GA’s team that worked on the campaign. On Super Bowl Sunday, we were all in a Slack room or in a Zoom room. And the way that we bought the ad was actually really interesting. It was too late for a national buy, and we couldn’t afford a national buy, so we bought regionally. And because we bought the ad regionally, it didn’t run all at the same time. It ran in different markets at different times, and that was a fantastic byproduct of the way in which we executed this. We termed it The Popcorn Effect. It first went out in Philadelphia right after the Star Spangled Banner, and as soon as we saw a tweet that said, ‘Oh my God, I think Reddit just hacked the Super Bowl,’ we knew that we were in for a really fun evening. It was probably one of the most fun two hours of my career.
Heather: Well, yeah. I was going to say that exact thing. I think people will often say, ‘It’s not brain surgery. We’re not curing cancer.’ But I will say—in the midst of just trying to grapple with so much change and what is going on in the world and the economy and the industry and what consumers want—sometimes we forget about the fun and almost irreverent moments that can be created. And son again, ‘Bravo’ to you and the team. Speaking of fun, you’ve described Reddit’s brand character as candid, eclectic, self-aware, and brilliantly absurd. How does that get woven into how your brand shows up in the world, and how does that impact the kinds of advertisers that you work with?
Roxy: I’ve been very lucky to have worked on many iconic brands throughout my career; but, when I came to work at Reddit, one of the most fun things that we did was: We sat down as a team and developed the key elements of our brand book. That included our brand traits. And at that time, Reddit had a very early version of a brand book— but we really wanted to build it out. Who are we? What do we sound like when you see and engage with our brand? And so, through looking at a lot of historical work that Reddit had done and the things that were really resonating, we developed four branch traits. As you noted: We’re self-aware, we’re candid, we’re eclectic, and we’re brilliantly absurd.
And the way that this comes to life is: When we write a campaign brief, we are using these traits as a filter to guide how we are developing our creative. A few examples are: 2020 was a big election year for the United States, so we opted to run a campaign called ‘Up the Vote.’ People were voting, and they were up voting and down voting on Reddit. We were able to tie voting on Reddit to voting in the real world. And we found the most brilliantly absurd posts on Reddit and brought them to life in our campaign creative. We basically said, ‘If you can vote on Reddit, you can vote in the real world.’
Some examples of what that looked like: There was a steak, and it was kind of shaped like the outline of the continental United States. Someone had posted it on Reddit and had garnered all of these votes. So, we put that out in our creative and said, ‘If you can vote for the United Steak of America on Reddit, you can vote in the real world. Up the vote. That’s just an example of how we’re bringing that brilliantly absurd brand trait to life.
One additional example that was very fun is, last year we ran a program called Reddit Recap in partnership with our product team. We gave people a personalized recap of their year on Reddit—people get these from time to time on Spotify and other places—so we were trying to identify how can we make this uniquely Reddit. One of the things that we did was tell people how many banana lengths they scrolled on Reddit throughout the year. A common meme on Reddit is banana for scale. People will say, here’s this whatever it might be—maybe it’s an insect or something that they found in their house—and then they’ll say banana for scale. They’ll put a banana acting like the ruler. So, when we rolled out the Reddit recap, we told people, ‘Here’s how many banana links that you scrolled Reddit last year.’ And it went viral. Everyone was posting and comparing how many banana lengths they scrolled on Reddit. And, lastly, the Super Bowl ad was an example of us being very, very candid and self-aware. We created this manifesto, highlighting the power of our community. So, those are just a few of the ways in which we are trying to use those brand traits to guide our creative and how we look and how we sound when we come to life as a brand.
You mentioned, how does this impact advertisers? While these are our brand traits and the things that are unique to Reddit, there is a home for every brand or advertiser on Reddit. We work with large and small advertisers around the world. And just because they are Reddit’s brand traits doesn’t mean that they have to be the traits of people who want to engage with our communities on Reddit. We help them [advertisers] make sure that they’re bringing their brand to life in the right way. We tend to focus on the four Cs—contributing in an authentic way, really thinking about the creative, and how it is appropriate for Reddit’s community environment—and not being afraid to co-create with the community and, also, just helping them conform to some of the norms—the language and the vernacular—that they see on Reddit.
Heather: I love that. And just thinking through that set of attributes, that voice, that character, and how it is carried through, I’m curious. Just as a follow up, the experience—the actual experience on the site—is very distinct. There’s almost a simplicity about it and interactions that only you are known for. How do you think about the work that you’re doing influencing the evolution of the experience? Are you partnering with the product team? What does that look like?
Roxy: One of the things that the marketing team can do is to bring the customer to life. And when we bring the customer to life and when we share insights about the role that Reddit is playing, it is helpful—because it will, basically, frame up for our product team what they need to think about in terms of creating new features and creating new experiences for our customers. Something that we did earlier this year was to segment some of our largest markets. We broke down the types of customers that we have the potential to go after, and it was very illuminating. We were able to create personas around these audiences. It was incredibly helpful. Our product team was able to say, ‘Wow! We’re meeting the needs of this customer, but there’s still more that we can do to satisfy that customer, and it’s a large opportunity.’ So, I think bringing the customer to life—and bringing them to life in a way that can help our teams that are developing products make better decisions—is how we’re going to continue to make Reddit a great destination for millions of people around the world.
Heather: That’s awesome. Going back to the idea that it’s such a unique brand, how do you determine the right balance between the kind of curated identity and experience and then co-creating that with your customers, with your users, with your communities? What does that look like, and how do you know when it goes too far?
Roxy: We want brands to be authentic when they come to Reddit. One of the things that we often say is, ‘Reddit is the most human place on the internet.’ And if you think about Reddit in that way—and if you are a brand and you want to connect with our passionate and amazing communities—you have to be mindful of the environment. And we want you to contribute and have honest conversations.
We’ve talked about the four Cs: contributing, thinking about your creative, co-creating and trying to conform to some of the norms. And one of the best examples—or one of my most favorite examples of a brand coming on to Reddit and really being themselves and co-creating—was a direct-to-consumer bidet company, called Tushy.
The brand recognized that, early on in the pandemic, one of the things that consumers were very concerned about was not being able to find toilet paper. There was a real concern. So [Tushy] said, ‘We would love to engage on Reddit. We’ve got a product that we think can meet people’s needs, especially in this moment.’ So, they reached out and said, ‘Hey, we would love for you—the community of Reddit—to help us name a new product that we are getting ready to launch.’
So, one of the things a brand can do on Reddit when they choose to engage with our communities is to invite them in, invite them into the conversation. This is what people love to do on Reddit. So, when the company did this, they got thousands of real and authentic comments in response to their request to help name the product. I think that the Reddit community proudly named the product Ass Blaster 9,000. I think that’s just a great example of a brand being very true to who they are by tapping into the Reddit community, using all of those best practices—contributing, co-creating, and really thinking about their creative.
Not every brand is going to be a bidet company that is willing to be very humorous. On the other end of the spectrum is a brand like Volvo—and safety is at the core of what they offer. They came to Reddit, they gathered stories from people on Reddit about car accidents and the role of safety features maybe saving people’s lives, and they shared something that they were doing to improve the safety of each of their cars. Volvo wanted our community to share their stories about the role and importance of safety features and saw thousands and thousands of stories of people sharing deeply personal stories as it relates to cars and safety—which is very aligned with their brand and how they want to resonate with consumers.
Heather: What’s amazing is that, in both of those examples—as opposite as they are—Reddit stayed true to itself and its community. And what came out at the other end was meaningful for both of those companies. You’ve clearly made quite an impact and just understanding that the brand has got so much momentum. What are your ambitions for the future of Reddit?
Roxy: I’ve had an amazing five years at Reddit and, as we’ve discussed, have done some of the most fun things that I’ve worked on in my career. As I think about the future for Reddit, a couple of things are top of mind for me. First and foremost, we need to help people understand the breadth of the communities on Reddit. Reddit has over a 100,000 communities. There is a home for everyone on Reddit, whether it’s pets, whether it’s parenting, whether it’s plants, whether it’s cars or cartoons. There is a community for you on Reddit, and you can find your people. And whenever we are developing a new program, we are thinking about how we can use this as an opportunity to showcase the breadth of communities on Reddit. One example: We recently sponsored Love Island, which is one of the most popular reality television shows in the UK—five million people are tuning in—and we said, ‘We want to work with you. We want to be your official fan community, where you can share all of the behind-the-scenes moments with the Reddit community. All of the after-show discussions and during-the-show discussions will be on Reddit..’ So, through this program, we were able to double the number of people who were participating in this community. Maybe people didn’t think about Reddit as a place, a home, for reality TV fandoms; but now they are. So, that’s definitely something that’s top of mind for us as we think about the future.
I think the second thing that I spend a lot of my time thinking about is extending our brand around the world, Reddit has been around for 17 years, and it belongs to the communities. People are setting up communities all over the world; but, as we start to market around the world, just figuring out how we develop our brand and make sure that it’s resonating in new markets is something that we’re spending a lot of time thinking about and making sure that we’re relevant as we continue to grow and expand globally and are bringing our brand to life in a way in which, you know, it’s meaningful.
Heather: Over your career, you’ve worked with some amazing brands—Sephora, Gap, Netflix. Are there lessons that you’ve taken from those experiences that you carry forward in what you’re doing today?
Roxy: As I look back, what I can say that I’ve observed throughout the years is that, no matter what industry you’re in or what the product, the fundamentals of marketing are still the same. You need to understand who your target customer is. You need to know how you are solving their problems and delivering value back to them. You need to be cognizant of how you want your brand to be viewed and the characteristics that you want people to associate with it.
We’ve talked a lot about Reddit having this very distinct set of traits—and, if a brand were a person, Reddit is this brilliantly absurd, candid, eclectic person. And that’s not appropriate for every brand. So, you need to think about the characteristics that you want people to associate with your brand and then how to bring that to life visually.
I’ve been in the industry for over 20 years, and I do think that there was a period of time where the term ‘growth hacker’ emerged and when the internet was new and nascent and this uncharted territory that had all of this opportunity. For a little while, I think some people—myself included—maybe lost sight of some of those fundamentals. So, a key lesson that I’ve learned is that, even if you can short-hack for short-term gains, it’s not a replacement for a really strong foundation that’s rooted in some of the things that I just mentioned: really having a clear sense of who your customer is, how you’re solving their problems and meeting their needs, and then how you want your brand to show up in the world.
Heather: Building on what you just said with regard to the fundamentals, what do you think—for today’s modern marketer—are the attributes that embody him or her? What’s most important now?
Roxy: It’s a great question, and I think about this question every day. I’m constantly reflecting on my own skillset and how it has had to evolve and how the profile of people whom, I’m hiring now versus 10 or 15 years ago has evolved. I truly believe that marketing is one of the most dynamic functions in business, because it’s moving at the speed of consumers and cultural change—and new things are emerging all of the time. Some of the attributes that I think are essential for today’s modern marketer are, first, curiosity—being deeply curious about people and their habits and their behaviors and how they’re evolving. This function is changing so rapidly—channels that I use now didn’t even exist 20 years ago—so being on the forefront and being intellectually curious about people is at the top of the list.
The second thing is communication. Marketers are in the business of persuading, and we need to be effective to do that. We need to be effective communicators both internally and externally; this is a critical skill for the modern marketer.
The third thing is that marketers are connectors. We are bringing the customer to life. I shared a couple examples of how we’ve been doing that at Reddit; but, as we bring customers to life, we need to extend those connections into other parts of the business so that everybody has the customer front and center in their roles, whether it’s a product role or a design role or a business-development role. Being that connector and bringing that customer to life will have a huge impact on everybody being able to move in the same direction.
Then, the last characteristic is being calculated. We have more access to data than we’ve ever had before, and we can be very calculated about the programs that we want to put in place and what the expected impact will be. I think that has become an expectation.
As I think about the modern marketer, curiosity, communication, being a connector, and using data and information to make calculated business decisions are a few of the key characteristics that I think about.
Heather: What I love is that you didn’t say digital or transformation or things that I think, obviously, are critically important as channels and as being adaptable and evolving but, rather, things that fundamental—which is a lot of what you’ve been talking about. I’m very excited to see what you do next and what happens over the next few years with this incredible community, but I do want to end the conversation with the question that I ask everyone who comes on the show. Who is your icon?
Roxy: Oh, my goodness. There are so many people that I admire. You know, when I think about being a marketer, as someone who’s been doing this for a really long time, I do keep examples of great marketing and have definitely found a pattern. One of the patterns is that the person who was at the helm of, formerly, Burger King and, currently, on Activision Blizzard—the CMO there—is Fernando Machado. Maybe he’s listening. I have had the pleasure of meeting him, but he’s definitely been a marketing icon in terms of some of the really groundbreaking things that he’s brought to life as a marketer—very bold and innovative. Then, secondly and on a personal level, I think some of my icons are women who have helped pave the way and succeeded against the odds. In that list, you can include people like Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Hillary Clinton, Madeleine Albright…those are a few of the icons that are on my list.
Heather: Well, I love looking at that from both perspectives—and I will say that you’re absolutely right up there with the other icons. Thank you so much, Roxy, for your time and your insights and the stories. This is a business where we’ve got to be able to tell stories that connect with people, and you’ve shared so many great insights today. I really appreciate it and can’t wait to connect again.
Roxy: Thank you so much, Heather. I really appreciate your having me on the show.
Reddit is not ours; it's theirs. Reddit belongs to the community.