The ‘anti-influencer influencer’: Why more advertisers are signing up to Reddit


Alex Underwood, Reddit’s global head of agency development, discusses the unique perks of Reddit culture, the future of its agency partnerships and his quest to deepen advertisers’ understanding of the platform.

Those reared in the internet’s days of olde, now referred to as Web1, cherished forum culture. It was where you found purchase in online communities that discussed PS2 games, popular literature and penning awful fan fiction, all under the veil of totally anonymous -- and also now embarrassing -- handles.

Reddit, which launched in 2005 and attracts an average of 55 million daily active users, has kept the art of the online discussion directory alive.

In times of existential doubt, users have found true, unabashedly honest advice and community support on "subreddits," the term used for user-created boards organised by topic, such as r/personalfinance and r/TIFU.

With all that being said, could this make Reddit a place where brands can target niche audiences who are engaged with specific interests or passions, or even circumstances?

Speaking from New York City, where his role is based, Alex Underwood, global head of agency development at Reddit, discusses the future of the platform's advertising landscape.

Reframing agencies’ perspective

Having joined Reddit in August 2022, Underwood starts by emphasising one of his key focuses over the past eight months, educating more advertisers about the platform and its mechanics, while doing so in a fashion that aptly emulates its unique culture.

“It’s about reframing real people, real moments and real conversation to contextual relevance – that value proposition and understanding. But the way we’re trying to do it is in a unique ‘Reddit-y’ way,” he says.

Reddit has both changed its interface over the years and expanded its breadth of communities and subcultures over time. It claims to now have more than 100,000 on the platform.

In its earlier days, Reddit was culturally understood to be more technology focused, whereas now more of its communities also revolve around popular culture.

The website also notably underwent a major redesign in 2018 after Steve Huffman, chief executive of Reddit, announced a need to refresh and “tidy” its look.

“An observation I’ve had is that there’s a real need to reframe Reddit to agencies, because there’s almost an understanding of perception within agencies of what Reddit was and not what it is now,” Underwood says.

“We’ve created a workshop to solve that problem and help agencies navigate from a consumer experience standpoint.”

Underwood details how his team has "studied the Reddit user experience", while also offering each participating agency a survey to share its passions and interests, “because fundamentally, that’s what Reddit is."

He goes on to explain how his team hopes to educate agencies through the lens of a Redditor, the term used to describe the site’s users, aiming to help them achieve a deeper understanding of the platform and its many passionate communities.

“We've pulled their passions and interests together and also identified common attributes across them. It enables them to get into the communities and gain insights for planning – the teams have to use Reddit to really test out the search and discovery functionality,” Underwood says.

Those who have spent time on Reddit, he insists, will also understand that certain communities have created their own acronyms or language, a feature that Underwood has proudly modelled his program around to ensure that clients have the opportunity to participate.

This includes “TIL," short for “today I learned," and “ELIN," “Explain like I’m new," workshops for agency executives, both fashioned after popular subreddits of the same name.

Underwood also points out the way the workshop has been developed around feedback he received from his “colleague and friend” Steve Williams, global president of integration at Mindshare, who stresses that understanding user behavior is integral to building a brand's user journey.

“Publishers and platforms are trying to sell their audience, their ideas and their platforms but often, we don’t always use those platforms,” he says. “So if we don’t understand the consumer experience, it’s hard to make that leap into how it fits into their media strategy.”

The pros and cons of Reddit’s culture

From an advertising perspective, which attributes of Reddit’s culture stand out to industry figures? 

Tiffany Rolfe, global chief creative officer and chair at R/GA, weighs in on the platform’s unique mechanics and how they were capitalized on by the agency during the production of its "Superb owl" campaign in 2021.

The spot, which aired across US programming during the 2021 Super Bowl, launched after the notorious short squeeze on GameStop shares, primarily triggered by users of the r/WallStreetBets subreddit.

Creating the illusion that the Super Bowl was being “hacked” by Reddit in the same way that its users had disrupted the stock market, the creative showed the platform’s distinct “alien head” logo placed behind a “screen glitch” overlay.

After garnering 6 billion impressions, Superb Owl went on to win the 2021 Social & Influencer Lions Grand Prix.

“Reddit became part of a huge story after r/WallStreetBets disrupted the financial world. Suddenly it felt like all eyes were on Reddit, everyone from financial people, to everyday people and even famous people,” Rolfe says.

“We knew we had to use this opportunity to amplify what Reddit stood for and to ensure it was the right story being told. We felt compelled to capitalise on this once in a lifetime moment by showing support to the platform’s communities in the form of its own playful disruption," she says.

Rolfe also emphasises the power she believes lies behind the communal and micro-democratic mechanics of the platform. “With the breadth and depth of community interests on Reddit, all brands can find their audience where they are actively engaged," she says.

“Their activity sustains the platform – instead of algorithms, it’s users voting all posts up or down – that determines what rises to the top of the page. Because of this deep engagement, we consistently see [users] claiming to pay more attention to content on Reddit than on other places online.”

Rolfe says that Reddit users are known for their deep passion and engagement with the topics they love. “They value authenticity and transparency and are known for their honesty and willingness to speak their minds, which is incredibly valuable for both consumers and brands,” she adds.

Another of the most distinguishing features of Reddit’s culture is the user’s ability to remain effectively anonymous on the platform, should they choose to. Like the message boards of the early web, those who register on Reddit only need to sign up with a chosen username. There are no requirements for people to disclose their full name, location or personal photo.

"The anonymity is a big equalizer for Reddit,” Underwood says. “Because of this, you can get genuine answers in conversation and you get the trust and authenticity, which is more than ever now.”

It's a view echoed by Mira Kopolovic, director of cultural insights at We Are Social. 

“Reddit is the home of the niche, the anonymous and the genuine,” she says. “It’s a space where you can find audiences that are very centred around communal or subcultural identities or interests, whether that’s the localism of r/LondonCycling, the nicheness of r/ABoringDystopia, or the identity focus of r/LesbianGamers.”

But is the website’s liberal framework a potential pitfall for users? Kopolovic also points out the potential dangers of Reddit’s open-ended approach. “It’s not all rosy – the same anonymity and collectivism that gives it its charm comes with its own burdens, like trolling and toxicity,” she says.

This dynamic can potentially obscure brands’ ability to target audiences on the platform, she points out. “Reddit is an intimate space, and this intimacy is a double-edged sword for brands. If you think about the nature of the platform – largely anonymous, centred around communal discussion rather than individual profiles or landing pages – it doesn’t demand much personal branding on the part of the user.”

Kopolovic adds that there is always the danger that users may troll the ads or, conversely, that brands may not want to find themselves associated with toxic topic discussions.

“For brands, it can be read as high risk, high reward,” she points out. “Resonating on Reddit means communicating a message in a space where people feel they’re being spoken to, not advertised to. Bombing on Reddit means being subject to all of the standard critique, but with no accountability for how that critique is delivered. Imagine the Kendall Jenner Pepsi ad, launched on Reddit. What does a venomous response look like when everyone is speaking anonymously?"

To Underwood, Reddit is the "anti-influencer influencer, because influencer marketing is kind of based on a person selling a product."

“That’s completely the opposite of Reddit," he continues, "because we’re not a follower-driven platform. With Reddit, you post into a community and people vote your comment up and down based on what you have to say. It’s not about who you are – it’s about your contribution.”

In terms of reaching audiences in a social media climate fixated on authenticity and realness, Kopolovic also points out that Reddit has the notable selling point of separating communication from performance.

“Compared to Instagram of course, but even versus TikTok or Twitter, this atmosphere makes any aura of corporate branding much more conspicuous. That doesn’t mean it can’t be done – it just means it requires more nuance.”

Thanks to its community-oriented set-up, Rolfe also wants brands and agencies to believe her claim: “Reddit users find the community to be a respectful, knowledgeable group.

“Reddit presents advertisers with an opportunity to reach audiences in a more brand safe environment,” she says. “When you understand the uniqueness of the Reddit community and its behaviours, there are countless opportunities for meaningful advertising.”

The power of intentionality

Underwood insists that there is great benefit in the long-form conversational data that Reddit’s communities are able to generate, as well as in the democratic underpinnings of the platform.

This, he says, offers brands the opportunity to use signals, rather than algorithms, to deliver contextually relevant ads within the platform.

“It’s a place where opinions are being formed and it's also a place where people are also talking about brands, products and services where they can then make or talk about driving purchase decisions to scale,” he adds.

“All these communities are really characterised by their interests and passion points – and you can target those or engage those audiences through their passions.”

Also highlighting the way users often “call out brands” if misinformation is spotted on the platform, he says his team is trying to figure out how brands can exist and participate in those communities and find the right advocates to reference. 

“While those opinions are being formed in those communities, there’s no reason that you can’t use that to inform your product strategy or to inform your communication or your media strategy.”

Underwood underscores the power of “intentionality” that pulls users towards the platform, touching on the popular habit of adding the word “Reddit” to the end of a Google search query to generate authentic results.

“Intentionality helps us understand what people really think,” he says. “People are searching with purposeful intent, because they’re looking for real answers from real people, subject matter experts, peers and even brands as well.” 

“The intentionality, which is connected by passion and interests, will enable brands and agencies to find opportunities for unique content and context.”

Furthering Reddit’s agency partnerships

As increased potential for brand outreach has been further realised by Underwood and his cohorts, he details Reddit’s roadmap to grow its Independent Agency Program, launched in early 2022 when signing its first agency partner, performance marketing firm Tinuiti.

Through this partnership, Tinuiti was given early access to Reddit’s global ads tools and resources, allowing it to further develop its capabilities across client campaigns.

In April, Reddit announced the expansion of its programme with three new strategic partnerships: Horizon Media, PMG and Wpromote. Tinuiti also renewed its partnership with Reddit for another year – a move that, according to Underwood, is a “success indicator."

The continued diversification of Reddit’s advertising business has accelerated within the past year, as the platform now houses more than 100,000 communities.

“Only 80% of that team has been built out over the last 12 months,” Underwood says. “The focus with agencies really heightened within the last year and since I’ve come on, really accelerating the presence and visibility of agencies is key.”

"One of our priorities as a business is that we want to serve a wide range of partners, whether that’s from small businesses to enterprise brands – and obviously independent agencies sit squarely in the middle."

“But because we’re particularly looking to scale our businesses – particularly the mid-market and small business segments, independent agency partnerships, development and growth – it’s important to that ambition as well.”

Strategic areas for this year

In terms of community-based engagement and insight, Underwood circles back to what he calls his main "value basis": helping agencies and their clients “actually find real people and real insights in real moments or conversations of contextual relevance."

He insists that he is using this value basis to do two things: as a strategic anchor for global and local strategic partnership for holding companies; and to create unique reality education programmes and workshops his team can take into the marketplace. 

“I think it’s fundamentally education at scale and really getting out and reframing that value proposition,” he says. 

“We’re also focused on a diverse set of customers as well – SMB customers, mid-market, as well as enterprise. It’s ensuring that we’re reframing and landing that value proposition with each of those segments – and all of those are important to the future growth of our business."

This story first appeared on 

Photos: Getty Images

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