Engaging Anonymous and Privacy-Conscious Audiences: the Case of reddit Advertising

Branding is pretty much an exercise in relationship building. We have brands and we have audiences. How do they relate? How do they engage? What keeps them together or pulls them apart?
In this article, I’ll outline what we have seen in terms of trends for privacy-conscious audiences online and how they prefer to interact with brands.

BRANDS: DEFINE YOUR AUDIENCE – how much is too much?

Traditionally, marketing and branding strategists are told that defining a target audience is the key to successfully executing a branding strategy. This led to a trend of audience targeting being one of the hottest must-haves in branding campaigns: technology companies rushed to build platforms and tools to facilitate audience segmentation while media owners rejoiced over the promise of a better monetization of their properties.

However, premium, customizable audiences soon proved that they really weren’t an advertiser’s Holy Grail. It may seem perfectly logical that the more you know about someone, the easier it would be to make that someone engage with your brand and ultimately become a customer. But recent reports indicate this might not be the case and that “onion audiences” – that is to say audiences made up of layer after layer of carefully identified, selected and tracked attributes do not necessarily make consumers more likely to convert or take action based on marketing messages.


We’ve seen numerous major publishers who began gathering large amounts of user data, segmenting and selling their audience to the highest bidder in very competitive marketplaces. While this approach to monetization appears to work well for some, not all agree that the downsides(1) are truly compensated by the extra eCPMs yielded.

Then here comes reddit, with a huge audience(2) that is fiercely protective of its privacy and ever so cautious about being subjected to online advertising. How can brands work efficiently with this seemingly amorphous mass of users? What I’ve learned from reddit is that privacy-conscious, anonymous audiences can make great partners in building brand relationships as long as there is a tailored approach to engaging them. Let’s see how.

1. Understand your audience’s traits and quirks

The first rule about engaging anonymous audiences is that, well, they like to remain anonymous. This is particularly true on reddit, where users are very privacy-savvy, demand that their privacy is protected, and have a declared aversion for the aggressive targeting practices that they are subjected to elsewhere online.

On reddit, you can target audiences by interest, expressed through membership of one or more of the 7000+ active interest-based communities, or by general location(3) at the country or metropolitan area level.

However, before attempting to engage an audience like this, allow yourself to spend some time in the midst of it and try to understand its culture and values – it will pay off!

Tip: Start by identifying the communities that might be a good interest-driven match for your campaign and investigate what else they show an interested in. Use the reddit search tool to identify these communities, as well as existing conversations that you’d like to listen in. Check out the subreddit targeting manual for more ideas and recommendations on how to do so.

2. Check out other advertisers’ campaigns

A little bit of recon is good practice, especially if you’re a first-time advertiser and don’t quite know what to expect.

On reddit, you can do so by investigating what users say about other advertising campaigns running in the communities (aka subreddits) that you consider targeting.

Say you’re a book publisher or an author promoting his latest book. You’ve already assembled a list of the subreddits that might be relevant for you (such as /r/books, /r/suggestmeabook, /r/bookclub); then, check out the ads that are currently running in these interest-based communities. To find what ads are running in a subreddit, click the “promoted” tab in the subreddit(s) of interest or simply add /ads/ to the URL of any given subreddit (like /r/funny/ads/, /r/askreddit/ads/, /r/news/ads/).

Take some time to go through these ads and the user comments attached to them. Study the ad copies and what reactions they generated. Ask yourself what you can learn, not only from those that command high engagement rates, but also from those without much user feedback.

Tip: Take some time to go through these ads and user comments attached to them. Study the ad copies and what reactions they generated. Ask yourself what you can learn, not only from those that command high engagement rates, but also from those without a lot of user feedback.

3. Fine-tune your copy

Writing a compelling, engaging ad copy when you don’t know much about your audience is a daunting task – or so it appears.

With reddit, you do actually know the number one most important thing about the users you’re about to target: that they have chosen to be part of a specific community. Be it /r/technology, /r/animals or /r/leagueoflegends, any of the subreddits you can advertise to has a persona of its own. Learn its likes and dislikes, its ups and downs, its triggers, by going through at least a day’s worth of user generated content. You’ll soon find that the rules of engagement are much clearer.

Tip: Look for stickied threads (on top), announcement, rules, or guidelines to posting in specific subreddits (right-hand sidebar). These are published and enforced by the community itself and should be your first step towards understanding that collective persona.

4. Be open and honest

Consumer feedback in spaces where at least the brands (if not the public at large) know who generated that feedback is often a little disingenuous. People, like brands, tend to have a different voice and carry themselves differently when they know they’re not anonymous.

Venues where brands can engage with consumers in a truly open way are somewhat of a rarity. reddit is one such venue, giving both advertisers and consumers a medium to interact with each other through candid and (sometimes abruptly) honest conversations.

While reddit does give you the option to disable comments in your ad campaigns, practice tells us that this is rarely a good idea. Keeping the comments active means opening a two-way communication line between you and your intended audience. The more effort you put into answering questions and making your replies informative, the more opportunities you give your brand to stand out from the competition and express its purpose, mission, and characteristics.

Tip: Don’t be afraid of the possible negativity that sometimes comes with anonymity. Instead, take the opportunity to show how you behave in a challenging circumstance: keep your answers polite and don’t engage with obvious trolls. On reddit, users will collectively upvote interesting, useful comments and downvote unmerited ones. This applies to ads too. If you receive a completely unmerited comment in your ad, reddit users will downvote that comment. On the other hand, a complaint from a legitimate customer is your opportunity to demonstrate how great your customer service is.

5. Do not make assumptions

Time and again, we’ve witnessed ad campaigns that made one too many assumptions about the audience they targeted, usually based on forced correlations between known socio-demographic characteristics of that audience (such as age, gender, marital status, income level, education, ethnicity, location etc.) and their projected likes / wants / needs.

Don’t fall into the trap of assuming that you know or understand your audience based on such little information. Especially when it comes to audiences that value their privacy, trying to extrapolate their characteristics may put them on a defensive position that’s never conducive to communication.

Tip: Instead of assuming, ask! reddit gives ample space to hold Q&As with your audience, right within your campaign’s comments area. The reddit community is known to be inquisitive and opinionated, and it’s ok if you too are curious and ask for more information.


Should brands and publishers start to reconsider their stance on the need for data-rich audience segments? While there’s definitely value in information-dense targeting, anonymous or pseudonymous communities like reddit also offer tremendous value for brands that embrace the challenge of engaging.

(1) Downsides include additional costs (infrastructure, work hours) as well as the risk of alienating some of the audience.

(2) reddit’s monthly audience exceeds 114 million unique visitors from over 190 countries, viewing more than 5 billion pages. More stats: //www.reddit.com/about/.

(3) reddit’s location targeting is IP based. More about reddit advertising: //www.reddit.com/advertising/.

first published on LinkedIn Pulse