Viral marketing went horribly wrong for gaming company N-Control recently, when a marketing consultant started talking trash to a customer inquiring about a late order.
The angry, semi-coherent rants got picked up and quoted widely on the Internet. (Sample: “We do value our customers but sometimes we get children like you we just have to put you in the corner with your im stupid hat on.”) Gaming media played up the story for several days.
The ruckus began on the popular gaming site, Penny Arcade, but Reddit greatly enhanced, magnified, and exacerbated the bad publicity for N-Control. Reddit threads related to the fiasco attracted “easily millions of pageviews” over a 48-hour-period at the height of the firestorm, Reddit general manager Erik Martin tells me.
Reddit is a user-driven content-sharing site similar to Digg during its heyday, but now far larger. It currently has nearly 35 million monthly unique users, according to a recent blog post by Martin.
When PR specialist Moisés Chiullan sought to take on N-Control as a client, he knew where he had to go to start damage control.
“I did some research,” Chiullan tells me, “and thought, ‘These guys are getting destroyed on Reddit, and a lot of these people don't appear to know who actually owns the company.’ ” So when he became the company’s PR rep, going to Reddit became “a top priority. It was the best way to interact with a large portion of the audience in a direct, transparent manner.”
This presented some special challenges. Unlike most social media platforms, most Reddit users go by pseudonyms, and the display of content (both submissions and comments) is determined by user votes and “karma” points (also awarded or withdrawn by user vote). Content hits the front page when users "upvote" it. This structure has some interesting implications for PR and marketing. By now, we’re all familiar with PR crises that are magnified by Twitter and other social media platforms. What makes Reddit different is that it’s a very large user community that’s more-or-less separate from the usual social media channels.
For most Redditors, says Martin, “Reddit is sort of their window to the Internet,” and social media traffic to the site is a “very small percentage of the total.” In fact, it’s often more likely that a viral social media message originated and went viral on Reddit first. Meaning, by the time a Reddit-fueled PR crisis is noticed on Twitter, it may already be too late.
So Chiullan launched an Ask Me Anything comment thread on Reddit. Ask Me Anything (or, in Reddit jargon, AMA) is an online Q&A forum; the originator of the thread invites Reddit community members to -- as the name suggests -- ask him anything. Anyone with a Reddit account can create such a thread, but the site has become so influential, many celebrities and companies now go directly to the company for help launching them. (“We’re starting to get more and more people coming to us, which is nice,” says Martin.)
As requested, Reddit users started asking Chiullan about N-Control, and what the company was doing to address its customer service issues. Hundreds of questions were asked and answered by Chiullan. Redditors also upvoted the thread in droves, putting it on the front page. Major tech sites cited it. Chiullan’s AMA thread has garnered hundreds of thousands of page views, says Martin. And while it’s too early to say how this has affected N-Control sales, it definitely created a upsurge of goodwill.
“There are still some lingering concerns,” Chiullan acknowledges, “but the big win overall is that we were able to re-take control of our messaging. In terms of overall perception, that goes a long way to personalizing our relationship with potential customers.” Redditors even compared Chiullan to “the Wolf,” Harvey Keitel’s tough problem-solving character in the movie, Pulp Fiction. For a gaming company, what better branding shift could there be? Now many Redditors are advocates for N-Control, begging the community to call off the dogs.
N-Control isn’t the only brand to suffer and then succeed on Reddit by openly engaging the community. By way of example, Martin mentions a Bed, Bath & Beyond ad placed on Reddit, which originally listed an incorrect (and extremely cheap) sales price on candles. Result: a storm of Redditors ordering candles. Rather than backtrack on the offer, the company posted a Reddit announcement, saying it would honor the original sale price in the ad. “That [announcement] got the number one spot on Reddit, seen by a million people,” says Martin, “and an outpouring of love of Bed, Bath & Beyond.”
His takeaway: “When there’s a PR crises... admit the mistake as early as possible, directly as possible, and try to make the situation right.”
Which isn’t to say the task is easy, especially given Reddit’s often volatile userbase. “When you’re dealing with online communities, the risk is much higher,” as Martin puts it, “but the reward is much higher... if I were a brand, I’d look at it as an opportunity first and foremost.” He recommends that marketing and PR execs search Reddit for mentions of their brand, “to really see what and where people are talking before they get involved”, and don’t jump in without the full context. “Reddit is not a channel for self-promotion in the way Twitter and Facebook can be... Reddit is a community.”
Chiullan’s advice to other PR/marketing reps engaging with Reddit, as someone who’s directly weathered the Reddit storm, and emerged victorious?
“Don't concern yourself with adhering to anything you learned in school,” he advises. “Focus on getting your client to let you tell the truth instead of spin.”
— Wagner James Au is the author of The Making of Second Life, covers online worlds and virtual goods on his blog, New World Notes, and is an analyst for Media Bistro’s Social Times Pro.
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