An Insider’s Guide to Building a Popular Reddit Community
Reddit is more than just a discussion forum, it’s a collection of online communities. But building your community on this platform comes with its own challenges. We talked to an expert who has served as moderator and community creator.
Hi, I’m Daniel David Allen from Chicago, and I created r/crappydesign, a subreddit dedicated to finding poorly executed design work in the world around us. I also served as a moderator on other subreddits like r/art, r/conspiracy, and more. Over four years, I built r/crappydesign to a community of over 200,000 subscribers and 2 million pageviews a month. Here’s how I did it.
How to Find the Right Subreddit For You
Every community is built upon some kernel of an idea. If you have your idea figured out — and you execute on it well — people who like that idea will come and share too. Good communities come from good ideas.
The motivation comes from wanting to make a positive impact on the world. Fostering online communities means enabling people to come together and have their voices heard. You definitely have to be motivated by something like that to continue to endure all the abuse that comes with moderation.
The Benefits of a Reddit Community
It’s future-proof: With subreddits, even if some parts of the site shut down or go inactive, users can migrate to newer more relevant portions. Even if everything else on the web changed, Reddit would still be able to stay relevant.
You will find like-minded souls: I was searching for a place on the Internet where designers would be held accountable for mistakes. I knew there were a lot of designers like me on Reddit, and I saw posts occasionally on /r/design that echoed my sentiments.
Your success is recognized outside Reddit: I worked on the Reddit enhancement suite, a useful browser extension for Reddit . This gave me a leg up in job interviews because I could talk about working on a tool that is used by millions of people. Similarly, r/crappydesign was a worthwhile investment from the standpoint of being able to be a thought leader in the design space.
Set the Tone Early and Be True to Yourself
The tone of a subreddit will determine the kind of people you draw and the direction the discussions take. Be vigilant and set the tone early.
On r/crappydesign, I tried to foster an environment where things never got malicious. I was always concerned that someone would come to the subreddit and see their own work and want to quit design altogether. So I always tried to get people to focus on the humor of the situation.
For others who want to build good communities on Reddit , my advice is to avoid ‘toxic’ behavior. I kept it light on r/crappydesign, and now that the momentum is going, I don’t think the community would stand for anything too mean-spirited.
After about a year, I also put a disclaimer in the sidebar really spelling things out: “This is an entertainment subreddit — don’t take it too seriously.” I would watch the subreddit every day to make sure the content and conversations weren’t heading into the black pit of Internet Hate.
How to Lead a Community on Reddit
I saw myself as less of a leader and more of a sheep-herder. Or cat-herder. My goal wasn’t to tell people what to submit but more to lead by example by submitting the kind of content I felt was worthwhile. Be a thought leader, don’t boss people around.
You’ll also need a few skills to successfully be the champion of a community:
- Share content regularly: Good content has to be a high priority. To get to that point, I had to be an active submitter. I was always on the lookout for crappy designs on Reddit and out on the web—and then bringing that content back to the subreddit.
- Learn to craft headlines: A good headline can make or break a submission. In the early days, I knew I was setting the tone for how the subreddit would operate when there were more users. Create thoughtful or humorous headlines. Being a good writer helps, so practice that if you can.
- Pay attention to the sidebar: The content in the sidebar is important in setting the mood and establishing what this community was all about. It had to be funny and snarky and a bit disgruntled — because that’s how a lot of designers feel after they’ve put in some years.
How to Moderate Your Community
It 100 per cent depends on the type of community you want to build. The ‘right’ role you should take as a moderator and leader depends on how you see yourself fitting into that community in the future.
For examples, communities like /r/askscience are draconian in their moderation style — and that works for them because of the seriousness of the subject matter. I don’t think their approach is one of censorship or lacking in freedom because that stance was decided by the community leaders. If people want to join that kind of community, they have opted into that sort of communication.
- Don’t be power-mad: I tried to moderate as passively as possible—only removing the most egregious offenses, and adding link flair to submissions that I felt didn’t belong. These actions ensured that the top 10 posts at any given point would be on topic and higher quality.
- Reward the best posts: I gave Reddit Gold to submitters who could break the top 10 of all time. I’m sure this encouraged users to try to find the absolute worst of the worst and craft a good headline.
- Trust in the community’s votes: I never killed posts based on the content itself — just on how well it reflected the goals of the subreddit. Then I let the voting determine what the best content was.
- Prepare for clickbait: Around the 50-100K subscriber count, the quality begins to drop substantially as ‘quick hit’ content becomes more popular — images, memes, short videos. I started to make subtle changes to the type of content allowed on the subreddit.
- Redirect when necessary: Know your Reddit communities well . It’s not a competition. For example, I would point people to /r/softwaregore for web and software bugs.
How to Get Into an Established Subreddit
An already established community has an idea of what they want already—so leading them isn’t exactly like going to them and saying, “Let’s all go this way” but more about asking, “Where do you want to go?”
Your role as a moderator is to find the heartbeat of the community and foster it so it can grow stronger. The stronger it grows, the more it will attract attention outside of the community.
If you’re becoming part of an already established community, then start listening. You can learn valuable lessons from Reddit this way. If the community wants different things, listen to that. I worked really hard for a few years to build /r/art from a 50,000 subscriber community to over three million, and that was due largely to communication with the community, asking them “What do you want?” It took about a year’s worth of work to come to a consensus, and for us mods to craft guidelines that fit the community. This is how you will help the community grow, while being a major part of it.
Can You Build a Business Through a Reddit Community?
Sincerity is key to building a community. Money really complicates things and hampers sincerity.
Take Coke, for example. It has 91 million Likes on Facebook, and those users might be ready to look at a Coke advertisement. Could you build a Reddit community around that? Well, the /r/coke subreddit has 81 subscribers.
Reddit communities reward sincerity, which is really hard to do when you’re pushing a product. You need to be really upfront about what you’re doing. If you are the Coca Cola company, and you build an /r/soda community but it’s secretly funded by money from Coca Cola, that’s deceptive.
My best advice: When there is money involved, be transparent. Tell the community that this is an official sponsored group and use it as an extension of your brand.
Be Ready to Give It All Up
During the recent Reddit controversy , I shut down r/crappydesign in protest and resigned from my several moderator positions. This was met with well-wishers for standing up for a cause as well as those who were unafraid to tell me exactly where I could stick it.
Similarly, around Christmas of 2013, I encountered the ire of the /r/conspiracy community (around 250k subscribers) because of feedback I solicited from a ‘rival’ subreddit. Ultimately I decided to step down because I was clearly out of touch with what the community wanted.
I’ve never been one to silence people’s dissent. It’s cathartic to vent, and I’m a firm proponent of being able to speak freely online. But remember that the community you created is larger than you as an individual.
I don’t like a lot of rules myself. I’m an anti-authoritarian at heart, so I don’t like imposing rules on a community that they themselves didn’t vote on. And in the two major cases where I made a decision that went against the communities I was leading, I reversed my decision in favor of what the community wanted. I did it that way because that’s how I want it to be in the communities I don’t lead.
Recognize when it’s time to say, “This has gone too far.” Be ready to hang up your spurs.
Reddit vs. Social Networks
Building an online community isn’t easy, as you can see. If you want to build one, would you start it on Reddit or some other social network, like Facebook Groups? Why?
Image credits: Daniel Allen, GongTo / Shutterstock.com, Gil C / Shutterstock.com, Eva Blue / Flickr, Jeff Keacher / Flickr, Antonio Zugaldia / Wikimedia Commons, Jason Scott / Flickr, Mechatronics Guy / Flickr
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