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Reddit Drops the Filter and Draws Audiences

The crowdsourced Q&A is on its way to becoming the press junket of the 21st century

Reddit general manager, Erik Martin

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In the digital age, Reddit’s AMA (Ask Me Anything) forum has quickly become a highly sought after destination on press junkets and book tours. The unmoderated, crowdsourced Q&A format has attracted huge names like Louis C.K., Stephen Colbert, Rep. Darrell Issa (R.-Calif.) and even Nobel winner Paul Krugman to the Condé Nast-owned social platform.

The reason for the migration is twofold: Reddit’s AMAs can draw upwards of a million readers and they stick around for four to five minutes on average. “In terms of scale, it is not unlike going on a late-night talk show,” said Reddit general manager Erik Martin. AMAs are also reinventing the interview process for the 21st century, giving the audience unprecedented control to ask probing, unfiltered questions. “There will be questions from out of left field that really show a participant’s true personality,” Martin said. United Talent Agency social media head Eric Kuhn agrees. “People now expect that you’ll talk directly with them and answer their questions,” he said.

While transparency and honesty are crucial for AMA, the forum is not without pitfalls. “The payoff works in both directions,” said Kuhn. ”If you don’t do so well [as a host], it can be very bad, but if you succeed, the benefits are huge.” 

Just ask Woody Harrelson, whose AMA session has become the gold standard for bad Reddit etiquette. Harrelson decided to forego personal questions to stick to talking about his upcoming role in the movie Rampart—and felt the meme-laden wrath of Reddit’s community for days to come.

Conversely, Reddit’s AMA has helped to kick-start a flailing career after Jeopardy for 74-time winner Ken Jennings. “I did my AMA over a year ago, when it wasn't really a ‘thing,’” Jennings told Adweek via email. Nobody was more surprised than me when I off-handedly mentioned that I sold signed copies of my book on my website—and suddenly I had like a thousand new orders, more than the previous three years put together.”

The Reddit effect has continued for Jennings, illustrating just how powerful winning over the online audience can be. “I realized I wasn't at the mercy of any quiz show to remind people who I was or suggest to them what I must be like. I could do it myself now, directly. That's what led to me focusing on Twitter and the other social media stuff I do now.”

Given Reddit’s demographics, and its audience’s vocal nature, it is not unthinkable to see AMAs play a role in the upcoming elections. Numerous lawmakers have come on the site to answer thoughtful questions candidly, and the Reddit community is constantly lobbying for an AMA with President Obama. Both the Obama and Romney camps have been tight-lipped about their digital strategies, but there’s no question it could be an important venue. Insiders say that both campaigns have been targeted.

“Every politician right now is trying to figure out what is the next big thing and they want to be on it. Being on this platform and being the first mover is a huge advantage for these candidates,” said Kuhn. “We’ll see if either camp is brave enough to take the leap.”