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How a Tiny Startup Used Reddit to Build an Army of 1,400 Ambassadors (and How You Can Too)

Brady Dale
Brady Dale / June 19, 2014

The April-June feature suggestion thread on the Pushbullet subreddit has 159 comments on it at this point. The February-March one had 69, and their first such thread, in January, had 78. That’s an enviable amount of engagement for an app that’s doing well and growing, but is a long way from being a household name like other productivity apps.

Pushbullet

Pushbullet started as simple app for taking advantage of the rich notification functionality that came out on Android in late 2012. The company’s founder, Ryan Oldenburg, realized that his notification tray could be much more useful if notifications could actually come with some text or imagery. It would allow you to get to needed information faster.

Ryan Oldenburg

The Google Play Store shows it’s an app with over 500,000 installs so far, and more than 40,000 people have given it ratings, with an average score of 4.6 stars out of 5. It’s also on iOS, if you’re an Apple user. There’s another statistic that’s neither present in the Play Store or App Store, however, but it’s been equally important for the company: 1,420.

Pushbullet + Reddit

1,420 is the number of Pushbullet users who have joined its subreddit, /r/Pushbullet.

“Every app tends to attract ambassadors and I think the people on our subreddit are ambassadors,” Oldenburg told us.

“The people on our subreddit are ambassadors.” - Ryan Oldenburg, Pushbullet founder

If you’re familiar with Reddit, skip this paragraph, but just in case you aren’t, here’s a quick summary. Reddit is a site where users post recommended links, ideas, images and the like. The posts are organized into subreddits, by topic. There are thousands of subreddits—from the latest news to plumbing help—and anyone can create one. Reddit gives users the power to upvote a post and comment on it. It also gives users a power that’s unique to the site: you can downvote a post, too. Haters gonna express a tiny bit of hate, but that additional bit of flexibility appears to be powerful. Not only can it express distaste, but it also empowers users to take part in enforcing civility, as we’ll see below. Reddit is one of the most popular sites online and the source of much of what eventually comes to be Internet wide buzz.

Pushbullet doesn’t have a forum on its website for user support. Instead, it has a blog, and rather than allowing comments there, the end of each post directs users to the Pushbullet subreddit as a the place to give feedback, get answers to questions or get the scoop on new features before they get released.

Pushbullet subreddit link on blog

Oldenburg says that one advantage of using a subreddit instead of a forum on his site is that he didn’t have to create the culture for their forum. Reddit already has its own culture, so as users join it, they already know how to participate in a subreddit. The Pushbullet team didn’t have to teach them.

Organic Origins

Oldenburg says that the decision to host their user support forum on a subreddit rather than on their site came up organically before he really had a chance to think about doing it on his own. When the app started to get some traction, much of the buzz was coming from the /r/Android subreddit. There, users were suggesting that the company start a subreddit.

“I had never heard of a startup doing that before, starting its own subreddit,” Oldenburg says, “but then I saw that Pebble had one.” He told us he set it up himself in a few minutes, back when he was still working on the app part-time, balancing it with a day job.

“I had never heard of a startup doing that before, starting its own subreddit.”

Thus far, running the subreddit has been easy for Oldenburg and his three co-founders. “I barely know what the moderation tools do,” Oldenburg says. Posts on the page have been respectful and engaged. He and his co-founders all moderate it, but they find it’s pretty light work. In fact, it makes customer support even easier, because other redditors will answer support questions for them.

“We didn’t really expect them to help us with support. It’s kind of an odd thing,” Oldenburg says, explaining that he’s often come into work on Monday to find that some question a user posted to the forum late on a Sunday night has already been answered by another user.

Not the Only Subredditors

Pushbullet isn't the only company with a subreddit devoted to it, but what is unique is the fact that the staff of the company is actually running it. Subreddits, including the Pebble one that inspired Oldenburg, are most often created and moderated by users of the service rather than staff from the company. Once the subreddit gets popular enough, however, the subreddit moderators we spoke to said that company staff join the subreddit and take part in the conversations.

Here are a few of the other tech company subreddits we’ve found:

We reached one moderator, andrewinmelbourne, who works on both the /r/Android and /r/Foursquare subreddits.

andrewinmelbourne

He says that he moderates subreddits because he feels the brands he moderates for have made products that makes his lifestyle better. He says that when he was new to these products, he had “stupid” questions, too.

“Without people answering my ‘stupid’ questions I probably would not have been able to discover the true benefits that the brand offered which is why I feel it is important to give back,” he wrote us.

When a Subreddit Goes Awry

Jimi Cullen, one of the moderators at the /r/GitHub subreddit (known there as DanceExMachina) told us a story from the forum he runs that raises a point that it’s worth brands know about. Cullen is not employed by GitHub, but he appreciates the flexibility it's given developers.

DanceExMachina

“I'm a GitHub user, too—I host projects there, and even use GitHub pages to host my personal blog. I wanted somewhere to talk about GitHub with other users, and I wanted to help make /r/GitHub a great place to do that,” he told us.

If your company becomes big enough, there’s a chance that one day your company, and not your service, will become the story, and that’s probably going to play out at least in part on your subreddit. If subreddit’s tend to draw the most passionate users, then they are likely also going to be the ones with the strongest opinion about whatever the story is. GitHub had controversy swirl around it earlier this year after allegations of sexual harassment hit the company. This became a hot topic on the subreddit.

In fact, it became too hot at times. Since this was a subreddit that was run by users and not the company, the pressure to censor uncivil comments wasn’t as strong, but it didn’t disappear either; however, it was also an instance in which the power of redditors to downvote as well as upvote enabled communal moderation that appeared to work.

Cullen told us:

It's important that people should be allowed to have their own opinions regardless of whether I share it, but there were a few comments that crossed the line between 'sharing an opinion' and posting aggressive and hostile personal insults, which are not welcome on our subreddit. Thankfully most of the community is sensible enough not to post comments like that, and the offending comments were mostly downvoted to the point that they were automatically hidden by reddit.

I thought hard about whether to delete these comments, but in the end decided to let the posters know that that kind of behavior isn't welcome on /r/github, and left the comments up for the downvotes to do their work. That was enough—everyone I talked to respected what I asked of them. However, if someone had continued after I'd asked them to stop posting material like that, I might have had to start deleting comments and/or banning users.

The Importance of Subredditors

Odds are, your subreddit subscribers are only a subset of company's overall users, but as Oldenburg says, they may be the most important ones.

“They are the ones who are really passionate about what we’ve been doing, and about the fact that we’ve been doing more and more things,” he says.

They're also the ones who catch app issues and let you know right away, too. A benefit the young startup was reminded of last month.

"We accidentally managed to set up a redirect loop on pushbullet.com, meaning people couldn't ever land on the page," Oldenburg explains in an email after our discussion. Within minutes of that happening, he says, a post showed up on the Pushbullet subreddit.

redirect loop

"We fixed it right away," he says.


create your own subreddit

If a subreddit sounds like it could be beneficial to your company, here's a short guide on setting one up along with tips for moderating it.

How to Set Up a Subreddit

Setting up a subreddit is quick and simple. Oldenburg told us that he did it in about five minutes one day. To get a subreddit going, follow these steps.

1 - If you don’t already have one, create an account on Reddit. Also, if you're unfamiliar with Reddit, it's important to first read through the site's etiquette guidelines, Reddiquitte, as well as its rules on self-promotion and FAQ on spam.

2 - Now go to the front page of Reddit, there’s an arrow on the right side of the screen, the third in a set of arrows, that says, “Create your own subreddit.” Click it.

3 - Give your subreddit a name, such as “whatevvver.” This will show up in your URL: http://reddit.com/r/whatevvver).

4 - Give the Reddit a description for when users stumble onto it.

5 - Write your sidebar, which is generally the rules or guidelines of the subreddit. You may want to get detailed and do some formatting here. For guidance, click on the “Formatting help” link below the box.

subreddit sidebar

6 - Write your submission text, which modifies the text that people see on the page to submit a new link or text post. You can put anything you'd like in here, from guidelines for the subreddit to a simple, “Thank you for participating.”

7 - The rest of the options you may want to leave at default, to start, except one. In the very last box, you should click, “show thumbnail images of content.” This will allow images associated with certain kind of contents to show up with new posts, potentially making it more attractive for Reddit readers.

For example, Pushbullet has this turned "on" for their subreddit:

show thumbnail images

Oldenburg has taken one more step with the Pushbullet subreddit as he’s gone on. Though users will just magically find you, he says, the truth is that you’ll need to tell people that it is there. Your users are unlikely to know that the subreddit exists unless you have a way to tell them. For Pushbullet, that’s frequently mentioning the subreddit on their blog. If you have a mailing list or other social media feeds, post there from time to time, too.

Tips for Running a Company Subreddit

Finally, here are a few tips on running a subreddit, as told to us by Oldenburg and the two subreddit moderators interviewed for this post.

  • Theme your subreddit when you have time to. Reddit gives you a lot of flexibility over the look of your page, so at the very least get your logo up top.
theme your subreddit
  • If people complain about your brand here, remember that what they are really telling you is that they don’t have a better way to reach you with their feedback.
  • If a subreddit takes off, like the r/Android one has, eventually you’ll have to sweep out some bad comments and posts. Most of your users won’t even notice though, and that’s the best outcome.
  • Create sticky threads of important topics, like feature suggestions, from time to time.
Pushbullet sticky
  • Ask your users questions.
  • Show you’re listening by publicly answering comments (as appropriate) on the subreddit, rather than contacting users privately. You may be answering someone else’s questions, too, but it also shows lurking readers that the company is paying attention.
  • To make your subreddit feel special, share product updates or news there first.

Get Notifications for Reddit

Whether or not you set up a subreddit, one easy way to start engaging with Redditors is by enabling notifications for mentions of your company. With Zapier, you can create a wide variety of Reddit notifications.


reddit alien

Does your company use a subreddit to engage with customers or are you a customer that engages with a brand on a subreddit? We'd enjoy seeing more links to more company subreddits and learn more tips for moderating one effectively. Please share in the comments below.

You might also enjoy this article: "Google Chrome for Marketers: 10 Setup Tips, 20+ Extensions You Need to Know"

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