Try for a moment to remember the worst mistake you’ve ever made at your job. Perhaps you accidentally posted a family photo meant for your Facebook wall to a brand page. Maybe an errant email campaign was sent to your suppression list rather than your target audience. You could even be one of the few unfortunate marketers to have their creative featured in a “worst of” list at year’s end.
Whatever the case may be, you can rest (slightly) more easy at night knowing that the biggest Reddit marketing snafu has gone down in history without your name on it—at least for now.
Midway through November of this year, EA Games—one of the ten largest video game publishers in the world—hopped on Reddit to participate in an “Ask Me Anything” session regarding their upcoming Star Wars-themed game, Battlefront 2. In what anyone might have predicted to be a combative, but hopefully fruitful, conversation with the community, EA planned to address a number of community concerns about the upcoming release, most notably the game’s inclusion of a microtransaction and “loot box” system. Microtransactions are in-game purchases that allow players to unlock features. Loot boxes contain randomized rewards—weapons, armor—and can be purchased in-game. The random aspect has angered many players, as it forces them to “gamble.” The alternative to making purchases is to “grind”—“playing time spent doing repetitive tasks within a game to unlock a particular game item.”
Attempting to defend its decision to gate popular characters, EA said, “The intent is to provide players with a sense of pride and accomplishment for unlocking different heroes.”
To the outsider, this may seem innocuous enough, but it wasn’t long before EA’s response became the most downvoted comment in the history of Reddit. Redditors didn’t hold back. “This is a flat-out lie and you know it.” “You’re just pushing this system to incentivize spending and for no other reason.” “Come on, it’s Luke and Darth Vader in a Star Wars game. Why on earth would you lock them?”
The scale of the mishap is baffling. In a space where negative 10,000 is normally an astronomical figure for a disliked comment, what does a brand have to do to elicit a negative 674,000 score? Call people names? Advocate for crime? Bad-mouth a beloved figure of the community?
Or could audience misalignment have resulted in a lost cause from the start?
Image attribution: James Pond
Reddit is a unique space for marketers. Straddling the lines of definition between forum, social media channel, and content aggregator, the site has become a hotbed for brands looking to go viral, nurture dedicated communities, or build consistent sources for user-generated content. On the surface, this is a space that EA is perfectly suited for: Reddit’s audience skews towards millennial men, who are the primary demographic for game publishers.
However, Reddit is also an Internet space that presents a unique—and touchy—ecosystem for marketers to navigate. On one hand, the site offers a heavy measure of anonymity behind their username structure and lower barrier for entry in terms of personal information. On the other, the community values discussions with “verified” figures and brands that give them direct, authentic access to gain insights, share thoughts, and hear authentic answers to questions. Likewise, redditors tend to be paranoid about site manipulation by deceptive PR and marketing tactics, which they lump under the umbrella “shilling,” to the point that there’s even a popular sub-reddit dedicated to spotting brand attempts to push their products as regular users.
So right from the start, EA makes a good decision while also putting themselves in a tight spot. They came out identifying themselves as a support team for their Q&A, but they also established a level of expectation from participants looking for real answers to their questions. Reddit AMAs can be a powerful tool for marketers who are ready to—well—answer anything. The essential mistake was that EA wasn’t ready to do just that.
Reddit may host a large demographic that purchases games, but this doesn’t mean they are the most important audience for EA to reach.
As a massive games publisher, EA’s value year over year is tied to two main drivers: game sales and stock speculation. While selling games drives revenue to improve company value, EA’s meteoric growth over the past few years has largely been due to their ability to keep investors speculating on their continued growth. By including microtransaction systems in many of their products, EA has been able to strike a strong balance for shareholders, because the huge revenues of microtransactions actually only come from a small population of most player bases. As long as these small populations are buying in-game, shareholders are happy and EA continues to grow.
However, Reddit doesn’t represent this in-game buying community—they largely represent the population of gamers who don’t like these systems in-game. This puts marketers running AMAs in the tough spot of speaking to a community that their primary goal isn’t to serve. While some gamers might not like it, it’s fine for companies to choose whom they want to target. But from a marketing perspective, it can be dangerous to try to squeeze a circle audience into a square hole, and we see this principle in action with EA’s downvoted comment. I don’t think EA mishandled an AMA. I think they entered into a conversation they weren’t prepared to have, and it resulted in a PR crisis that, given the scale of Reddit’s community, quickly became uncontainable.
Image attribution: Davide Ragusa
So how can brands prepare when a Reddit marketing strategy might be a good fit for your campaign? There are a few key lessons that marketers should take away from EA’s mishap.
A small note to start, but speaking from a brand level on Reddit tends to get hackles up right from the get-go. Often, it is better to have individual members of your team create single accounts, identify themselves, and then interact personally throughout a conversation. By way of comparison, one of Battlefront 2’s developers took to Reddit with a personal account and, though some of his answers were still disliked, he was able to have a much healthier conversation about his project with the community.
When it comes to spaces on the Internet with long memories, Reddit is often one of the longest. This means that brands that want to have truly authentic conversations need to be able to respond to criticism with tangible action, and they need to expect that they’ll be held accountable to any promises made. This is where EA’s team was forced into a bad position. They entered into a conversation knowing what questions and critiques were going to come up, but they didn’t have any feedback loops built to respond to them in an effectual way.
Reddit users tend to be more trusting of brand personalities who interact with the community on a regular basis without ulterior motives. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Reddit history is a great example. Though the politician still occasionally promotes his policies, fundraisers, or other events, he also spends much of the year commenting in fitness communities, motivational groups, and on other personal interests that matter to him aside from his “brand.” Companies should take the same lead when establishing a Reddit marketing strategy and think about community and trust building first, before moving onto promotion.
Ultimately, what does this case study in Reddit social media marketing strategy mean for EA? On the one hand, it’s cost the company a neat $3 billion in stock value following a concerted response effort by Reddit’s community to boycott the game. On the other hand, this appears to have been a measured risk by EA, who will still post marked growth this year despite this last dip. But perhaps more importantly, it’s put the brand in a good place to learn and pick up the pieces in terms of which communities they interact with and how they do so. Responding to this lesson authentically and transparently could even be a huge opportunity for the brand to rebuild trust. But it is likely that such mending will be a long time to go, in a community far, far away . . .
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Featured image attribution: Ciprian Boiciuc