Reddit COO Jen Wong Talks Building Loyal Communities
October 28, 2021

Jen Wong is the Chief Operating Officer of Reddit, where she oversees business strategy and related teams from the New York office. She was previously the COO and President of Digital at Time, Inc., where she led the company’s digital and interactive strategies as well as its operations, consumer marketing and revenue teams. Prior to Time, she was Chief Business Officer at PopSugar and Global Head of Business Operations at AOL. Recently she was named one of AdWeek’s 50 Under 50.

How would you describe your role and focus?

I'm helping evolve Reddit’s thinking as a company. Our company turned 16 this summer but I still think of us as a preteen in terms of our maturity and development. That’s because our founders left pretty early on in the process. We then had two successive CEOs with slightly different visions for the platform and a period of underinvestment before the founders came back to lead the company. I think Reddit has always had this incredible idealism. There’s real belief in internet 1.0 - that the internet is meant for authenticity and realness, for meaningful connections between people and for accessing information you can’t get elsewhere. We never want to lose that.

But I think, buried in that idealism was almost the refusal to make money and be the business you need to be to support your mission independently. That’s why, while I’m very mission-driven, I also bring a bit of a balance by focusing on the fuel we need for our mission - which is our business and our revenue.

You have 52 million plus people using Reddit daily. It’s the 19th most visited site and has a particularly loyal user base. What do you think is the key to that incredible stickiness?

We have over 100,000 communities. My personal lens to Reddit is gardening, DIY, sourdough and pizza. It’s very different from your Reddit or somebody else’s. When we say 'content is king', that's very true of Reddit. Think about the years where our product did not evolve that much. The content was good, but you could not produce great content because of the minimal set of tools. But you could still comment, and you could still upvote and downvote to make sure the best content went to the top. The fundamental system of Reddit, the layers of human moderation, the community structure is what elevates the content.

The content is the first thing that keeps people coming back. The second thing is there is a set of values that binds together all the communities. Reddit is the meta community of communities. And this sense of realness and authenticity is expected across all places on the platform. People can expect a no BS take on a product, on a TV show, on parenting on anything. That’s what’s special and unique about it. That’s what brings people to Reddit.

We treat our communities as important stakeholders. We have shared responsibility for the health of the community and for the community to reach its goals.

Everyone is trying to cultivate community - every brand and every company. How do you effectively go from customer to community?

We treat our communities as important stakeholders. We have shared responsibility for the health of the community and for the community to reach its goals. Most of the rules are written by the communities and enforced by the communities. We invite them to discuss every change in policy or product. We spend a lot of time being transparent and having conversations. That makes people feel like this is their home and they get a say in their home.

How do you moderate conversations and change?

Our approach to moderation is rooted in our values. One of the first principles is that we share responsibility with our community. We have our policy and enforcement, and we have our communities who get to vote and write rules. We want the widest aperture but want it to be safe, civil and with dignity. So we’re balancing those two things.

The benefit of this model is context and nuance. When you’re having a conversation and you use a bad word, the question is, are you educating somebody on what that bad word is? Or are you using that word as a true insult? That context can only be known in our communities because they know the flow and the motives and how people talk in those communities. We can help provide another layer, but that context and nuance are why Reddit is so special.

How have you approached brand partnerships on the platform? And how do you do that without appearing to sell out?

Advertisers come to us to fulfill a range of different objectives - a lot of it is interest-based targeting. We have a pretty deep touchpoint with our clients and advise them how to think about targeting and about the creative. The biggest investment we made was educating people on the creative.

Reddit has a certain vernacular, an expectation of how you talk to each other, and the tricky part for brands is making sure they show up in the right way. To help, we have this creative team called karma lab that helps brands translate their big selves and brand messages to something that sounds approachable and authentic.

Often on Reddit, ads are prompts or questions, which are great ways to engage the community. Ads might include an AMA, an ask me anything, where you bring on an expert and openly answer questions. We still do a fair amount of performance-based advertising, and that’s fine so long as the targeting makes sense. Reddit is one of the places that people go to discover products.

Your ad revenues increased over the pandemic, which is impressive. What did you put into effect to drive that?

Revenue is an output of the decisions you make six to twelve months earlier. 2020 was unbelievable. Who knew what was going to happen? But we were well-positioned. Strategically, we'd substantially invested in our advertising platform in 2019. In 2020 we just kept going. Even though we paused our hiring in Q2 and Q3, we bounced right back into hiring and investing as soon as we saw things were not as bad as we thought.

We used to serve our top 300 channels. Then we broke into mid-market channels, top advertiser channels and then small-medium business channels. We spread out to increase our coverage of different kinds of advertisers. What that allowed us to do in 2020 is when certain parts of the market, like travel and auto, were severely injured, we could shift to home media, entertainment, and gaming. We had that flexibility. And that focus, which paid dividends as we entered the end of the year, even into this year.

Revenue is an output of the decisions you made six to 12 months earlier.

Pivoting from the external Reddit community to the internal Reddit team, what is the culture and how does it reflect what’s on the outside?

We are a very, very mission-driven company. And our mission is to bring community and belonging to the world. While we have company values and platform values, we kind of live both of them in one, making it a special culture.

For example, we have this value called “default open,” i.e. transparency. We share everything, including full financials. We’ve grown a lot this year. We’re 1,000 people and will be 1,500 by the end of the year. So culture is definitely on my mind, specifically absorption. When you hire this many people, it just takes time to absorb. During a period like this, where folks are remote, we’ve invested more in making sure we have company cultural events to engage all of our “snooze,” which is what we call our internal employees. I think we’ve done an excellent job on that front.

We built a muscle to have discussions about really difficult things. Sometimes about the world, sometimes about how to run our platform. We have hard discussions where everyone feels heard, then we make decisions and move on.

How do you think about organizational structures to support teams and growth?

First, when you’re hiring at this rate, you need an ace recruiting team. You’ve got to continue to hold a high bar, but you still need volume. The second is the training of managers. We have a training infrastructure so I think we’ve done a good job on the training side. Third, we invested in really thinking about diversity, inclusion and belonging for ourselves, and we’ve been able to have tremendous impact in that area.

Before we started hiring, we looked at the demographics of the employee population. When you’re hiring 750 people in one year, it is an incredible opportunity to change the topography of your employees. We seized that opportunity and made great strides growing our black and Latinx employee population and our women in engineering.

In 2020, our managers also became much better at leading diverse teams. For this, I give credit to our Head of DEI, who’s incredible. We were able to have challenging dialogue, which by the way, happened not only because of external events, like the murder of George Floyd, or the election, which were very emotional and raw but also because of internal decisions like, should we run political ads. We built a muscle to have discussions about really difficult things. Sometimes about the world, sometimes about how to run our platform. We have hard discussions where everyone feels heard, then we make decisions and move on.



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