Ask Me Anything: How Can Higher Ed Use Reddit AMAs?

The following guest post was written by Ryan Morejon, social media community manager, and Angeline Evans, former digital media manager, at Florida International University.

Dr. Aileen Marty

FIU’s Dr. Aileen Marty shared her experiences via a Reddit AMA.

You never want to dive into a new social channel without a strategy just because it’s new or just for the sake of being there. That’s why, at first, we were hesitant to experiment with Reddit at Florida International University. For one, we didn’t know much about it, other than it was a great forum for content that we use personally and a viral traffic source for our university news site — and two, we didn’t know what role FIU would have as a brand on Reddit.

So we decided to embark on an experiment to find and demonstrate the value of Reddit to our higher ed communications strategy, and we found it in the Reddit AMA (Ask Me Anything).

Reddit: An Overview

Reddit is an online community launched in 2005, comprising thousands of discussion forums (“subreddits” or “subs”) created by registered users (“redditors”) and monitored by moderators and other redditors. In September 2014, Reddit reported more than 174 million unique visitors from 186 different countries, and Alexa ranks reddit.com as the ninth most popular website in the U.S. (36th in the world).

One of the hallmarks of Reddit is the voting and ranking system – redditors can “upvote” or “downvote” any thread or comment to bring a popular, relevant, or interesting post to the top of the subreddit, or to Reddit’s front page.

Unlike Facebook, which is based around a personal profile and connections, Reddit is a largely anonymous platform that prioritizes content over members, serving as a common source of viral content on sites like BuzzFeed and Upworthy. Redditors are typically drawn to the obscure, the humorous, and the interesting, as the content on the “hot” page attests.

In another deviation from Facebook and Twitter, Reddit does not offer organizations a managed brand account or page. However, your school likely has a subreddit, and we recommend you check it out to learn more about your audience and what interests them.

Reddit offers higher ed institutions the potential to drive traffic to interesting news content and to indirectly pitch media. For example, FIU’s 2013 interview with Steve Wozniak — which we posted to the Apple subreddit — received over 15,000 views in the week following the post and was picked up by InsiderMonkey and Cult of Mac, among others.

One popular feature on Reddit is the AMA (“Ask Me Anything”), an informal open interview where any person or group can be questioned by the Reddit community. It has become popular with celebrities, daredevils, and eyewitnesses to news events, among others. (President Obama famously hosted one in 2012.) They generally occur on the “I Am A” subreddit, but other subreddits, like science, have their own series.

Higher education is no stranger to the Reddit AMA. Colgate University’s Dean of Students, Beverly Low, hosted two AMAs in 2012 — and more recently, Marquette University and the University of Rochester hosted AMAs with administrators.

Researchers in the Science AMA series are usually affiliated with universities (recent AMAs include researchers from Penn State, Colorado State, Stanford and Cornell) but tend to only mention them tangentially. Often, these AMAs draw other experts in the field as well as students or scholars interested in pursuing similar research, creating an informal virtual classroom.

Our Reddit Experiment

Both administrator AMAs and researcher AMAs have their purposes — administrators can talk about the industry of higher education or their university specifically, and researchers highlight the academic rigor and opportunities available at that institution. The question to ask, then, is what type of AMA aligns best with your university’s communications goals.

FIU’s communications strategy supports our Worlds Ahead brand, which focuses on the cutting-edge research of our faculty and the hands-on opportunities our students have to work researchers. Based on this, the researcher AMA made the most sense for us.

We decided to start our experiment off in October 2014 with a bang: Ebola.

Dr. Aileen Marty, a professor of infectious diseases at FIU’s College of Medicine, had recently spent a month in West Africa treating Ebola patients and was already being interviewed widely in the media. But instead of having media ask the questions, we thought a Reddit AMA would be a great opportunity for the general public to question an expert directly.

We started by taking inventory of what had already been done on Reddit regarding Ebola. At the time (shortly after a case of Ebola was confirmed in Dallas, Texas, in late September 2014), Reddit AMAs had already been conducted by aid workers, television doctors, field reporters, and lab-based researchers, but none by doctors who had treated Ebola patients first-hand. Offering a unique perspective is crucial on Reddit.

Our team consisted of a social media community manager and digital media manager who were familiar with Reddit, as well as a media relations coordinator who acted as liaison with the professor and university administration..

We promoted the AMA to our internal community and through our social media channels, but because Reddit is a new audience with limited overlap with our existing audience, we weren’t expecting much. We set a goal of a thread score of 500 (upvotes minus downvotes) and 100 comments and responses. Front page status was a lofty wish.

The result? More than 1,000 upvotes and 300 comments within the first 24 hours. Our researcher’s 30-minute time slot turned into one and a half hours. (We recommend setting aside two hours, just in case.) An internet connection issue prevented the professor from using her own laptop to answer questions, which resulted in all three team members furiously typing and fact-checking while the professor dictated her answers. (Lesson learned: test your tech beforehand.)

We were head to head with Lady Gaga during our time slot—our thread outscored hers, 1,129 to 918. Our AMA thread stayed on the IAmA subreddit front page for over 2 days, meaning that redditors continued to engage with the content through comments and votes. We had far surpassed our goals.

The content of the AMA was thought-provoking and generally on-topic, ranging from how viruses mutate to what items one should purchase at a Costco in case of an outbreak. We brought it full circle back to the institution by highlighting the most informative responses in a story on our university news site and promoting the AMA content on Facebook and Twitter.

One unexpected but rewarding result: The U.K.-based Guardian newspaper quoted from the AMA in a story the next morning, without any pitch from our team (hearkening back to Reddit as source material for media).

We followed our first Reddit AMA with a second, featuring a bat biologist on the Science subreddit, which received even more votes and comments than our first.

An Upvote for Reddit

Based on our results so far, Reddit will continue to be part of our communications strategy. FIU journalism professor Hugo H. Ottolenghi had an interesting take on our experiments: “The future of news: service journalism is replaced by Reddit’s “Ask an expert” online discussions. Why follow a journalist when you can go straight to the source?”

Have you experimented with Reddit at your institution? What are the best applications of Reddit for higher ed communications?

About Ryan Morejon

Ryan Morejon is the social media community manager and content strategist at Florida International University in Miami, whose work includes the university homepage and admissions site. He’s a digital fiend, an avid reader of the NBA subreddit and a donut eater. Shoot him a tweet at @r_morejon.

About Angeline Evans

Angeline Evans is former digital media manager at Florida International University in Miami, where she led the launch of FIU Magazine Online, introduced the near-daily use of Google Analytics to guide content strategy and design, and found a legitimate reason to use Reddit at work. Connect with her on Twitter @angelineevans.

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