9 Ways to Avoid Royally Screwing Up Your Reddit Ask Me Anything

It claims to be “the front page of the Internet,” but Reddit is, more accurately, one of its engines. Like Digg and Slashdot before it, Reddit discovers and generates much of the viral content you see every day on Twitter, Facebook and a thousand ‘viral news’ sites. Reddit is the Internet’s tastemaker.

The latest expression of Reddit’s influence is the celebrity Ask Me Anything, or AMA. These crowdsourced interviews have always been a part of the site. However, they’ve recently exploded in popularity as a promotional channel for performers, athletes, politicians and other renowned or notorious citizens. President Obama has done an AMA. So have Bill Gates, Arnold Schwarzenegger (several times) and Keanu Reeves.

Lesser lights do AMA’s as well. To pick three: the Mayor of Calgary, a bee expert and the #2 ranked competitive eater in the world.

Most of the time AMA’s go off without a hitch. The Reddit community asks questions, votes up the best one, and the subject answers as many as they can.

Occasionally, however, these crowdsourced interviews can go off the rails. Woody Harrelson’s AMA imploded after he demanded that Redditors only ask questions about the movie he was promoting. And just last week, Premier of Ontario Kathleen Wynne tanked her AMA, answering only a few softball questions with, as one Redditor put it, sound bites instead of sincerity.

Whether you’re a household name or just well-known in a particular industry (you may want to consider the ‘Casual AMA’ alternative), how can you avoid these pitfalls?

1. Set aside plenty of time. Plan to spend two to three hours answering questions. Likewise, set the community’s expectation for when and how long you’re going to answer questions.

2. Answer as many questions as possible. You’re better off providing 30 short answers than 10 lengthy ones.

3. Be your authentic self. Don’t spin or use waffly language—just be a straightforward human being. In an AMA about the movie, a Redditor wrote that Frozen genuinely changed his life. A couple of the film’s creators answered “You’ve just ruined our make up! We’ve teared up.”

4. Keep it informal. Though Reddit is ostensibly a social news site, much of the site’s appeal is in its often-lengthy comment threads. Redditors love the witty remark or clever riposte, and successful AMA’s feature the subject exchanging jibes with users. Here’s an example of this approach from Will Farrell’s recent AMA.

5. Answer the popular questions, even if they’re peculiar. This seems obvious, but skipping the top questions can be seen as a slight by the community. Tim Gunn did an excellent job of this—he even virtually fistbumped one user. On a related note, wait a while before you start answering questions, so that the popular questions have time to bubble to the top.

6. Expect difficult questions. It’s possible to answer hard or controversial questions while winning the respect of the community—consider these examples from Captain Richard Phillips and Benedict Cumberbatch.

7. Know when you’re not wanted. Though Reddit gets over 100 million visitors a month, the site’s popular sub-reddit share some common attitudes. If you’re unsure, contact a sub-reddit’s moderators to privately test the waters. Ann Coulter’s staff should have recognized that she would not be greeted with warmth and affection by Redditors.

8. You can pimp your thing once, by linking to it. Many people do AMA’s to plug their new movie, book, charitable cause or political campaign. The community understands this, but is sensitive to over-promotion.

9. Always pick the horse-sized duck.

In the last month, Reddit has interviewed Matt Damon, Hans Zimmer, Mary Louise Parker, the cast of “Full House,” Will Ferrell, Eddie Izzard, Hank Azaria, Kevin Smith and Moby. That lineup would be a coup for any publication, but it feels like par for the course for Reddit. Popularity no doubt helped them run successful AMA’s, but anybody can do the same with a little preparation.

Footnote: Appropriately, I asked for and got great advice from Reddit on this article.