Reddit IPO Implications for Higher Ed Leaders Seeking to Rebuild Trust

Reddit filed to go public on the New York Stock Exchange last month, and I paid close attention. Its prospectus highlights the impact the anonymous forum site has on public trust—and how higher education leaders can leverage the insight within its 17 billion posts and comments to rebuild trust and inform a proactive, audience-centric market strategy. Higher education didn’t understand the impact Facebook would have on its operations when it went public over a decade ago. Don’t make the same mistake with Reddit. Here’s what you need to know.

Founded in 2005, Reddit is the last of the 2000s era social media companies to go public. It’s unique amongst this peer group (Meta, Snap, Twitter, etc.) because of how it works. The prospectus states, “Reddit’s community ecosystem is organically built upon shared interests, passions, and trust rather than friends, celebrities, and their followers.” This ecosystem is 18 years old. 

For your youngest students, Reddit has always been a place to learn and seek advice. Adults under 30 are four times more likely to use Reddit than those ages 50–64. This demographic—which extends beyond traditional-aged college students—is more likely to use Reddit than LinkedIn.

Reddit's prospectus explains that users come to the site and its communities because it is:

  • An open, growing archive of human knowledge
  • Centered on interests, with unmatched breadth and depth of human knowledge
  • People-powered curation for authentic interactions and trusted content
  • A place for authentic and trusted recommendations
  • A flexible canvas for self- and community-expression
  • Using layered moderation, community management, and safety to support trust

These attributes are strikingly similar to the environment colleges and universities strive to create. The authentic, often anonymous conversations happening on Reddit can inform how you build an environment that attracts students and engenders their trust. The proof of the value this insight brings to organizations is in the emerging pillar of Reddit’s business model: licensing user conversation data.

While at the moment Reddit follows the typical social media pattern of generating revenue through advertising, its emerging revenue source is data licensing. The offering prospectus touts “the value of Reddit’s data in sentiment analysis and trend identification” in connection with an estimated $1 trillion artificial intelligence market that uses robust user conversation to train large language models and generative AI. “We are also in the early stages of monetizing our emerging opportunity in data licensing by allowing third parties to access, search, and analyze data on our platform.” Reddit entered into $203 million in data-licensing agreements in January 2024 and expects this revenue stream to grow rapidly.

The AI tools prospective students will use to get information about college will be trained on Reddit data. Colleges and universities that don’t use this data for their own strategic intelligence now are missing an opportunity to keep up with the market as it evolves.

People already trust Reddit. It influences their perception of higher education, where they apply and attend, and what they’re willing to pay. The same week Inside Higher Ed published its survey of college presidents reporting they believed the top factor in public skepticism about the value of higher education is affordability, a 19-year-old posted to Reddit worried about “selling their soul to Drexel” after facing the prospect of a $300,000 degree. This was posted to the Personal Finance subreddit with 19 million members.

Once Reddit content is powering large language models (LLMs) developed by big tech firms, the opinions and experiences within the site will have an exponentially greater reach and impact. For years, colleges have had the ability to use Reddit’s data to understand markets and audiences, build student community, identify reputation threats, and regain public trust.

If higher education doesn’t make use of this data to inform its own operations and strategy and disrupt itself, tech companies will use it to force further consumer-driven market disruption. Campus Sonar is the leading partner to apply social intelligence to your organizational objectives, and Reddit is a valuable part of the data set we use in our work.

How will you use online consumer conversation to inform and transform your business model and operations?

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