During this week’s Product to Product episode, Liz Papierz, Event Manager at Roadmunk, chatted with Jason Costa, Director of Product at Reddit.
Reddit is an app used by millions of users globally. Jason currently works on Content & Communities and is in charge of developing a strategy for that area. In this conversation, he dove into how he develops that strategy and some of the metrics he uses to measure success.
Jason shared a lot of great insights about strategy development and we highly recommend watching the full talk. If you’re tight on time though, we’ve pulled out some highlights below.
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(Highlights have been condensed and edited for clarity)
Jason’s path to product management (1:34)
Liz: Jason is currently the Director of Product at Reddit. Jason, to kick off the conversation, can you tell us a little bit more about yourself, and how you got involved with product?
Jason: I studied computer science in undergrad, and then in 2005, I’m dating myself here, but in 2005 when I graduated, I got a job offer at a little company in Mountain View called Google. I ended up joining to work on a variety of different products there, from Google Analytics to Google Checkout, to the open social standard, primarily in technical roles. And I remember sort of being out on the customer frontline, and meeting with a lot of engineers and product managers at client companies, and kind of getting feedback, and hearing from them as touch points. Like, “Hey, we’re missing this”, or “If you did this, it could enable x, y, z for us”, and I remember sort of always going home from work, and playing that game of like, well, what if we did this instead? And could that be more beneficial than this other thing that they suggested? Or what if we did these things instead?
And that was sort of my first sort of foray into the products sphere. And I stayed largely in technical roles at Google, but I did notice that there was an ilk, or a profile of product manager, at least at Google, and it was very common to see someone who had CS background and then went to business school, so I ended up going to business school, did a PM internship at Facebook the summer that I was in business school. Ended up joining Twitter when it was about 350 employees to work on the platform, their APIs. Was there for a couple years, went to go join Pinterest as one of the first hundred employees, actually one of the first two product managers on the ads team. Got to help build that business from zero to about a hundred million annualized revenue run rate, and did that for a couple of years, which was wonderful. Got to work on Pinterest analytics for publishers, their campaign management UI, their ads API, all of their billing workflows. And then transitioned over to the consumer team, and worked on basically leading the pins team, so everything from creating rich pins, where we could add additional data to the particular pins, recipe information, product data, like what’s the stock, what is the price, to actually crafting video pins, which ended up being like, hey, how do we deliver sites on the motion end of the pins?
And then after about three and a half years, I ended up transitioning into Venture. I got a really neat opportunity to go work at a firm based out of China, and I was always intrigued with what was happening with product in East Asia. It was very different, the population there had skipped the desktop revolution, they’d gone straight to the mobile device. It was largely cashless society, they were using the mobile device for basically the wallet. You had lots of interesting apps, like YY and Inke, that actually weren’t based on ads at all, they were based on digital goods and virtual gifting as sort of the ads, or I’m sorry, not the non-ads backbone, right, in terms of how the economics of the services worked.
So I went and did that for a couple of years, and it was a wonderful experience, but I started to get a little bored, in truth. I was like, man, I really miss building, I miss being in the thick of the action, and creating real value for users. And so I ended up leaving Venture to go back and get in the game, and so I’ve been at Reddit now for about a year and a half, working on content and communities.
Jason’s role at Reddit (7:01)
Jason: My particular role is driving the content and communities team, which is focused really on two important engagement vectors on the service. One is just the very sort of concept of community, right, how do we actually manifest a sense of belonging in the service, so when users come to Reddit, they feel like, yeah, these are my digital people, right? This is my digital tribe. And that might be folks coming together to converse and discuss around politics. It might be just your favorite NFL team, or your favorite band. It might be about a TV show that you love, like Game of Thrones. So being able to establish that sense of community on Reddit, incredibly important.
And then also figuring out, as you can imagine, on the content front, how do we get more people sharing and producing content through posts, through comments, and making sure there’s a really healthy stock and flow of content on the service. Because I do like to say, on Reddit, people come for the content, and then they stay for the communities.
How Jason develops his strategy (8:31)
Liz: What factors do you consider when developing your strategy? Do you use any specific processes? And also, I really liked how you used the word belonging. How do you work that feeling, almost, and that concept around your strategy?
Jason: So in terms of general process, and this is sort of Reddit agnostic, and just how I like to operate as a product person, I really, really am a big believer in having what I like to call the four legged stool, where you have a product person, a tech lead, design lead, and then a data lead. And data and products, from a process perspective, I like to say should be working together to very tightly and crisply define what the product, or rather, what the user problem is that you’re setting up to solve. And so, that’s the very first step in the process, is how do you make sure you’re identifying and framing up very acutely what the problem is to solve for the user. And at that point, once you have a pretty good sense of like, yeah, this is it, this is the bounded problem that we’re setting out to go solve, bring design and engineering in very, very early into the process.
And frankly, let them off the leash. Let them, if you trust your counterparts, and you should, let them go do their craft, and so design and engineering sort of embark, with you there as a sounding board, of course, on setting out to craft a solution to user problems. And oftentimes I like to say, design sort of brings the concept to life through visual and interaction design, and then engineering breathes life into it, right? Makes the heart beat. And then you get to a place where you have a concept, and your role all the way through is to be that sounding board, but also to be evaluating the trade offs, right?
Solutions don’t come in one shape or size, you can go many different paths. And so you want to be evaluating what the pros and cons are of each path, you want to make sure that the quality of the decision making remains really high, because one little compromise to make everybody happy can actually end up having disastrous impact later on down the line on the user experience, and on the product’s chance at success. You want to be time boxing the decisions. It’s very easy to kind of wander out in the forest and naval gaze, instead of focusing on building something, and getting it into the hands of users.
And then all the while, you certainly want to come back at the end, and kind of ask yourself, amongst the group, “Hey, did we actually solve the problem that we set out to go tackle at the beginning?” And to ensure that the answer is yes, you want to be self auditing many, many steps along the way, right? You want to be making sure that you’re often checking in with the team, and saying, “Hey, we’re still tackling problem x, right? We haven’t moved on to problem y or z?” Because it’s very easy to tack in different directions, and it tends to happen in very small increments, on a daily basis. But then you get a month out, and you’re like, wait, what are we building again, here? Right? What are we solving for?
So that’s like the general process that I like to use, in terms of product development. In terms of setting the strategy, I’m always sort of looking at what’s the goals of the company, what’s the mission of the company? And how do we enable that through the experiences that we’re putting into the hands of users? And so for me, I’m always thinking about how do we make sure that we have a very, very large compelling, high quality, fresh corpus of content, hence the content part of the name. And then how do we make sure that we have active and vibrant communities, where people are coming together as a digital collection, and conversing about a particular topic that tends to drive a range of emotions. Like I’ve generally found that people have an affinity to a particular community because it touches on some emotion for them. That might be fear, it might be hope, it might be pain, it might be pleasure, it might be social inclusion. I just joined a fitness group on Reddit, because I’m out of shape, given the shelter in place orders.
And it’s funny, I’ve been going back to it to learn about these exercises you can do inside your home, and chatting with people, and one, I’m like, wow, I’m not alone in this, right? There’s a lot of people who are feeling that pain. But then the other thing I realized was like, I’m gravitating towards this sub because it gives me a sense of hope that in the future, I’ll be healthier again.
So it’s sort of like thinking more strategically, like how do we connect people to experiences that enable the mission of the company? And that’s sort of how I try to set up the strategic scaffolding, for what we focus on.
Utilizing metrics (14:09)
Liz: You mentioned that you have to be careful about compromising on certain decisions. How do you ensure that when you’ve had, say a strategy or a plan put in place, that you do stay close to it, and you compromise when it actually might be beneficial, but then also know when to say, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, we have this due in three months is our timeline, this is going to drive us right off the highway”. Do you have any specific metrics that you pull your team back to, or how do you keep on track?
Jason: Yeah, that’s a great question. One, I make sure that I carve out an hour every day, typically at the end of the day, to kind of be going over, more from an editorialized perspective, what we’re working on. And then checking in to see what the actual status of it is, right? So like are we doing the due diligence and practicing good hygiene around sending notes out for meetings where we’re making decisions that might change the path of the product? Are we constantly updating the product specs, and making sure that we’re capturing, because things naturally evolve, right, as you get more voices in the process.
It’s going to evolve. And then I always try to, where I can, sit in on discussions where things are chatted about. I try not to get in the way, I try to kind of let the respective leads of the team usher in their own destiny, but pressure test, right? Like I like to get involved in sort of the pressure testing process, and hey, can we do x, y, z? Have you thought about this instead? But the big thing that tends to act as the scalable guard rails are the metrics, right? And so I always will look at what is the behavior that we’re trying to incentivize, or manufacture, or just generate more of? And are we measuring success correctly against that particular behavior.
And once I feel like we have the right metric, then I’m constantly pointing the respective product teams back to hey, whatever you’re doing, is it driving this metric, right? Now there are some things, like you mentioned, that you just have to kind of take into account, like you’re down on resourcing, right, and there’s just no way that you’re going to be able to hit this. Or you do realize, well, we made a mistake in the planning process, and actually this would be the better decision to go forward on. And you do have to course correct.
So there are situations like that, it’s case dependent, but I generally find that just making sure that the goals are hyper clear, and over communicated, so that everybody is on the same page, that tends to be the right set of guard rails that keeps people on track.
How Jason measures the feeling of community and belonging (17:17)
Liz: Just out of curiosity, for the feeling of creating community and belonging, do you have a way to measure that at Reddit? I feel like that’s one thing that product managers talk about is like they want their product to be sticky. I feel like Reddit’s very addictive, by nature, you get on a scrolling spree. But I was wondering, do you have a metric to measure that?
Jason: Yeah, so we do have a metric that we look at, and we call that active communities. And it is a threshold by which we measure, on a rolling time basis, how many events or engagements are happening in this particular community. And we’ve done a ton of analyses around, without getting into the details too much, we’ve done a ton of analyses around when does a community tip and become what we call self-growing and self-sustaining, right, where it gets to a place where we don’t even need to be involved in recommendations, or discover surface areas. Like this thing has taken off, and it is snowballing, in terms of acquiring new users, generating more posts, generating more comments on a daily basis, and so it kind of hits escape velocity. And at that point, we know that it’s almost never going to churn, right, like the retention bar is so high that it has basically become, as I mentioned, self-sustaining and self-growing. And our team is responsible for growing that particular corpus of communities.
So we want to activate as many as we can, and then retain virtually all of them. And so that’s the way that we measure, hey, are we at a good place with regards to the total breadth of communities on the site? And then we apply some additional filtering layers, like Reddit is increasingly becoming a global service, and that means you have to be accessible to people from very different backgrounds. They might have cultural orientations, different religious backgrounds, different political beliefs, and when that starts to play in, you have to recognize those differences, and accommodate those differences. And so something we’re starting to think about is do we have enough sort of age appropriate communities? Do we have enough topical diversity, right? Like are we doing enough to sort of make the service accessible to everyone? And so that’s sort of the next layer of filtering that we start to apply, like okay, we think we have a good pulse on what belonging looks like, now can we scale that to everyone, right? Now can we make a sense of belonging available to everybody in the world?
(20:20) How do you define and cultivate healthy communities that generate meaningful content? How do you define and cull “bad actors”?
(24:51) What languages or geographies is Reddit most focused on growing in, and what sorts of strategies have you developed tailored to those contexts?
(27:07) What’s your favorite subreddit?
Jason Costa is currently working on product strategy at Reddit. Previously, he was a Venture Partner at GGV Capital where he led six investments and spent significant time advising the fund’s portfolio on product strategy.
Prior to joining the GGV fund, he was one of the first members of the monetization team at Pinterest, where he helped launch their ads API, analytics tool for businesses, billing infrastructure, and the ads campaign management interface. Additionally, he led consumer efforts on the Pins team, including product managing the Rich Pins and Video products.
Jason also worked on the platform team at Twitter, managing an ecosystem of more than a million apps, and at Google where he helped the Google Checkout API and the OpenSocial schema. He holds a B.S. in Computer Science from USC, and an MBA from MIT.
Liz is the Event Manager at Roadmunk on the Marketing team. She produces Recess and in non-pandemic times, organizes Roadmunk’s Product to Product in-person events held in Toronto, New York and Chicago.
Prior to Roadmunk, Liz produced events for a renewable energy company and a non-profit. You can follow her on LinkedIn.