Why user generated content makes web editors nervous

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I originally posted this in July 2006, but thought I’d reprise it. Enjoy.

A while back, I explained to a web editor how the BBC was planning to introduce more user generated content (UGC) to its site – namely its new Share/Find/Play strategy.

As is increasingly common among web editors now getting to grips with UGC, the following sentiment sprung forth: won’t that mean masses of useless content to wade through?

I’m finding this is an increasingly common concern among content professionals.

I’m not trying to sell in UGC services as a whole here, but I’d like to document some of these concerns and provide some of my own thoughts on why they exist.

User generated content means poor quality

By who’s standards exactly? Granted, UGC can be riddled with appalling writing, unsubstantiated claims and conspiracy theories but unless you’re running a talent website for writers or budding journalists, who are we to judge?

UGC is about letting users express themselves in their own way. Resist the urge of the sub editor in you to correct content. Editing or censoring ‘errors’ in your users content is a big no-no. Let them be.

The same applies if you’re looking for balanced debate or hoping that the quality of your blogs will raise the profile of your site. Have faith in your community and put trust in the adage that users vote with their mouse. The online stars of your platform will gather momentum as they gain a following, while the never do wells wither away and die from the drought of page visits and replies.

All that editing and censorship will mean massively increased workloads

So what? Isn’t your remit to increase user traffic and activity on the site?

UGC isn’t just about blogs and forums of endless editorial debate. Content suffers when UGC is half heartedly applied to traditional publishing models, where the user is constrained in what they can submit.

Why only allow users to submit written editorial content? It’s no surprise that web editors have concerns over UGC because, understandably, they’re looking for quality editorial. But why? The vast majority of people aren’t professional writers. Many don’t like writing full stop.

Instead, give the user access to a completely open platform, where they can submit any type of content – editorial, but also audio, videos and images.

As the likes of YouTube and Flickr are showing, users are becoming increasingly sophisticated and are evolving from ‘readers’ to multimedia content producers.

What if I have empty blogs, forums or no user comments?

I’ve yet to meet an editor or journalist that’s never written an article which is designed to inspire debate or gain a reaction from readers.

Avoid having empty blogs and message boards – roll them out to carefully selected users or offer only one forum topic at a time. Once they grow, open up more and cast the net wider.

Never open up a major network of forum or blog networks on day one. Unless you’ve got millions in marketing spend or you’re MySpace in a position where your URL gets a mention in virtually every news wire on a daily basis, you need to coax users in slowly.

I’ll have to deal with – ugh – the public!

Ever worked in print journalism? If you have, you’ll know that letters to the editor and opinion articles are the lifeblood of any publication. Having a healthy post bag and bursting opinion schedule is a great position to be in. It shows that your readers trust and respect you enough to engage with you and your brand. Thanks to UGC, readers can now take this brand engagement to a whole new level.

UGC is a fad. It’s a waste of time and money

We’re seeing more and more mouse potatoes take root (see what I did there?) at home and, much to the alarm of employers, in the office.

The web is moving away from being solely a lean-to technology focused on information retrieval. This is about taking the traditional publishing model and applying the benefits of the web – interactivity, the ability to publish at minimal cost, automation and search.

Quality websites with opinion and debate have the edge over others which simply break news. A team of quality writers can initiate that debate, but now you can allow users to actively take part and reinforce that role / value. More users spending more time on your site have obvious benefits, not least to your ad sales team.

Don’t under estimate how valuable UGC really is. The traditional web publishing model, by its very nature, pumps out content which appeals to a mass or large niche audiences. Even the best attempts to be super niche will assume some common ground among users.

Blogs, on the other hand, allow this homogenous content to be tailored by really niche users with heterogeneious preferences and opinions. UGC effectively widens the appeal of your content, making it relevant to more audiences, no matter how small or individual – all this is possible with very little effort on your part.

One thought on “Why user generated content makes web editors nervous

  1. uxarchitecture

    I like the way you tease this apart. The web started life as a publishing model and is evolving towards a collaboration platform. Sloppy punctuation, vigorous expression and low signal-to-noise ratios are the price we pay for genuine debate and engagement.

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