Tag Archives: content

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.

SXSW 09 Panel on how to manage User Generated Content (UGC)

Social media blogger John Eckman has proposed a panel for 2009’s SXSW.

His reasoning behind the panel goes as follows:

The age of content being managed only by authorized professionals is over. Users expect to contribute to, rate, review, recommend, filter, tag, and moderate their experiences on the web. What does this mean for designers and content management professionals? How do you encourage appropriate behavior and discourage spam and vandalism, without completely reverting to non-participation?

Granted, this should be (really) old news to any decent content producer going to SXSW, but the panel discussion promises to provide some practical tips on how to get the best from those crazy ‘read/write’ contributors all us editors shake our heads and tut at now and then.

Vote / add your comments to John’s proposal page right now.

Avoid content delays – treat content like code

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The age old mantra ‘content is king’ still applies when attracting big audiences. So why is content still an afterthought in many web development projects?

Granted, the content production process has become more complex over the years as audience expectations and preferences develop and shift. Many of the websites originally set up with a traditional ‘one-to-many’ approach to publishing web content are adopting a more ‘read-write’ participative approach, where user generated content complements a site’s dedicated editorial output.

But even with the added challenge of catering for audiences that demand the right to re-write, re-package and share content, site owners dedicate far too little time or resource to content strategy development. This error, if left unchecked, can lead to severe delays in a site’s launch.

So, In a bid to dispel some of the common misconceptions about the content production process, we thought it worthwhile to outline some of the core components required to ensure its smooth running.

When talking about what the content production process consists of, it’s often helpful to compare it to other more well known elements of a site’s development – like technical development. As teams can often find themselves dealing with complex legacy materials, the same principles often apply.

As with technical development, content production can be vastly improved if a number of measures are in place before build even begins. Obviously, these measures don’t have to apply to every web development project, but more often than not they should include:

• Content strategy or content specific brief
• Sitemap and wireframes
• Content outline specification
• Sufficient lead in time
• Keep your site relevant

Content strategy or content brief

A pretty obvious one this, but when it comes to defining a website’s content elements – namely what content will be required for the site’s functionality and features – things can sometimes get a little sketchy.

Many site owners still assume (or should that be ‘hope’?) that the content part of the job will only involve some form of cut-and-paste – whether from an old website, Word document or an entire content database table. If only this were the case.

A content audit is a document which benchmarks the effectiveness of existing editorial against organisational objectives or key audience requirements and expectations. Clearly, the findings of this document can help vastly improve the quality and effectiveness of a website’s editorial. Document included in this audit normally also include a spreadsheet which transcribes the current sitemap to a tabular format and gives each page a description, status rating and so on.

For example, if the full picture of a site’s editorial content is unknown – particularly after years of amendments or neglect by marketing departments – key stakeholders may run into problems when it comes to identifying which content areas need updating before integration into the site’s shiny new architecture. Put simply, without a content audit, organisations are in danger of focusing the majority of effort on technical features and the look of a new site, only to fill it with out of date or off-key editorial.

Sadly, it’s this eventual realisation – often near the end of the production cycle – that causes many sites to be delayed. Granted, it may only be words, but the reality of hurriedly re-writing an entire website’s copy (the average site hosting around 20,000 words) is not something your internal stakeholders will thank you for.

Avoid under estimating your content needs by producing a dedicated content strategy – preferably one which answers difficult questions. Briefing documents should provide guidance on tone, language, audience and timings, but why not try to apply some rigorous journalistic questioning to your brief’s content approach, namely: what, where, by when, how, why and – perhaps the least most asked question – by whom in which department?

Sitemap and wireframes

A sitemap is required reading for technical teams when estimating resourcing requirements and / or developing a functional specification document. The same should apply to the content production team. A sitemap allows for improved scoping, which helps with all aspects of planning and resourcing during the content production or content migration process.

This can also help to identify typical functional pages that need content, such as terms and conditions, a privacy statement or instructional text for any uploading functionality. As pages like this often fall outside the ‘subject matter’ of a site, they are often left to the last minute or forgotten completely.

Content outline specification

If you really want to help your copywriter, editor or internal marketing team produce editorial that’s on brand, on message and on budget, go beyond a simple sitemap and set aside time to produce a content outline document.

Like a functional specification document, this document provides a detailed walkthrough of the site’s copy section by section (and page by page if necessary). Minimising any confusion about tone and detailing all assumptions about content sources, length expectations and topic focus, this walkthrough document should provide any external suppliers or internal stakeholders with a rock solid blueprint of all content requirements.

Sufficient lead-in time

Like a technical team needs sufficient lead in time to produce effective code, editors need time in order to develop best practice editorial copy. As with rushed code, rushed content will not work. Avoid leaving content until the last minute, even for migration work.

Deadlines help focus everyone’s efforts, none more so than copywriters and site editors who require a minimum period of production time to produce targeted, call-to-action, SEO compliant editorial content. Help editorial teams even further by informing them of final copy deadlines – they will then be able to estimate backwards.

So, now you’ve provided your editorial teams with all of the above, only one more task remains – post launch maintenance.

Keep your site relevant

Why spend time and money developing branded, targeted content your users will thank you for, only to let it go out of date? Content can become outdated very quickly, particularly if you’re dealing with information and guidance materials which refer to timely services and offers.

Users judge your site’s content by its breadth and usefulness, but they also decide whether to trust its information by its date stamp (no date stamp at all is even less assuring). Don’t give users reason to doubt the usefulness of your site’s content – set aside resources to update content on a regular basis and they’ll be more inclined to return to your website.

New Comet website dabbles in publishing

Comet's beta site ramps up content production

Comet's beta site ramps up content production

Comet’s released its beta e-commerce site. Why is it this interesting? Well, they appear to be doing a bit of a ‘Which?’ magazine and become a content producer in their own right. A large part of the site is dedicated to a ‘Knowledge centre’ of articles which looks like an attempt to help their core audience navigate their way around increasingly hi-tech (and increasingly confusing) consumer goods.

You’ll be pleased to hear they’ve resisted the urge to include a carousel of washing machine products on their homepage. Well, nearly. Alas, there are still no prominent Amazon-like ‘warts and all’ product reviews, which would have been brave but brilliant. Instead they’ve teamed up with independent reviews site reevoo, which I can only guess they’ve done to avoid any flack from its suppliers. But how will this work exactly? Will Comet select which reviews to show from this third-party site? How would customers react if not all positive AND negative reviews were shown?

Take a look at the Comet beta site: http://www.comet.co.uk/shopcomet/betahomePage.do?zone_id=13

contentcontent is now on Twitter (when it works)

Apologies for the lack of pithy posts of late.

I’ve been way too busy of late and have decided to share my random pearls of content wisdom with a bunch of Twitter followers.

So there you have it – relationships with websites are just like making friends at school: you move from popular kid to popular kids until you find someone you really like. That said, who knows if I’ll stick with Twitter for the long term? I’m fickle, I know.

SAY HELLO!: http://twitter.com/contentcontent

How to create a content matrix – advice

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A good content matrix can make all the difference when launching a website. Given that delays in content production is often cited as one of the most common reasons a launch date slips, it can even have a positive effect on your career. As in not being sacked.

A content matrix, usually an Excel spreadsheet, ensures the smooth running of the content production or migration process.

The matrix is managed by a content editor, producer or project manager and aims to track all elements of the content development process, page by page.

Used in conjunction with sitemaps and wireframes (preferably ones which have been signed off) , the matrix includes elements such as a page’s title, description and purpose, production status, related links and micro-content like metadata and alt text.

It should also detail who will be providing the content, the content source, who owns the content, any sign off processes, language or format information and, most importantly, all deadlines for delivery.

If you detail all of the above, you should have a clear critical path of content delivery and launch the site on time.