Knowledge Bridge

Global Intelligence for the Digital Transition

//Kevin Anderson /march 22 / 2013

Clear editorial goals essential to effective UGC strategy

When a meteor streaking across the sky in Russia triggered a shockwave which shattered windows and injured more than a thousand people, much of the coverage came from ”dash cams”, video cameras installed on car dashboards.

News website Mediazavod.ru in Chelyabinsk collected pictures and social media updates to illustrate their coverage of the meteor.  MDIF publishes Knowledge Bridge, and Mediazavod is a project of MDIF’s client ChRM.

In one story in which they collected reaction from social media, they quoted Twitter user Igor de Paul, who said:

Judging by the level of noise, Chelyabinsk meteorite fell directly on Twitter.

The Chelyabinsk meteor was just one recent story where people experiencing an event were key in documenting it, and it is just one example of user-generated content, or UGCUGC (User-Generated Content)Content created by the public at large, generally not professionally edited,…//read more , as it has come to be known. Pictures, videos and first-person accounts of news events are just one type of UGC. In addition to these eyewitness materials, users also share their opinions via social media and in the comments on your site. Members of your audience may also share their expertise, their knowledge, which can be a powerful addition to your stories. To get the most benefit from these contributions, it’s important to understand the different types and different ways that people are creating and sharing content.

By understanding the different types of UGC, you can develop the most effective and most efficient way to engage your audience with your journalism.

Types of UGC: Experience, opinion or expertise

I take quite a broad and literal view of user-generated content. For me, it is any content not created by your staff, and this could include:

  • Photos or videos from members of the public, shared online or directly with your publication, your website or your TV or radio station.
  • Pieces written by a member of the public for your site, such as an external blogger, or written on a personal site, which are then republished on your site.
  • Comments on articles, columns or analysis.

In 2013, people are creating and sharing more text, pictures and video than ever before, and the volume of content as well as the number of ways that people are sharing this content can be overwhelming for news organisations. It’s useful to take a step back and clarify your editorial – and business – goals to help you focus your efforts.

From an editorial point of view, there are three broad types of UGC. Each type of UGC is used to achieve a different strategic purpose:

  • Gathering people’s experiences: this is a way of enhancing your own news coverage and is most useful when covering a fast-developing story, such as a natural disaster or a terrorist attack. Eyewitness reports can be integrated into your coverage to give it added immediacy, insight and depth, or it can stand alone to provide a complementary, often more emotional, view of events. While most useful during breaking news events, news organisations often build up a relationship with their audiences by asking for pictures or videos for things like popular festivals and the weather. Then, when news breaks, audiences are in the habit of sending their pictures and videos to you.
  • Gathering people’s opinions: providing space for your audience to share their opinions on specific stories or features is a way to help build audience engagement and loyalty. However, you need to take into account the cost of monitoring comments.
  • Gathering people’s expertise: if you need expertise in a subject that your traditional sources don’t possess, you might be able to call on a member of your audience as an extra resource to help develop a story. Or on a more basic level, you may be able to quote them as a source.

By looking at these editorial goals more closely, you should be able to develop the best approach to achieve your objectives. Here we’ll be looking at UGC strategies, but over the coming weeks, we’ll also be creating guides to help you put these strategies in action.

Gathering people’s experiences

Barack Obama in an Irish pub on St Patricks Day 2012 from US government

Gathering people’s experiences has been one of the greatest areas of focus for news organisations. Most news businesses now understand that it is an extension of traditional reporting. This material has often been called citizen journalism, but that umbrella term actually captures a lot of different activities and often mistakenly layers on the professional motivations of journalists on citizens who just want to take a picture or record a video to say “I was there”. Political groups are now creating and distributing their own material in an effort to gain support for their causes. Regardless of the motivation, it has become a powerful force in journalism, giving rise to social media editors and verification teams to analyse and authenticate the material being shared.

  • The 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami was one of the earlier examples of how inexpensive digital video cameras helped capture a story in ways that would have previously been impossible.
  • Japan recently commemorated two years since the devastating earthquake and tsunami that devastated coastal cities and triggered the Fukushima nuclear incident. For days after the massive wave inundated Japanese cities, videos taken by people caught up in the tragedy were posted to YouTube and picked up by news channels around the world.
  • During the Arab Spring, UGC was often an important element in telling the story, and now in Syria, opposition forces have their own Facebook pages and YouTube channels. Such material provided critical material in the early days of the conflict when the Syrian government severely limited access to the country by foreign journalists, but it also raised issues about the veracity of the material.

I was in the BBC website newsroom when the first reports of the 7 July 2005 London bombings came in. The story marked a watershed in BBC coverage, as the broadcaster’s media correspondent Torin Douglas noted at the time:

That day, the BBC received 22,000 emails and text messages about the London tube and bus bombings.

There were 300 photos – 50 within an hour of the first bomb going off – and several video sequences.

In operational terms, we can break down the process of gathering people’s experiences into two broad methods:

  • Finding comments and media that people are sharing online.
  • Gathering comments and media directly from audiences.

With the tremendous volume of content that people are posting online, many news organisations have developed techniques to efficiently find and verify material online as well as policies on the use of such material that is consistent with their existing editorial standards and guidelines.

Techniques to help gather this type of UGC material include:

  • Engaging users via pages or accounts on popular social networks such as Facebook, vKontakte and Twitter.
  • Using social media dashboard applications and services such as Tweetdeck, Hootsuite or Sproutsocial that allow you to efficiently monitor multiple social networks, accounts, hashtags and search terms at once.
  • Using advanced search techniques to find photos and video. Twitter has a number of advanced, but not well known, ways to search updates, allowing you to only see those with images, video or updates from a specific location.
  • New types of social media applications such as Geofeedia that allow journalists to quickly find social media updates, video and photos based on location.

However, material published online is just one way to get photos, videos and eyewitness accounts. Long before social media, there were many lower-tech ways to gather such material, and those techniques still work, especially in places where internet access is limited.

Before the BBC created its UGC hub, the BBC News website simply added an email address at the bottom of stories to ask if people had information about the story. With the rise of mobile phones, they then added SMS and multimedia message numbers. Due to this early move into taking reports from the public, the BBC was uniquely positioned to take in material from the public during the 7 July 2005 bombings.

Texting in Uganda by Ken Banks from Flickr

SMS is still a very effective way to get news tips and get information from the public. Photo credit: Texting in Uganda by Ken Banks from Flickr

SMS and MMS remain an excellent way to gather eyewitness reports because not only do you get the message, but it is easy to call the person who submitted the report for additional information or for verification. For news organisations, FrontlineSMS, a free, open-source SMS message management application, can help them manage text messages by adding keywordKeywordSpecific word(s) entered into a search engine by the user that result(s) in a…//read more  searches. It also adds functions such as being able to conduct polls via SMS.

Samuel Ndhlovu, news editor for Breeze FM in Zambia, says the station uses FrontlineSMS in a number of ways to engage audiences including “to get news tips from our listeners”.

Other technologies such as Interactive Voice Response (IVR) are also being used by radio stations both to deliver their content and to receive news tips from listeners via mobile phones, Gopal Guragain, the executive chairman of Communication Corner the parent company of Nepali radio network Ujyaalo 90, told MDIF’s media forum in Jakarta last December.

Your audience wants to contribute, and it’s important that you give them as many ways to do it as possible and take into account the ways that they are already sharing content and the technology that is most available and affordable to them.

Key points: Using photos, videos and eyewitness reports from your audience can add greatly to your reports, and it can also help you build loyalty with your audiences. Make sure that your audience knows how to send their submissions to you. Publicise your SMS, IVR, email and social media contact details, and when users contribute to your reports, make sure to credit them. Let them know that their contributions are valued, and you’ll get more and higher quality contributions.

Gathering people’s opinions

Probably the next most common way for news organisations to take advantage of UGC is to gather people’s opinions. Again, just as with collecting eyewitness material for news reports, methods for gathering opinions can be broken down into two main types: offsite and onsite. You can either monitor social media and find people’s opinions via social media, or you can have comments below articles, forums or direct ways for people to submit their opinions.

In terms of canvassing opinions via social media, many of the same techniques that are used for finding eyewitness accounts or multimedia are effective. Many organisations use their social media accounts to gather opinion as well as material for news reports.

Of course, one of the most common ways for websites to gather opinion is via comments below articles. Comments can be an excellent way to engage your audience, but I think it’s important to consider your editorial goal. Some news organisations believe that comments are a good way to gather eyewitness accounts, but the public often view this not as a place to leave an eyewitness report but simply as a place to state their opinion. As noted above, it might be better to list an email address and an SMS number where people can send their reports rather than open comments on a story.

Comments also have a cost, in time and money. News organisations spend money on services or staff to monitor comments, not only for content that might be valuable for reporting but also for potentially libelous material or material that simply breaks their community policies. Yes, this can be done by staff, but that still takes up time and is a cost to your business.

Too many websites have focused on quantity over quality in terms of opinion, enabling comments across the entire site. The reasoning is often that they believe, admirably, that they should give everyone a right to have their say. From a business standpoint, such strategies are an attempt to compete with social networks for discussion and the high time on site that can come with it.

From my experience, online communities on news websites need to start small and then grow. I increasingly think that they rarely belong on news stories, and for many news organisations with limited resources, it makes more sense to limit comments to opinion pieces, blog posts and other features that are meant to solicit public opinion, rather than enable them across the site. Have specific features focused on stories that your audiences care about the most and are talking about the most. Focus the conversation and play an active role in it, highlighting the best contributions.

I also think that registration makes sense. This might deter some from participating, but it will demonstrate at least a minimum level of commitment to your journalism and your community. Completely open comments are an easy invitation for abuse and for people who simply want to antagonise others rather than have a meaningful discussion. Besides, registration can gather important details about your audience that will be helpful in selling to your advertisers.

Just as with gathering eyewitness material, website comments and social media are just two high-tech ways to gather opinion. SMS, phone calls or even good old-fashioned live audiences can all be used to gather public opinion.

Tried and true non-digital methods still have a place in a digital world. As Ndhlovu of Breeze FM says, they use SMS not only to gather opinion but also to solicit programme feedback:

FrontlineSMS is mostly used to engage with our listeners on a number of issues, which include programmes on agriculture, health, education, environment and development. The station also uses Frontline for debate on important issues through our programme called “People’s View Point”.

Frontline is also used to get feedback from listeners on our programming. Listeners are encouraged to send text messages, which assists the station to tailor our programmes according to the needs of our audience.

Key points: When it comes to gathering opinion, less can often be more. Unfocused efforts to gather audience opinion can come with high management costs. It’s important not to conflate your efforts to gather eyewitness reports, photos and videos with efforts to gather opinion. Keep your efforts to gather both focused and be clear with audiences about what you want and you’ll get better more manageable results.

Gathering people’s expertise

Tapping into the expertise and knowledge of your audience is probably one of the least explored opportunities by news organisations and, apart from a few examples, such efforts rarely are separated out from gathering eyewitness accounts or opinion. At the moment, many news organisations find excellent unknown sources of information in comments on their stories almost by accident rather than through a well thought-out strategy. For those who do look to their communities and have a budget for it, they do so through a relatively large dedicated team of community managers – a cost that many news organisations cannot afford.

While I was working at The Guardian, we did try a few useful low-cost experiments that tapped into the knowledge of their audience. During an investigation into former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s finances, they came to a point where they needed specialist knowledge. In the past, they might have found and interviewed a forensic accountant to untangle the web of his finances. Instead, they honestly admitted the limits of their knowledge and reached out to Guardian readers to help fill in the blanks. For the person who helped them, they offered an original political cartoon created by Steve Bell, one of the best known political cartoonists in Britain. They launched the effort on 1 December 2009 and posted many of the source documents online. By 17 December, they declared the case solved with the help of “Richard Murphy, a crusading accountant from Tax Research UK”.

It was an interesting project, but the problem is that such crowdsourcingCrowdsourcingTaking a task that would conventionally be performed by a contractor or…//read more  efforts don’t scale. It’s difficult to do such projects frequently because they take a lot of effort. One could argue that investigations always do, but it might have been quicker just to consult a forensic accountant rather than turn it into a contest.

However, there are other innovative projects that have developed methods for news organisations to systematically tap into the knowledge of their audiences. One such project is the Public Insight Network. The project created by American Public Media in the US helps news organisations not only find informed sources in their audiences, but it also helps newsrooms keep track of those sources for future stories. The system uses a database to store audience members who have contributed to stories in the past, storing both the types of stories they contributed to and expertise they might have. This allows participating news organisations to know what stories the audience member might be interested in contributing to and also what knowledge and expertise they might have to contribute to future stories.

Projects like the Public Insight Network show that there is real potential in systematically tapping into the knowledge of your audience, as well as their experiences and opinion. By clearly identifying your editorial goals, your UGC efforts will be more focused and more effective, using fewer resources and delivering better results.

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