Knowledge Bridge

Global Intelligence for the Digital Transition

UGC: Focus and diverse revenues key to commercial succes

In countless examples, news organisations have seen how user-generated content (UGCUGC (User-Generated Content)Content created by the public at large, generally not professionally edited,…

In newsrooms, some journalists worry that UGC is simply a cheap replacement for traditional reporting. However, if not done strategically, UGC is anything but cheap, costing money in the form of staff time to monitor and moderate comments, as well as sifting through a huge volume of user submissions or content on social media sites. It’s important for news organisations to develop a UGC strategy that balances costs, revenue and editorial value.

Focused editorial strategy

Digital media and UGC can deliver richer content at little cost, but savings are only achievable with a focused editorial strategy with clear goals and a systematic, scalable way to achieve them.

As we discuss in the main piece for this month’s Digital Briefing, there are a number of key editorial goals that UGC can deliver:

  • Gathering people’s experience, their photos, videos and eyewitness accounts.
  • Gathering people’s opinions, either via social media, comments on your site or blog posts from the public.
  • Gathering people’s expertise by finding knowledgeable members of your audience.

The first step in developing your UGC strategy is to consider what you’re trying to achieve. Focus is key, and sites such Slovak news magazine Týždeň have switched from open, high-volume blogging strategies to a “VIP” blogging model where they choose the bloggers. Federika Homolková, Managing Director of Týždeň’s publishing house, said this about their change in strategy:

At first, we opened the blogs for everyone so that anyone could set up a blog and start blogging. We had hundreds of bloggers, but actually only about a dozen of them were active. It was quantity but not quality, and we are all about quality and not quantity.

In switching models, they have cut the number of bloggers to roughly a tenth of what they were under the open model, but traffic has remained the same despite the reduction in volume of content.

When making your business plan, it’s also important to be clear that UGC is not free content. You will want to consider the costs of training your staff, or if you have the budget, hiring a social media or community editor to help gather and evaluate UGC.

If comments and on-site community are a key part of your UGC strategy, you should consider the cost of monitoring and moderating comments. Monitoring and moderating comments is important. Community strategies can help you find new stories but only if staff are monitoring the comments. By keeping comments focused on areas where you think there will be the most debate or possibility for community contributions, this will keep the editorial and financial costs manageable. Moderation is important because while you want the debate to be lively and contentious, you don’t want it to become overly combative and caustic. If your community becomes toxic, it can also be toxic to advertisers.

Large news organisations often have special community management staff or hire outside companies to monitor their comments. For smaller news organisations, this is often not financially viable. You can allow your audience to report abuse or report comments that they find offensive or think break your community policy, but if your site has a high volume of comments, this will become difficult as well. One way that many news organisations encourage engagement but keep contributions to a manageable level is not to enable comments on all articles. Enable comments only on the stories which you believe your audience will be most interested in debating or discussing.

Some news groups that have pursued focused UGC strategies have found tangible benefits. The Guardian often involves its audience in its reporting, a process known as crowdsourcingCrowdsourcingTaking a task that would conventionally be performed by a contractor or…

In short, these users were much more engaged than the average user, and they spent much more time with Guardian content. This high level of engagement is important not only for the success of these crowdsourcing projects, but it also has commercial value; it is very hard to earn revenue from members of the audience who come to your site, view a single page and then leave quickly.

Attracting new audiences and advertisers

An effective UGC strategy can also be used to attract new audiences, people you don’t reachReach1) unique users that visited the site over the course of the reporting period,…

One great example of a UGC strategy that helped a newspaper attract a new audience is STOMP, Singapore’s Strait Times Online-Mobile-Print project. The award-winning project has taken advantage of user-submitted photos, blogs and social media to attract younger readers. The site used a sophisticated means of rewarding loyal users long before it became commonplace on social networks, and it tapped into the use of camera phones and mobile just as the smartphone revolution was taking off. While many newspapers find it difficult to attract younger readers, STOMP has delivered a demographic that doesn’t have a strong relationship with print.

Another UGC strategy that has been pursued by many publications is to develop a network of niche, often lifestyle blogs, written by non-staff members. The blogs cover things like food, school sports, hunting and fishing or other popular activities that newspapers, especially smaller ones, couldn’t otherwise cover.

The Spokane Spokesman-Review in the western US state of Washington launched a blog network following this strategy a decade ago. The pitch to local advertisers is that these blogs attract a specific, not general, audience, delivering people they know are likely to be interested in their products. For instance, a local food and cooking blog, which the network has, can be attractive to local markets and speciality food producers. Their outdoors blog will attract readers that outdoor stores or wilderness travel groups will want to reach. It’s a form of targeted advertising based on content. In the past, this would have been done using a special supplement, but now it can be done much more cheaply, in terms of production and content costs, using blogs.

Direct revenue opportunities

Some news groups are even experimenting with direct revenue from UGC. After Barack Obama’s historic 2008 election, The Guardian asked for pictures from its online audience with the theme “Message for Obama”. They used Yahoo’s photo-sharing site Flickr to gather the pictures and posted the images on their site. With people using homemade signs and self-portraits, they sent a range of messages such as “Be Safe” or “I did not vote for you”. After collecting more than a thousand pictures, they used a print-on-demandOn-demandThe ability to request video, audio, or information to be sent to the screen…

In January, we looked at how El Faro in El Salvador asked Salvadorans both at home and abroad for ideas to make the country better. They submitted their suggestions by posting them on Twitter using a common hashtag, #TuideaEF, which means “your idea” in Spanish with EF for El Faro. They chose the best 200 and had their political cartoonist, Otto Meza, illustrate those suggestions, and they published these ideas in a book. The first print run sold out.

Newspapers with printing plants have a unique opportunity to collect UGC digital content and print it in other media to earn revenue, but as The Guardian showed, there are a number of low-cost print-on-demand services that allow anyone to create books or other products out of UGC that you can sell. You’ll want to be clear when you collect the photos or videos about how you plan to use them. Most people who submit their photos or videos are not looking for money, just recognition, so from the start you should be upfront about your goals.

With a focused editorial and commercial strategy, UGC can be an important element in enriching your coverage and adding revenue to support your traditional newsgathering efforts. UGC isn’t free content, but there are a number of commercial strategies that you can employ to leverage it to generate meaningful new revenue.

Article by Kevin Anderson

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