The usual term for this phenomenon is “UGC”—user-generated content. I prefer the term customer-contributed content because it rolls off the tongue better and fits our definition of a customer as an end-user of the goods and services you provide (whether they or someone else pays for those services).
On February 6, 2008, the Professional and Scholarly Publishing (PSP) division of the American Association of Publishers held its annual symposium. For the second year, I was the moderator for a day of fascinating talks and case studies. The topic at hand was Cyberscholarship: Where are our users taking us? The objectives for the meeting were to gain a clearer sense of:
1) How do today’s readers, scholars, and professionals want to interact around professional and scholarly content?
2) How do they want to use and interact with published research?
3) How do they want to learn from each other?
The panelists included Kevin McKean, VP and Editorial Director of Consumers Union; Paris Patton, VP of consumer research firm Sachs Insights; Mark Ranalli, President and CEO of Helium; Melissa Burke, Director of Strategic Partnerships for Sermo; and Bryce Johnson, President and CEO of CafeScribe. What all of the panelists had in common was a passion to make it easy for customers to interact with and to contribute content.
Here are the patterns and take-aways I gleaned from that event:
1. MAKE IT EASY FOR CUSTOMERS TO CONTRIBUTE DOMAIN EXPERTISE. Your customers know more than you do about the application of knowledge and solutions in their fields.
2. PROVIDE STRUCTURE FOR USERS’ CONTRIBUTIONS. Use forms, fields, and samples to guide contributors in creating meaningful offerings with little effort. Structured posts reduce blather and make it easy to capture information in a database.
3. PROVIDE VALUE BY REVEALING PATTERNS. Use the structured content to analyze and compare users’ contributions in ways that show surprising correlations and provide added-value.
4. USE RATINGS TO IMPROVE THE QUALITY OF SUBMISSIONS. Have users rate content, products, solutions. Have users rate the ratings.
5. USE POLLS TO SIMPLIFY THE FRAMING OF ISSUES. One way to add structure is to frame the dialog/debate, or better yet, let users frame it by creating a poll as part of their submissions.
6. ENABLE CUSTOMERS TO ADD MEANINGFUL DISTINCTIONS. Make it easy for customers to add attributes and parameters to the ones your experts have selected in evaluating or rating solutions, content, or products.
7. USE PROACTIVE OUTREACH AND TOPICAL ALERTS TO ATTRACT USERS. Use proactive email marketing campaigns on topics of interest to draw prospects and customers to your site to participate in the conversation. Make it easy for customers to set alerts on the topics or discussions they want to follow.
8. SYNDICATE CONTENT IN; SYNDICATE CONVERSATIONS OUT. Provide a lot of relevant content for users to rate, review, and comment upon. Include content from relevant external sources. Let the ratings and conversations around the content appear anywhere that the content appears on the Web.
9. MAKE THE ORGANIZATIONAL COMMITMENT TO NURTURE CUSTOMER-GENERATED CONTENT. Whether or not you know what the business model/ROI is, you need to commit resources and focus to nurturing customer-generated content. This should be a cross-functional passion and commitment, not a silo’d activity.
10. LEVERAGE THE PATTERNS OF INTEREST AND ENGAGEMENT. Study how users in your field monitor and interact with information. Adjust your information metabolism and topics to meet the needs of your intended audience.
Two Unique and Interesting Examples of Customer-Contributed Content
The two companies that got everyone talking at the conference were Sermo.com and Helium.com. They both have high quality customer-contributed content that is very valuable. They both have unique business models.
SERMO: Physicians Compare Notes about Treatment Options
Melissa Burke gave a very articulate and wonderful “behind the scenes” look at Sermo. Sermo.com is a physicians’ only site. To become a member, you have to be a registered physician. The site owners know who you are and what your credentials are, but you remain anonymous to the other members (with a pen name). Melissa characterized this as: “anonymity with accountability.” You know you’re confiding in your peers, but there are no fears of repercussions. This makes the dialog more compelling, candid, and useful.
Sermo has more than 50,000 current verified U.S. physicians as members, with new members joining at a rate of 2,000 per week. (This is not by accident; Sermo has staff devoted to recruitment and retention, as well as a referral bounty of $200.) There are currently 40,000 member contributions per week. Active users average an hour on the site per week. A new post can generate 2,500 physician responses in four hours. (Sermo uses email alerts and notifications that members can set up by topic or practice area.)
One of the most popular categories of posts is “Treatment Challenges.” These are structured posts, with a short summary of the presenting symptoms (minus patient names), accompanied by photos, x-rays, or other collateral and a poll in which the physician lists several treatment options for other physicians to select and comment upon (or offer alternatives). The poll results remain hidden to respondents for a week so that they aren’t influenced by others’ votes, but the doctor with the question sees the votes and suggestions pour in almost immediately.
There are other topics discussed as well, ranging from discussions about FDA alerts, Medicare payment changes, and newly published medical research, among others.
Business Model Is Based on Information Arbitrage
The site is free to practicing physicians, but funded by organizations that are happy to pay to get into the minds of practicing physicians to gain visibility into early patterns. There is no advertising, but there are client/sponsors. Among the sponsors are the FDA, the American Medical Association, pharmaceutical companies, and investment firms. These clients are known to the members. Their queries and surveys are clearly marked as coming from a specific client/sponsor. Clients do not see each others’ questions or surveys. Clients also get to see the results of physicians’ polls as they are coming in. As you can imagine, tapping into these early patterns is extremely valuable to the clients.
What Works for Physicians
The Sermo site is well-designed and easy to navigate and use. The information architecture is well thought out to maximize ease of contribution and ease of pattern recognition. The combination of structured posts, polls, taxonomy, and folksonomy makes it easy for time-pressed professionals to get right to the heart of the matter. They feel a strong sense of peer community and belonging. They value the opportunity to collaborate around thorny issues.
One of the initial successful experiments was bring FDA Alerts into the Sermo site. These early warning notices are really valuable to physicians, but sometimes get missed. Now they are gaining lots of traction through dialog and discussion. “Physicians are trained to work collaboratively,” Melissa explained. Collaboration actually affects the practice of medicine.”
Syndicating Information Into and Out of the Closed Community
Sermo also provides one-stop shopping. It is now the largest “Journal Club.” The site presents abstracts from the most popular medical journals to make it easy for physicians to find and discuss current research. They pull in journal abstracts from PubMed. The physicians can view the abstract, click on it, and start a discussion on it...
This helps physicians “translate research into practice and speeds that practice. Physicians vet their own ideas, spawn new ideas. This reduces the amount of time it takes to move research into practice,” Melissa Burke explained.
In a relatively new initiative, Sermo is partnering with Nature Publishing Group to provide access to the 12 of its journals from the Sermo site, and to syndicate back to Nature the specific discussions that physicians are having around these articles. Nature features a “Discuss on Sermo” button next to each of these articles to encourage physicians to join into the discussion on Sermo and to join Sermo if they aren’t already members.
Helium: Subject Matter Experts Submit and Rate Each Others’ Content
Mark Ranalli, the founder and CEO of Helium focused on the challenge that Consumer Union’s Kevin McKean had introduced at the outset of the meeting: how to distill valuable content from “blather.” Helium.com is a site where budding or professional writers can contribute content on a variety of topics, engage in debates, and rank each others’ submissions. Here’s how it works. You pick a topic, submit an article or essay or debate entry. After you have submitted your own writing, you have an opportunity to compare and rate others’ submissions in that topic area. You are shown two articles at a time, and you rate them by deciding whether article A or B is more valuable to you on a three-point scale (Article A is slightly more, more, or by far more valuable than Article B). You don’t get to rate your own article, but you can rate everyone else’s. Over time, this rating approach moves the best written, best thought-out articles to the top of the pile in each topic area.
Winning writers get paid for their work through a revenue-sharing model. If you write in a topic area or channel that is valued by Helium’s advertisers and sponsors, you’ll earn more money. Helium also runs contests and offers a marketplace for publications that purchase writing. Good writers in a particular field are able to make from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars by submitting good writing in popular or sponsored areas and by rising to the top of the rankings and by popularizing their work by sending links to others. However, remember that only writers on a particular topic can rate others’ writing on that topic, so your friends and family can’t really tip the scale (unless they’re equally talented and knowledgeable and willing to commit the time and effort to contributing, but then, they’d want to win!).
Helium was launched in October 2006. The site now boasts 100,000 active writers who have contributed 840,000 articles on 80,000 unique subjects in 1,000 channels (e.g., Business/Marketing or Home & Garden/Gardening/Annuals). The site had 2.5 million visitors in January 2007, with 50,000 new articles published in January. Writers peer-review 600,000 rating pairs each month.
Helium makes money through advertising, sponsorships, and helping associations and publications find great content and good writers. It has succeeded in attracting people who tried their hands at blogging but found it unrewarding because they weren’t reaching people who actually knew a lot about their subject or passion. Writers enjoy the fact that they own their copyright, they get recognition, they get peer review from others in their fields, and they get rewarded for the quality of their writing!
Key Take-Away: Don’t Underestimate Customers’ Perspectives and Expertise
Kevin McKean is the vice president and editorial director of Consumers Union, the non-profit publisher of Consumer Reports magazine and ConsumerReports.org. Consumer Reports has 4.4 million subscribers to its print magazine and 3 million paying subscribers to its online site Consumerreports.org. “This makes us the largest online provider of paid content in the world,” Kevin explained.
The goal of Kevin’s talk on “The Wisdom and Madness of Crowds” was to give scholarly and professional publishers an overview of what’s actually happening in customer-contributed content across the board, not just at Consumers Union. His focus was primarily on consumer publications and media outlets, as opposed to professional or scholarly publications.
Users’ Unique Perspectives Are Important
Kevin began his talk with a series of examples of citizen journalism. He showed:
- The first video reporting from the Virginia Tech massacre by student Jamal Albarghouti using the video/audio recording of the shots being fired on his Nokia cell phone and uploaded to CNN’s I-Report within minutes of the first shooting. As he told CNN later, “who else would I give it to?” CNN’s I-Reports is a section of CNN’s Web site that is entirely devoted to customer-contributed videos. According to Kevin, CNN gets 3,000 to 4,000 submissions per month, of which perhaps 500 to 600 are approved for broadcast after vetting and verification.
- Photographs of the Tsunami in Thailand taken just before the first tidal wave hit, recovered from the camera of a Canadian couple, John and Jackie Knill, two months after they drowned in that natural disaster.
“By virtue of where they were, who they were, and when they were there... they had a perspective that turned out to be important later,” Kevin explained. “What distinguished these people was partly just being in the right (or wrong) place at the right (or wrong) time. This unique perspective gave them inside knowledge that no professional journalist shared.”
The same is true for your audience, Kevin went on to say, “by virtue of their role as experts or scholars, they know things you can’t about subjects of keen interest to you and to them—so that your job is to extract that knowledge from them and play that back to them using the Web.”
Examples of Other Sites that Solicit and Vet Consumer-Contributed Content
One of the themes that Kevin McKean introduced early in his talk was the importance of separating content from “blather.” On the topic of citizen journalism, he offered several examples:
- Consumerist.com. Kevin McKean showed a YouTube video of exploding Pyrex bowls featured on Consumerist.com. (Apparently many people don’t realize that oven-proof Pyrex cannot be used to cook food on a stove burner.) Kevin commented that, although Consumers Union has laboratories for scientifically testing products, the kinds of uses that consumers put products through are often surprising.
Consumerist.com is a consumer watch blog published by Gawker Media. It uses a lot of customer-contributed content. To maintain high quality of submissions and comments, Consumerist.com requires that you “audition” first on the site. You submit one or more comments on one or more threads, and provide a username and password. To pass the audition, offer “an interesting, substantial, or highly amusing comment.” Consumers’ complaints and stories are edited and vetted by the site’s editors before they’re posted. Once posted, these customer service SNAFUs and customer-unfriendly policies get a lot of attention. They’re amplified through DIGG voting as well as press attention. The result: companies dread being featured in a Consumerist post. As a result, they scramble to fix the problem for the affected consumer. Consumerist encourages readers to post photos on a Consumerist section of Flickr for use on the site. Their editors troll YouTube in search of relevant videos which they syndicate with commentary.
- THINK MTV. MTV launched a beta, by-invitation-only activist site for teens and young adults in September 2007, called THINK MTV. Supported by grants from a number of foundations, MTV solicited budding young citizen journalists to participate in contributing content, including blog posts, video, audio, and photos. To cover the U.S. election campaign, MTV gave laptops and video cell phones to young volunteers in 50 States and D.C. as part of its “Choose or Lose” marketing blitz to promote involvement by young people. Members of this “MTV Street Team 08” have been providing commentary in each of the primary and caucus states. But others have joined in with their own commentary. Once the site’s content was seeded by these teen activists, MTV has opened it up to others. You apply for membership, including providing enough information about your high school or college that it can be double-checked (to be sure you’re in the right age group). Submissions are also vetted before they’re published. Think asks its young contributors to post on a variety of “Issues” including: discrimination, education, environment, human rights, politics, relationships and sex, substance abuse, faith and spirituality, war and peace, health and self, poverty and disease, crime and violence. By starting with hand-picked contributors (many of them journalism students), constraining topics, and vetting submissions, they’re keeping the quality of the discourse high.
After giving a lot of other great examples, Kevin McLean summarized with these 9 best practices:
1. “Get users to contribute content, not blather. Have users deliver specific content that complements your mission that they know more about than you do. It must be something they’re passionate about; it should be something they know and you don’t!
2. “Structure the input. Set up the input from your users so that they are answering specific questions or even plugging specific values into a database (e.g., ingredients in a recipe).
3. “Analyze the data. Structured data lends itself well to automatic analysis, but even with unstructured or semi-structured posts, it is often possible to extract useful information via data mining.
4. “Control access. Some strategies that work: Admit subscribers only; have users apply to post with vetting by you or the community; have them pay to post.
5. “But also actively promote participation. Given the possible need to control access, it’s all the more important to ‘market’ participation rather then just letting UGC grow organically. Use on-site promos, email blasts, awards, prizes or public kudos, discounts on membership, or relevant merchandise.
6. “Get staff to participate. They should be active members of the community.
7. “Cherish the surprises. Be tolerant when users criticize your site, your articles, your facts, your opinions, etc. as they inevitably do. In fact, such discrepancies between you and them are highly valuable. (Kevin showed an example in which cameras rated highly by Consumer Union’s experts were rated poorly by users because they required the use of a tripod, which users didn’t realize was important to get a good image at high magnification, but experts took for granted.)
8. “Monetize the content. Advertisers have been slow to embrace user-generated content, but are now getting the message. You can also syndicate your content, integrate it with other content and sell it, create indices, reports, and other marketable information.
9. “Be prepared for trouble. Trouble, like unfavorable content, out-of-control ‘wikitorials,’ (things that quickly attract off-topic material), surreptitious role-playing (people with a profit motive masquerading as objective contributors), toxic drivel, but not, perhaps fatal legal problems. (Your legal protection against slanderous and damaging posts is quite strong.)”
1) This talk was prepared with the help of Dirk Klingner at Consumers Union. Dirk found most of the examples. His role, among others, at CU is to keep all the executives abreast of the latest trends in customers’ online behavior.