The value of User-Gen­er­ated Con­tent in main­stream me­dia

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When dig­i­tal tech­nol­ogy over­took many phys­i­cal in­ter­ac­tions be­tween busi­nesses and con­sumers, and prod­ucts be­came more com­modi­tized, the big­gest dif­fer­en­tia­tor be­tween com­pa­nies com­pet­ing for con­sumers’ time, at­ten­tion, and money was trust.

Trust is one of the most trea­sured of all as­sets be­cause it takes years to earn it and sec­onds to lose it. With­out trust, a con­sumer-cen­tric or­ga­ni­za­tion is doomed.

Today, ev­ery brand in the world is, or should be, vy­ing for that same trusted re­la­tion­ship — a re­la­tion­ship Edel­man’s 2017 Trust Barom­e­ter con­firms is in cri­sis, “It used to be that peo­ple lis­tened to brands. Brands could be trusted. How­ever nowa­days, peo­ple don’t be­lieve brands any­more. Suc­cess­ful brands that in­no­vate well aren’t what they used to be, they cre­ate hu­man re­la­tion­ships, they have many living qual­i­ties — they are the Earned Brands.”

User-Gen­er­ated Con­tent (UGC), such as prod­uct re­views, can make or break a busi­ness, which is why the most suc­cess­ful ecom­merce com­pa­nies put peo­ple’s on­line ex­pe­ri­ence at the top of their agenda. Take a look at Ama­zon and eBay. In the early 1990s, even be­fore the dig­i­tal rev­o­lu­tion took off,they con­vinced peo­ple to trust them with their per­sonal data and credit card in­for­ma­tion and, in eBay’s case, other face­less con­sumers in peer-to-peer auc­tions.

Today, 81% of peo­ple’s buy­ing de­ci­sions are in­flu­enced by friends’ posts on so­cial net­works — one of the most com­mon forms of UGC today. But UGC has been around much longer than so­cial me­dia. Some spec­u­late it may have started with let­ters to ed­i­tors in news­pa­pers back in the 1700s.

In 2007, Ac­cen­ture re­ported that se­nior me­dia ex­ec­u­tives saw UGC as the big­gest threat to the sur­vival of their busi­nesses. Shortly there­after we started to see more and more news­pa­pers and mag­a­zines ban­ning com­ments from their sites and en­cour­ag­ing read­ers to share their opin­ions on so­cial me­dia. Lit­tle did those pub­lish­ers know that they were sign­ing their own dig­i­tal death war­rants. They may not be dead yet, but if they don’t change their tune about users soon, they will soon find them­selves singing (and writ­ing for) an au­di­ence of none.

UGC is per­va­sive and it’s not slow­ing down. Most is garbage, I’ll grant you that, but there are also many gems to be mined in cy­berspace. Some pub­lish­ers have fig­ured it out and are start­ing to reap the ben­e­fits of a longer and more trust­ing re­la­tion­ship with am­a­teur con­tent cre­ators.


As far back as 2011, eye­wit­ness video by lo­cal cit­i­zens was in­te­grated into the pub­lic broad­caster’s cov­er­age of the con­flicts in Syria on BBC World News TV.

For the past year, the BBC has taken the re­la­tion­ship with its au­di­ence even fur­ther by en­cour­ag­ing them to ask ques­tions at the pitch­ing stage of an ar­ti­cle and pro­vide feed­back through the re­port­ing process. The re­sult is more rel­e­vant and en­gag­ing con­tent for an in­vested au­di­ence and brand eq­uity for the BBC.

The Guardian

A long-time sup­porter of UGC, The Guardian re­in­forced its po­si­tion that jour­nal­ism is a two-way con­ver­sa­tion in 2013 with the launch of GuardianWit­ness — the home for user-gen­er­ated news, videos, photos, sto­ries and other cre­ations peo­ple can share through their iOS and An­droid apps.

The bar­rier to en­try is low for users who are de­lighted to see their con­tent ap­pear on such a prom­i­nent news out­let’s web­site. And for those who pro­duce high qual­ity con­tent, they can fur­ther en­joy the pres­tige of be­ing show­cased on the main site and even in print. It’s a win-win for both cit­i­zen jour­nal­ists and the pub­lisher.

The Guardian reached the 500,000 reg­u­lar-pay­ing-sup­port­ers mile­stone in Oc­to­ber 2017 af­ter rolling out its three­year mem­ber­ship cam­paign in se­lect markets start­ing in 2014.

It’s not yet up there with The New York Times (2.1 mil­lion dig­i­tal sub­scribers since 2011) or The Wash­ing­ton Post (1.2 mil­lion since 2013).

But when one con­sid­ers that in July 2016 The Guardian only had 50,000 pay­ing mem­bers, one can’t help but spec­u­late that its com­mit­ment to hav­ing a two-way di­a­logue with its au­di­ence, re­spect­ing and pub­lish­ing their con­tent, and en­gag­ing them fur­ther through mem­ber-only events, seems to pay­ing div­i­dends.

UGC is here to stay

As of Jan­uary 2017, over 4.9 bil­lion peo­ple owned a smart­phone which could not just shoot pic­tures and video, but edit them and share them at lit­er­ally no cost.

The amount of UGC on the web is astro­nom­i­cal and much of which, I agree, isn’t worth the bits it’s us­ing to pub­lish it. But UGC is noth­ing to sneeze at ei­ther — it can, and of­ten does, drive eye­balls, en­gage­ment and sales for brands across all in­dus­tries, in­clud­ing pub­lish­ing.

Peo­ple are 200% more likely to share UGC than brand-cre­ated con­tent. In fact, 85% of peo­ple say vis­ual UGC in­flu­ences them more than brand-gen­er­ated videos or photos. On Face­book, UGC ads have a 300% higher click-through rate and 50% lower cost-per-click and cost-per-ac­qui­si­tion rates.

User-gen­er­ated con­tent has got­ten a lot of crit­i­cism over the years and I to­tally agree that some of the com­ments on news web­sites are hor­rific and in des­per­ate need of mod­er­a­tion. But that’s no rea­son to pun­ish the many for the sins of a few. Sure, there are peo­ple who cre­ate ma­li­cious and fake con­tent with­out any moral or edi­to­rial over­sight, but they are not the ma­jor­ity.

Last year, in our in­ter­view with Michael Rosen­blum, who, for over 25 years, has been lead­ing the charge in the dig­i­tal video jour­nal­ist rev­o­lu­tion, we talked about the role of user-gen­er­ated video in the pub­lish­ing in­dus­try.

He pre­dicted that the most suc­cess­ful news or­ga­ni­za­tions in the fu­ture will be those that have no pro­fes­sional jour­nal­ists work­ing for them at all. To some that may sound far­fetched, but when you see the

num­ber of cit­i­zen-driven video plat­forms pop­ping up, such as Fresco News in New York and News­flare in the UK (who just re­ceived a £2.4m in­vest­ment and boasts clients such as the BBC, CNN, Sky News and the Daily Mail) it would ap­pear that Mr. Rosen­blum may not be far off the truth. User-gen­er­ated video is cheap, it’s get­ting bet­ter all the time, and it’s en­gag­ing. What more could one ask for?

Brand eq­uity in main­stream me­dia is walk­ing a ten­u­ous tightrope. And while some brands have main­tained the loy­alty and trust of their read­ers, many oth­ers have squan­dered it.

Rekin­dle the trust

Hav­ing the best con­tent on the web is not enough to gain the at­ten­tion of today’s gen­er­a­tion of news con­sumers. Peo­ple ex­pect me­dia brands to strike an emo­tional chord with them; they ex­pect pub­lish­ers to trust them. When me­dia com­pa­nies banned read­ers from shar­ing com­ments and opin­ions on their plat­forms, they broke that trust. It’s time to re­pair the dam­age.

In 2017, As­so­ci­ated Press (AP) launched a new ser­vice that cu­rates user-gen­er­ated con­tent for pub­lish­ers — UGC to which they ap­ply the same edi­to­rial stan­dards as they do with jour­nal­ists’ ma­te­rial. If you want to rekin­dle the trust you once had with your au­di­ence, why not give AP So­cial Newswire a try and share UGC with your read­ers at the right time, in the right for­mat, though the right chan­nels, at the right price.

I am pas­sion­ate about qual­ity con­tent, but I don’t be­lieve a de­gree in jour­nal­ism is the only way to pro­duce it. There’s some great UGC out there, so why not give users a sec­ond chance to gain your trust. Be­cause you know what they say, “If you give trust, you get trust in re­turn.” And con­sumer trust in me­dia today is pure gold!

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