As a youth-driven, niche title for skiing enthusiasts, Freeskier Magazine was uniquely positioned to experiment with blending online community orientation with traditional media production. Our readers (and staffers) are mostly men in their 20s, tech-savvy computer owners, a generation all but born with cell phones and video cameras in their hands. They’re so comfortable with forward-looking technologies that when we launched a video podcast last fall, we logged over a million downloads in the first year. So this fall we upped the ante with a relaunch of Freeskier.com in an attempt to fuse the community features of Facebook, the social editing of digg.com, the video-sharing of YouTube and traditional content production. A little over a month after launch, the preliminary results are coming in, and we can begin to assess the lessons learned.
Balance Your Community’s Voice and Your Content
One of the primary challenges in opening Freeskier.com to readers was to maintain a spotlight on our own stories and video without relegating user generated (UCG) content to some obscure corner of the site.
Social editing sites like digg.com succeed precisely because they allow content from the smallest bloggers and the biggest news outlets to compete for attention on a level playing field. In order to replicate some of social editing’s egalitarian vibe without losing our own voice, we opted to sort most content on the site by type (video, stories, photos), rather than by author. Most pages of Freeskier.com display content from readers and editors side-by-side, signaling to readers that their best efforts will be treated equally with our best work, and hopefully motivating them to contribute high-quality material. At the same time, only content "promoted" by our edit staff appears on our homepage, which gives us the opportunity to highlight good UGC when appropriate, and to ensure that prominent positioning is allocated to specific stories and projects when needed.
The balancing act between horizontally-oriented public conversation and top-down editorial control has already proven to be the primary editorial challenge at our new site. At times the flow of good user content is so fast that our staff’s best stuff gets lost in the shuffle. Yet shutting off the UGC spigot would kill what’s best about the site and lessen the importance of the community. The perfect balance is elusive, and how well any site handles these conflicting impulses will be the measure of its success.
Make Contributions Fine Grained, Non-Overlapping
While we love the diehard fans who upload five-minute, edited videos, the vast majority of our readers still spend just a few minutes on the site. We knew that Freeskier.com had to accommodate the needs of every potential community member, whether he has one minute or one hour to participate. So we’ve created options ranging from simple social editing functions like voting on stories and commenting, to mid-range efforts like posting photos, to very large time commitments, like posting edited videos.
So far, our audience posts photos over videos at a ratio of more than 10-to-1, and most readers still come to view one piece of content, rank it with a thumbs up or down, post and comment and leave. User contributions at Freeskier.com are fine grained, and no one’s contribution depends on another user’s efforts. This combination keeps a broad swath of readers involved.
Niches Can Succeed
Our readers will continue to spend time at MySpace and Facebook, and we will continue to integrate our site with the social-networking giants. At the same time, the Freeskier community is a place where our readers can be big players in a small group. Facebook may be a digital global metropolis, but we’re striving to make Freeskier.com a tight-knit ski town where everyone knows each other.
Patrick Crawford is VP of editorial and online at Storm Mountain Publishing – publishers of Freeskier Magazine, Freeskier.com, Snowboard Magazine, and Snowboard-mag.com. He holds an M.A. in Mass Communication Research from the University of Colorado at Boulder.