"If they didn’t make it, how are the rest of us going to do it?"
That was a thought Twittered by a journalism industry veteran after JPG, the crowdsourced magazine I ran, went under three months ago.
In a time when many magazine business models have hit a dead end, the efficiency of user generated content seemed like a viable solution to many—including the investors who brought JPG back this month.
As an editor who’s spent most of her time with community created content, here’s what I think about user generated content as it applies to magazines: It has its place, which varies from publication to publication. Virtually all periodicals have some form of it, whether it’s letters to the editor, caption contests or photos-of-the-month. And virtually no magazines feature entirely crowdsourced content, though JPG came the closest with all content having been submitted through jpgmag.com and subsequently edited.
So what does this mean for the average magazine publisher? That a mix, probably, is ideal.
There are many more avenues for receiving and encouraging content than there were in the past. It’s time to move beyond letters to the editor. Easier said than done, right? I’ve spoken with countless traditional magazine editors who say that they’ve tried encouraging reader content through online contests and callouts, but that the magazine readers don’t go online and the Web site users don’t read the magazine.
No problem! They’re not supposed to. Web sites should be used to extend your brand and engage a new, larger audience. People are much more likely to check out a magazine after reading its Web site than vice versa. Besides, your content creators won’t always be the same as your readers.
Laura Simkins, our former VP of circulation, called this the Joe Francis theory. Francis founded Girls Gone Wild, which is a perfect example of a situation where the content creators are not the same people who would pay to view it.
Back to encouraging engagement and great content through your Web site: It won’t happen overnight, but there are some basics that will make a big difference.
• Personal stories, of any kind, are the best thing to have crowdsourced. Trying to find expert opinions from amateurs is barking up the wrong tree, and fact-checking can be a nightmare. But think of the possibilities available with personal insight. Embarrassing stories sent in to teen magazines or the marriage section of the newspaper are just the beginning—ask the right questions and you can get quality information about our culture and others, like Studs Terkel did in his oral histories.
• People love to share/contribute if they feel like they are part of a good conversation, or have an audience. So give people a chance to make friends, or feature some of the best submitted content prominently, or both.
• Ask specific questions that encourage unique answers. You may not get as many responses, but the results will be better, and more interesting to compare.
• Partner with hobby groups on the internet who share the same interests. Usually the creators of these groups will be honored to be involved with your publication. Plus, this is a great way to build your member base.
• Understand internet trends, or work with someone who does, and follow them. Internet phenomena happen because people are in to them. Go with the flow!
• Do it for the right reasons. Act out of anthropological curiosity and love for your subject matter, and create something truly enjoyable. People can usually tell if you are just trying to make, or save, a buck off of them.
With a little good old fashioned journalistic ingenuity, there’s hope for all of us.