Diluting the User-Gen Kool-Aid
Community publishing," "user-generated content" and "social networks" may be the latest buzz online but they are not new concepts to the magazine industry. Reiman Publications, part of Reader’s Digest, has relied on user-generated content since its founding in 1965. Hotwired co-founder Howard Rheingold says he suggested the model 10 years ago with visions of a "worldwide jam session on the Web";which at the time was dismissed by Wired publisher Lou Rossetto, whom Rheingold says didn’t want to "become the bozo-filter for the Web."
But today, the capabilities of online have put new emphasis on user-generated content. Conde Nast has devoted significant resources to a Web site launched in February called Flip.com that features content provided by teenage girls. Ironically, Wired News, the descendent of Hotwired, is planning to become totally peer-produced, a move that will either be a spectacular failure or a huge success.
Startup 8020 Publishing combined a print/Web hybrid for digital photography enthusiasts where they can submit photos online, vote, and winners are then presented in all their glory in the magazine. 8020 anticipates it will make $2.7 million in revenue from this model in 2007. And IDG’s GamePro.com has built up the community-sense of its Web site, including a system that rewards readers with more functionality for the amount of content they contribute. Last year, the site averaged about 155 user submissions per day; today it averages 2,650 user submissions per day.
The con is that user-generated content may fall prey to the lowest common denominator, and the time it may take existing staff to edit and monitor user content in addition to their regular duties. Some publishers are skeptical of user-generated content versus the vetted authority provided by established publishers. "I don’t like user-generated content," Terry Snow, CEO of Bonnier Corp., newly formed from the merger of Snow’s World Publications and Time4Media, told Folio: last month. "I’m going to find an expert, especially in travel. If you look at the online user comments and reviews, and you’ve been to some of these destinations, you say to yourself, ﾑGod, what are some of these people talking about?’ They’re all over the place."
Executing User Generated Content
Youth-oriented publishers are the early adopters of online community publishing. Last fall, Stack, a magazine dedicated to teen athletes, launched MyStack, a site it described as "MySpace meets YouTube" that allows high school athletes to communicate with friends and create an online resume for recruiters and college coaches, including highlight footage. "MyStack is the crown jewel of our Internet strategy," says co-founder Nick Palazzo. "Teens don’t go online for news or articles, they are the content creators. They go on to communicate with their friends, to create their own profiles, blogs and Web sites."
Sports Illustrated’s SI.com recently partnered with Takkle.com to bring its 50-year-old Faces in the Crowd program online. The program allows athletes, coaches, athletic directors and fans to log onto Takkle.com to nominate athletes for Faces in the Crowd. It also features a Video Faces in the Crowd component. SI.com will host a nationwide photo contest in which consumers can upload photos from their play on-field at both SI.com and Takkle.com. "It’s been great to have another outlet and source of content to seed the editorial team that then makes the ultimate decision on who makes Faces in the Crowd," says Stacey Vollman, executive director of SI Digital. "We’re new to it, but at end of day it’s all about finding relevant content and ideas that resonate with consumers."
The Editorial Role
Part of the appeal to publishers is that user-generated content is obviously cheaper than paying a staff to produce it. But the best approach is collaboration between editorial and readers, and to do so, editors have to develop a new skillset as facilitators.
8020 is intent on creating a number of magazines that could look toward a large group of people who have similar interests, and break down traditional editorial elitism. "The role of the editor is probably the most changed piece," says editor Derek Powazek. "It’s not this omnipotent decider of things, it’s more like a camp counselor. We’re there to encourage people to foster relationships. Yes, you have some authority because you pick the best of the best but you should help set the agenda for what people are talking about. We’re helping people get on a narrower path."
As a monthly magazine, Scientific American tapped a user-generated approach to compete with faster media over the discovery of the oldest skeletal remains of a human child. Scientific American posted a special report on the find at scientificamerican.com, then asked 10 scientists to weigh in and blog on the findings. Promotional banners highlighted the conversation, and readers began commenting as well. Editorial director Kate Wong interacted with readers and answered questions online. When it was time to write the print article, Wong rewrote the main story using information from the scientists’ blogs and the reader comments. She also created sidebars that directly answered reader’s questions and highlighted more of the information provided by scientists in their blogs.
The experiment resulted in daily Web page views several times higher than the norm during the course of the discussion, and a survey in the December issue revealed a high level of reader interest in the print article. Wong says the magazine is now looking for other ways to involve readers in the coverage. "In preparing our holiday guide, we solicited ideas for gadgets to include in our list," she added. "In January, we started a blog discussion on a conversation idea that will be the subject of a forthcoming article in print. We’re looking to establishing a dedicated area on the site for articles under construction."
Despite the explosive popularity of community publishing, publishers are just starting to grapple with the idea of monetizing their new content sites. Concerns include angering the community with an infusion of marketing messages, and advertiser worries that the area might be too risqu�. �A year ago you couldn�t get advertisers around community areas and message boards, they were perceived as too risky, too unpredictable,� says Marta Wohrle, vice president of digital media at Hachette Filipacchi, which owns ElleGirl.com. �That�s really changing. The force of the consumer in social networking means advertisers are finding they have to reconcile themselves to the fact that this is an environment they need to be in.�
So far, most publishers seem to be including community tie-ins as part of the larger ad buy. SI.com says its Faces in the Crowd program with Takkle.com will be a package deal for advertisers. "They’ll be buying the idea and then the media around it," Vollman adds.
The real opportunity may be yet to come as publishers tap into the deeply targeted information they can pull from their community. "If UnderArmour or Nike want to reach 16-year-old, right-handed third basemen in the Northeast who wear their products, we can supply that audience," says David Birnbaum, CEO of Takkle.com.