User-Generated Content: From “Bozo-filter” to New Hope
Although the idea is not new, the focus on online is giving new life to user-generated content.
"Community publishing," "user-generated content" and "social networks" may be the latest buzz online but they are not new concepts to the magazine publishing industry. Reiman Publications, a division of Reader’s Digest, has relied on user-generated content since its debut in 1965. Hotwired co-founder 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, who Rheingold says didn’t want to "become the bozo-filter for the Web."
But as publishers continue to evolve their Web sites beyond online brochures for their print magazines, community has a renewed focus. The next big Web initiative from Conde Nast will be a user-generated teen site called Flip.com that debuts in February. 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," according to Technology Review publisher Jason Pontin.
Community programs can range from elaborate MySpace-style forums to relatively basic chat areas;the key is the interactivity. "We’ve gotten the most compliments from our commenting system," says Jason Brightman, Web director at Harris Publications, which conducted a major redesign of its hip hop-focused Web site XXLmag.com. "It’s not rocket science or fancy but it’s very easy and very immediate for users. They comment on stories, then come back to see what people said about their comments. We’ll get 500 to 600 comments per post. What would have been one page view for a viewer now is 10 to 15 because they keep coming back."
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 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."
A New Source of Content
IDG Entertainment’s GamePro.com repositioned last May with a community focus. "We thought we were missing out on providing a home to our community," says marketing director Simon Tonner. The site added functionality to allow the community to interact, including a comment tool to all stories and a much more comprehensive forum that allowed online users to chat with each other. GamePro.com also developed a point system that allowed users to create their own blogs and profiles. The more content members submitted, the more points they earned, and the more site functionality was opened to them;such as adding custom features such as avatars or becoming a "featured user" highlighted for the entire audience.
In April 2006, GamePro.com averaged 155 user submissions per day. Today, the site averages 2,650 user submissions per day, according to Tonner. "It’s the type of activity that fuels itself in a lot of ways," he says.
Monetizing Community 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 risque. ‘A year ago you couldn’t get advertisers around community areas and message boards, they were perceived as too risky, too unpredictable,’ says Marta Worhle, 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. At presstime, SI.com hadn’t finalized advertisers for its Faces in the Crowd program with Takkle.com but Vollman says it will be a package deal. "They’ll be buying the idea and then the media around it," she adds.
For GamePro.com, the surge in community pays off for the entire site. "It certainly creates more page views," says Tonner. "Since May, we’ve had a 160 percent increase in page views and that translates into more advertising inventory, which translates into more revenue."
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.
Gaining Acceptance While youth-oriented content providers tend to be the early adopters of community publishing and social networking, the appeal is starting to translate to more mature brands as well. In the next few months, Hachette Filipacchi will redesign the Woman’s Day site (womansday.com) with blogs written by the magazine’s "name brand" writers as the centerpiece of the home page. Users will be able to post comments and submit pictures. "A year ago, if I had suggested that, the ad department would have walked out," says Worhle. "They would have said ‘we can’t sell this';now they want to sell it."