Years ago, user-generated content (UGC) was typically perceived as "low-quality" media, or at the very least, "lowbrow" entertainment. While the bite-sized content was often engaging, if not inspired, brands tended to shy away from it in fear that an unsavory YouTube clip or crazy cat meme wouldn’t sit well–or neatly–next to their carefully crafted brand message.
That’s no longer the case, though–not when 80% of online content today is user-generated. Social media and self-publishing tools have created a glut of online amateur content while also increasing the overall quality of the material. As a result, we’ve seen a sea change in the way publishers work with and integrate UGC onto their sites, and the way they sell it as a value-add for brands.
Smart publishers have found ways to produce professional content, while also tapping their communities to enhance that content with their own. Also, more publishers now have a reputation platform in place allowing them to surface the best UGC and gather a wealth of data on the best experts in their communities. By doing so, publishers get brand-safe material to leverage-and opportunities for new revenue in the bargain.
Still, it’s a nascent, unique model that only a handful are embracing effectively. Here are, in my view, the top three.
Most everything about BuzzFeed is highly curated, user-generated content. From the imagery and videos in the actual posts, to the recently launched BuzzFeed Community, BuzzFeed has made UGC the cornerstone of what’s become a very successful and now profitable business.
The potential promise in BuzzFeed Community, however, from both a branding and revenue perspective, is especially fascinating and, I think, an eye-opener for online publishers.
Launched in May, BuzzFeed Community is a platform for readers to submit their own BuzzFeed-branded or styled pieces. It’s basically a user-generated content pipeline. But if you think of it from a brand advertising point of view–the best user-submitted pieces are featured on the site’s homepage and down the road BuzzFeed could possibly repackage that content for "reader-first" native advertising–it’s ripe with potential.
Gawker Founder Nick Denton has been referred to as "the most disruptive force in online media right now." When you look at what Gawker is doing in the space today, with respect to both its brands and own technology, that’s not an exaggeration.
Like BuzzFeed, Gawker has blurred traditional boundaries between reader and writer. The company recently developed its own proprietary commenting system, for instance, deploying it across its portfolio of sites and empowering its audience to be all things at once-"a writer, an arbiter, an editor, and a publisher." It turns publishing on its head and, similar to BuzzFeed Community, could evolve into reader-driven native ads.
Gawker is monetizing standard comments, too, turning them into native ad experiences of their own through brand-sponsored discussions within a page’s comments section.
On the surface, Forbes and UGC may seem like an odd pairing. When you think of Forbes, its pedigree and authority as a venerable professional publisher is what stands out. But if you look closely, Forbes is innovating the use and value of UGC online.
In 2011, Forbes debuted a "Called Out" comments feature on Forbes.com, a social layer beneath every post’s headline that surfaces selected conversations between the post’s author and individual readers/commenters. It’s a tool that points to the "best" UGC.
At first glance, this was a fairly simple feature-add, built to generate engagement across the site. But, when paired with Forbes BrandVoice, Forbes’ branded content platform for paying advertisers, it becomes much more than that. "Called Out" comments deliver a relationship-building tool for brands within native pieces, while also allowing brands to highlight on-brand comments as a form of third-party validation.
As a result, comments become another asset that Forbes can market to advertisers, making their overall offering that much more attractive to potential customers.
The Future-Role Reversal
As UGC has grown into a significant value-add for brands, UGC-first networks are also trying to evolve as publishers to take advantage. Take LinkedIn, for instance.
While it started as a social networking site, LinkedIn’s success with its Influencers content submitted by power users has gained considerable attention among specialty publishers. It shows how engaging lightly edited, user-generated content can be when coupled with the right user base and tools, and how blurry the line is between "traditional" publisher and social networking community. To further blur these lines, the company’s ability to cull data from its members’ profiles allows it to work as an aggregator of professional content and push stories to us with better performance than a traditional publisher.
In fact, LinkedIn reports an eight-fold increase in traffic to all its news products since Influencers was launched earlier this year, with many posts recording more than 100,000 views.
And LinkedIn isn’t the only UGC-driven network making headway in the publishing category. Medium and Quora are also making moves that spell greater ambitions in this area and that could pay off down the road.
Moving forward, pure community content can still be tough to trust (see: Yelp and Amazon). It takes a smart publisher that can blend together a variety of disciplines–content, technology, community moderation, audience quality, advertising, etc., to make UGC work. But, when done right, it translates into significant upside for those publishers and their advertising partners who recognize user-generated content as a real opportunity.