Recently, I gave a presentation on how content strategists can help other UX professionals. After I finished speaking, the first question asked was “What do you think about user-generated content?” I answered honestly, “I don’t know?” Obviously, a pertinent topic on peoples’ minds, the question provoked a lively discussion and got me thinking -- how do we, as content strategists, manage user-generated content (UGC)?
Expertise in UGC?
First, a disclaimer: I’m not an expert in this area. However, it seems like no one else is either. When I posed the question of UGC to the #contentstrategy hashtag (where the best and brightest are hanging out, like all the time) I got some good responses, but none that made me laugh more than Destry Wion’s (@Wion) “There couldn't possibly be experts on this topic, could there? I mean, gurus, maybe, and ninjas. Have to have ninjas.”
So, even though I’m not an expert, or a ninja, I have thought about this topic and here’s what I have -- shall we muddle through together?
There seem to be three major questions floating to the top in this discussion:
- Is UGC different from “typical client-published content”?
- Does UGC have a part in planning and managing an enterprise content strategy?
- If so, how do we manage UGC?
Is User Generated Content Different From “Normal Content”?
Content is content -- as Colleen Jones says, “It’s the stuff that users are interacting with on your site.” Perhaps no content is more interacted with than UGC; if you’ve ever watched the comment stream on an article, you can see that interaction is happening. What makes it even more interesting is that not only is the content the main focus of interaction, it’s also the other users who are interacting with each other, through their own contributions.
However, if we define content strategy as a framework and repeatable lifecycle for planning, creating, executing and managing content, then UGC is different from your typical content. A repeatable lifecycle means you should be able to run every single content type through your content strategy and experience the same results -- like a washing machine (please, please, please find me that washing machine that always performs the same way if you press the same buttons). However, UGC is rarely repeatable in terms of the actual content, nor is it predictable. UGC is not stable -- it is the EXACT opposite.
Does UGC Have a Part in Planning and Managing an Enterprise Content Strategy?
What I always stress to my clients (and everyone else) is that content strategy should be a beautifully choreographed dance combining the users’ needs with the business strategy of the organization. When these two are in step, designing a content strategy falls into place much more easily.
Therefore, when thinking about incorporating UGC into your content strategy, you need to answer the same three questions you would for any content strategy project:
- Who are your users?
- What types of content do they want/need/expect?
- What’s the best way to give it to them?
Match Your Business Strategy to Your UGC Strategy
If your business strategy is to keep users on the website as long as possible, to increase page views or build a sense of community that keeps them returning, then UGC might work as an effective strategy because interaction increases the amount of time on the site. If you’re a big box retailer, then UGC is a critical part of your strategy because you know that customer reviews exist as virtual word-of-mouth about products and services. If you want, like many news organization websites, to be the central point of a timely conversation, UGC is also critical.
However, UGC might not work for every website -- a political campaign, a small business website, a hospital where major legal issues could crop up, a .gov site, etc.
Again, defining the business strategy will help determine how UGC fits in to the enterprise content strategy.
If So, How Do We Manage UGC?
If you’re thinking about UGC and how to incorporate it into your content strategy, perhaps the best way to think about it is to break it down, like a dance, according to the four stages of the content lifecycle, which are plan, create, execute and manage. As Clinton Forry (@wd45) said, “The #contentstrategy must account for frequent and abrupt changes in the content ecosystem re: UGC.” Planning for UGC means recognizing it as an unstable element and foreseeing possible complications and challenges it could provoke.
If you’re in the planning phase, user research will be your best friend when thinking about how to incorporate UGC. Think about these questions:
- Does it fit in with your business strategy?
- Do you have the resources to manage and curate?
- Are you in any legal hot water if the comments section begins to go awry? (Bring in the lawyers at this stage -- you’ll thank me later. Lawyers, you can thank me now.)
- Does your technological infrastructure support it?
- Do users need to register before they comment or interact?
- Are comments the best form of UGC? Are there other content types that would work with your site?
The very definition of user-generated content is that the user creates it; so you might think you do not have much to do in this phase. However, I would take this opportunity to define content types very carefully and work with your CMS to make absolutely sure that your decision to incorporate UGC is sound. Yes, I’m recommending running fire drills on your CMS for UGC.
This is also a vitally important project for the shared work of content strategists, information architects and visual designers, including answering these and other important questions:
- Where will the UGC module sit on the page?
- Is registration necessary and how do we facilitate those jumps?
- Will users be assigned handles, thumbnails or some combination and how does the design work to facilitate that interaction?
- What language cues do we use? Do they also fit the tone and style of the site, or should we use best-practice cues? (This recently came up on an alternative music site I was content strategizing for. Should it be Hot News Trending Right Now or Popular Stories or Other Hot Cats are Reading? Trust me, the discussions were endless…and fun…and ridiculous. Welcome to the Wild West of content strategy.)
This is the stage where of all your planning efforts will pay off. Design the UGC part of your content strategy so that it takes a parallel step with each typical content step. For example:
- What are the workflows for publishing content to the website? -- There needs to be the exact same type of process for UGC.
- Do you have strict roles in place for you internal content publishing team? -- Maybe you can replicate something similar in the virtual world -- team captains for message boards, for example.
- When users comment, will the publishing workflow allow for instantaneous publishing or will there be an actual person reading the UGC for anything inflammatory? Alternatively, will you run it through software that will look for potential keyword land-mines? -- Map this process through carefully, considering resources.
This is where it can get sticky, and you need to have carefully mapped processes for determining how to manage UGC. Some questions you will want to think through:
- What do we do when it gets out of hand? Are there legal implications in allowing users to go berserk (which they often do) in our comments section?
- What happens if everyone trashes a product you need to sell? How do you manage that and the political implications in terms of your relationships with suppliers and manufacturers?
- What is our process for shutting it down?
- Who will police it? How often? Can they take down one comment, or do they need to take down several related comments?
- How do we archive UGC?
- Do we curate UGC? Does each comment become a separate piece of content, or is it all tied as a group to the piece of content that created it?
Recently, People.com had to shut down their comments section on an article about Charlie Sheen’s latest rant. I’m sure they have processes in place for examining comments, knowing when they’re getting out of hand and making a firm decision to end the conversation. That’s a sign of a publication that understands their business strategy as well as the implications of not having a governing presence over UGC.
Now you cannot possibly have read this entire article and not have some comment(s). So leave one…I promise to patrol (and answer) them my very own self.