Since they told us the web had been upgraded to 2.0, the media buzzphrase has been “User-Generated Content”.
It is, apparently, both the saviour and the death of mainstream media. Actually, it’s a meaningless phrase, a catch-all applied to very different and often contradictory ideas – most of them not new at all.
Here’s a breakdown of what people actually mean by UGC in magazines.
1. User-generated correspondence
Before the phrase existed, UGC was limited to probably the most popular section of most magazines: the problem page (which, according to an academic paper on problem pages in men’s magazines, has existed since people invited discussion in The Athenian Gazette, in the 17th century; more information in this discussion of “virtual communities in the history of women’s magazines”). There’s also its less-interesting brother, the letters page, and of course, its completely unedited second cousin, the classifieds. They can all be fascinating reads in their way. (I’ve also seen all of them faked in various publications, to cover a lack of genuine responses/to stir up a bit of fun.)
It’s a particular space where readers have a very limited and highly directed interaction with the editorial team, and with each other – albeit one with a decent amount of freedom to say what they like (whether it gets printed is another matter).
2. User-generated responses
This is usually what publishers mean when they talk about User-Generated Content – when the magazine invites specific knowledge on a particular theme. Traditionally, this has been a cry from the writer to the reader, to help participate either in the research of a piece, or to be featured within it – “We’re doing an article on bellybutton fluff, send us your stories and pictures!”. More recently, however, the shout has come directly from the editors.
American magazine Budget Travel has just published an entirely “User-Generated Content” special mostly along the lines of “Review three Chicago guidebooks” and “Send us your reasons to love New York City”. And, amusingly, “Readers answer our travel questions” – where staffers then went and carried out the readers’ recommendations. (The editor talks about creating this special issue here.)
If, as Budget Travel and Marmalade did, you dedicate your entire magazine to such pieces, then the magazine can still be flatplanned, with the topics carefully chosen by the editorial team in order to ensure a decent mix of content. The difference is in the commissioning – rather than choose one journalist, you’re offering an open pitch to anyone who hears about it.
This only works if you have a decent-sized, active, engaged and interested readership. You also need to be very careful in how you ask the questions – just as when commissioning journalists, the brief should be specific enough to focus thinking, while broad enough to fit unexpected angles. If the readership don’t respond in sufficient numbers or quality, journalists and staffers will probably be invited to contribute incognito.
This approach can be significantly cheaper than hiring professional journalists and photographers, as dedicated readers may be content with recognition in their favourite magazine – though be prepared for a backlash if payment never occurs.
3. Not-your-user-generated content
With so much media swilling around, there’s a greater need than ever for content. And fortunately, the internet is full of it. In other words, the net has become a huge image library / catalogue of stories, and magazine brands like Nuts and Monkey are keen to make the most of the opportunity. Works best for either “personal story” magazines or those that focus on extreme accidents/sports/breasts. So, magazines that already feature what 90% of the internet is anyway.
4. User-generated content
Hype it all you like, but it isn’t new – magazines call it “unsolicited content”, and have received prepackaged words and images from readers since print immemorial. What’s new is the idea to *ask* for it. Mostly this hadn’t happened before because what came in was either unutterably awful, or would have been a thousand times better if they’d just sent in the idea, and allowed themselves to be guided by a commissioning editor.
Enter the unedited badlands of the internet, page upon page of images, texts and videos all created by “users”. If you create a space within your own branded website where people to upload whatever they like – tips, stories, photos – and you have a decent number of people posting decent stuff, then maybe you can cherry-pick the best to include in your magazine (via some carefully worded T&Cs).
This is the publishing model for 8020 Publishing, who publish the photography magazine JPG and the travel magazine Everywhere, with content entirely provided by the magazines’ own communities. 8020 then pays $100 plus a year’s subscription for anything they use in print. Other variations include gifting points in return for popular content.
It’s a model with great potential and bigger pitfalls. There are some (slightly vague) suggestions on how to create a community of readers here, whereas the founders of JPG quit last year over a disagreement about the community, the content and the company. You can read some of the founder’s comments here.
8020 also adopts another UGC model, which is….
5. User-influenced content
The internet encourages two concepts that are of particular interest to publishers: metrics and conversation. You can never be sure exactly how many people have read a feature in your magazine, but you can know how many click the webpage, where they are, how long they stay, and where they go next. And people don’t vote to decide if a magazine article should stay or go (except the fanatical letter writers, who are usually fairly insane), but in one click they can point a thumb up or down, and leave a comment. If you’re very lucky, circularity will ensue, and conversation will lead to popularity will lead to more conversation.
What this also means is that you use your community as guinea pigs, with the features getting the most attention ‘voted’ into the magazine. TV channel Current uses this model; the Guardian‘s Comment is Free is set up under similar principles, with occasional pieces spinning off into the print edition (and vice versa). As with JPG and Everywhere, the community tells the editors what’s worth looking at. The editors then choose what goes in, based in part on the wisdom of crowds.
There’s a danger with this, which is that you’re revealing your best content to your most dedicated fan base, for free. Why should they then bother to buy the print magazine?
6. User-generated editing
Make your own damn magazine. Doubtless to be paid for with contextual advertising. With the eventual conclusion being…
7. Computer-generated editing
The Daily Me was an idea coined in 1995 by Nicholas Negroponte. Essentially, algorithms do the thinking so editors don’t have to, tailored to your own unique tastes. Kind of like an RSS feed on paper, but with stuff you would have subscribed to if only you’d known about it. The first half-decent attempt to make this happen was Idiomag, generating content from what you have on your Myspace/LastFM profile. But it still feels computer generated, and a particularly dim computer at that.
• User-Generated Content means a lot of things. Often it means a combination of the above. Choose carefully.
• None of the above is a cheap or easy solution to get through the recession with your finances intact. Community building is difficult and can be expensive; maintaining it is vital if it’s going to do what you hope it will. Otherwise you’ll end up with small amounts of content in return for a half-hearted, expensive investment.
• If you let people say anything, they may not say what you like.
• Taking content for free via hidden T&Cs rather than a formal contract and hard cash may turn your crowds into mobs.
• Crowds will soon make their own magazines, and start to get interest from your advertisers. Try to harness the creativity that brings to the industry, rather than fear it. (That’s a whole other blogpost.)
• Magazines have always welcomed high-quality contributions from unsolicited sources, albeit following a certain format (ideas not finished articles). However, most people don’t seem to know that – so opening up even a tiny corner to “the readers” seems revolutionary, even though pretty much all the people working for a magazine will have started out as readers.
• The role of the editor in creating a nuanced, surprising, entertaining publication is safe (until InDesign 4′s sentient plugin).
• The age of ubiquitous big budgets, huge photoshoots, and sending Hunter S Thompson away for six months with a gold card and a drug dealer in return for 13,000 words, is over. But then we knew that already.
• If you want to make money from your readers, there’s a secret you should know: the value of UGC isn’t in the content. However great a reader’s snaps or writing are, and however much you might be saving on commission fees, it’s all irrelevant. The money comes from the other thing a properly set-up UGC strategy can provide: a precisely measured, demographically accurate, loyal community around your brand, all plump and ready to be advertised at and sold to. And that’s the key.
Get them organised, print what they do, keep them happy and survey the hell out of them. Then contextualise everything that they say through the ad spaces on your page. The reason why UGC is popular among those in the know isn’t the UGC itself at all – it’s the UGD that it spawns. User-Generated Demographics. And then you’re laughing.