Managing the Mob


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Sometime before the big Web bubble burst, a men's media brand splashed itself online with an enormously ambitious content-rich portal. Prescient of the au courant mantra of "content, commerce, and community," it innocently invited its beer-sodden, breast-gazing readership to participate in online forums. Well, within days all hell broke loose. The message base became a mosh pit as the readers extended the smirking, bawdy spirit of the host brand to misogynist extremes, making way-inappropriate comments about ex-girlfriends, models on the site, and women, generally. The site editors retreated quickly and simply shut the message boards down entirely within a few weeks.

This incident got more play within the industry than in the general press, but it put a chill on the practice of erecting user forums, especially for major media brands that did not want thrasher antics somehow twisting the spirit of their content, let alone sullying the reputation of advertisers. Yet in 2006, user-generated content has become a very big deal in blogs, online columnist give-and-takes with readers, and article feedback that often scrolls beneath a site's own formal content. Generally, filtering programs, some hand editing, and a lot of self-policing minimizes the sort of problems our men's site experienced years ago, but a subtler and deeper issue remains in this new age of UGC: how do you manage content quality for your brand and for advertisers in a digital age in which old editorial hierarchies are flattening? As user voices become prominent, how do you integrate the audience into the content and maintain editorial control and your own brand equity? Can you ensure consistency and predictability for advertisers, who loathe surprises? How do you maintain some authority in this space and distinguish between the expert voices of your own staff, the content you stand behind as a company, and user voices?

I don't have an easy answer to any of these questions. I believe these concerns will be more important in the coming years, and most B2B and consumer-facing content sites will need to erect policies and content management procedures that answer some of them in order to maintain their brand value and advertiser confidence in an age of UGC. For a look at the future, start by browsing over to the excellent re-launch of SportingNews.com. This venerable brand, which is famous for the expertise of its columnists and unusual depth of it features, is also among the first major consumer brands to fully embrace its audience as partners in the content development process.

SportingNews.com has gone "blog-centric." Most of the new material posted each day comes from real-time entries by 40 staff editors and then reams of user feedback. Entries in this branded Your Turn section on every page, including the home page, get rated by other users. Virtually every headline on the site has a small Your Turn link icon with a live read on the number of comments currently attached to each article. The seasoned user can see at a glance from the front page a community just under the surface of the site's content and quickly see where all the buzz is occurring.

Over time, members gain a 1 to 5-star ranking for the quality of contributions. Of the million active posters, fewer than 40,000 have achieved five-star status. Every subsequent post carries the ranking, so readers can scroll through article feedback and easily find the most reliable and knowledgeable contributors. This is all formalized in a member's personal blog page, a sort of MySpace area that chronicles their participation, favorite teams, general opinions, and links to friends' blogs.

The net effect of SportingNews.com's sophisticated community management is that it not only brings user expertise forward by making readers part of the team, but at the same time manages quality and distinguishes users from staff. "It became critical to us to establish the difference between content from our experts and content from the users," says general manager Jason Kint. Advertisers, too, need this kind of clarity and quality assurance, because there is still a lot of anxiety surrounding that B-word and the blurring lines between editors and readers. Advertisers are buying into the site, and even sponsoring the user blog area, in large part because SportingNews shaped the messy democracy of UGC into a genuine community/content management system that works. Engagement with the site is phenomenal, an average of 95 minutes per user. In the past, segregated "forums" always generated great user hang times, but in unsold or low-rate ad inventory areas that never monetized well. By validating UGC and its quality and by bringing it closer to the top of the site, SportingNews.com can generate much higher CPMs off this engagement than ever before.

Resistance is futile. The future of media will involve true partnerships with audiences. The age of the educated "prosumer," who both makes and consumes content is upon us and irreversible. The best way to ensure editorial integrity and order in this highly interactive atmosphere is to embrace the crowd in smarter ways that validate and encourage amateur expertise