Team Spirit: Inspiring Users to Generate Content

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Watch and Learn
This functionality is at the heart of, a newly launched site that encourages amateur and professional users to showcase and share knowledge with the community through video lessons. In return for sharing their knowledge and skills—on topics ranging from gardening to quilting to ancient history, and everything in between—users receive a share of the advertising, which can be sizable since the site employs contextual and behavioral techniques to deliver targeted advertising.

Michael Kelleher, founder and CEO says, "It's all about providing people with a site that will promote their abilities and distribute the content they create." Delivering quality content is at the center of the site's business model, one reason why the screening capabilities provided by Reality Digital are key. "We're not using everything; we want to pick the diamonds out of the rubble," Kelleher explains. "Quality content that is useful will become popular with students and attract advertisers. It's a model that that will create a virtuous cycle benefiting all the players."

Encouraging Quality Content
Approaches like this understand that building a UGC site is no guarantee that users will come, observes Jamie Riddell, director of innovation at Cheeze, a direct response agency headquartered in the U.K.

"When I read business plans or ideas drafts, they usually encompass the simple notion that building a site and adding UGC equals success. But that misses so much. Building a UGC-driven site is hard to master," Riddell says. "For starters, there are so many others out there, why should someone contribute to yours? Secondly, how are they going to find you? There is a strong chance you will have to ‘buy' traffic to start with, but at what cost? What value will you place on generating visitors?" And, if the other part of the equation is "make money from advertising," then the site owner will need traffic, quality inventory, and a model to attract more of both, Riddell concludes.

Helium approaches the problem by motivating users and maintaining a quality inventory to attract advertisers. The newly launched UGC site encourages users to contribute articles and expertise, and rewards them with a share of revenue based on the quality and popularity of what they produce. To ensure the best articles bubble up, and avoid a popularity contest that could be rigged, the site has developed a patented peer-ranking system that effectively allows Helium writers to compare one article to another to decide which is best, rather than ask them to rate it on a scale based on its merits alone. "After many comparisons by community members, the ranking engine knows which article should be on the top," notes Mark Ranalli, CEO of Helium.

In his view, the ranking system is what draws "tens of thousands" of new members and allows Helium to sign up "hundreds of new members daily" only three months after launch. The model also eases the anxiety of brands about advertising on UGC sites. "It's difficult to feel good about assigning your brands to a site that is not controlled through an editorial process," Ranalli explains. "Involving writers in the peer review of the work of others makes them feel they have a stake in the community and an obligation to maintain excellence."

Follow the Leader
Such examples demonstrate that the "real value in user-generated content is in the content," notes Rusty Williams, VP of Prospero Technologies, a provider of community content management solutions for the online publishing industry. Therefore it is in each site owner's interest to be clear about the kind of user participation it requires and encourage it at every opportunity.

If the site's business model is based on its ability to encourage interaction around news content, for example, then simply putting a tab on the site pointing users to a community or message board will not do. "If you have just read about Saddam's hanging and you have a very emotional response to what you read, then you want the instant gratification of voicing your opinion and interacting with others discussing the topic on the site. You don't want to be told to jump over to a message board first to talk about it."

Likewise, visitors to the same site will hardly appreciate a free-for-all where a user clique or a vocal minority monopolizes the conversation, making other members feel out of place or unwelcome. "Once a site owner understands their audience, they have a duty to moderate and administer the community along those lines," Williams says. This also means making sure the content fits with the site. "If the site is targeted at kids and designed for kids, then you have to make sure the content is appropriate."

There are no hard and fast rules, but a tight alignment between the content and the audience is the best rule of thumb. To this end, Prospero's suite of blogging, discussion boards, ratings and reviews, polls, and chat applications enables organizations to tailor content generated from any of these applications and display it anywhere on the site, while still maintaining editorial control over the content.

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