In January of 2008 - over ten years ago - our client STLBeds wrote a blog titled 'Top Ten Problems with Memory Foam".
Being a company that's trying to sell memory foam mattresses, you'd think this was a bad idea. Why write something about how bad your product is? Maybe we should have called it an anti-blog...
Nonetheless, looking back, it was by far one of the most important blogs they've ever written - or, well, that their audience has ever written.
Allow me to explain...
If you look at the article, it's a little over 1100 words - quite long for a blog post of 2008, but a good foundation for one today.
The content is good, informative, and helps people in their memory foam purchasing process (positively or negatively).
But the real gold in this post is what came next. As of writing this post, there are 171 comments on that post - content written about the topic memory foam, in natural language from users that wanted to share their frustrations and experiences about memory foam. Some comments are short, while others are quite lengthy.
All in all, the post currently has in the range of 21,000 words - all keyword and topic specific. Now our original content is just 5% of the content on that page, and the rest was created (for free) by others!
This user generated content cost us nothing to create - others did it for us. We just provided a great topic and offered the ability to start a conversation.
User-Generated Content Defined
User-generated content is any type of media created by the users of a website or system, as opposed to the owner or administrator of that system. The best and brightest of user-generated content, in my opinion, is the ever-popular Wikipedia, which I’m sure everyone is very familiar with.
However, even though your goal may not be to make the next online encyclopedia, there are ways to add elements of user-generated content to your website, be it an online forum or offering visitors the chance to make their own posts or comments on your website.
Let's look at the good and bad of user-generated content.
Pro #1: Automated Engagement Magnet
User-generated content is far from a fully automated process, but it does help automate engagement from the audience. Giving people a forum or the opportunity to comment on your posts and videos is a great way to let audience members feel a sense of connection with your content and brand by allowing their voices to be heard. Additionally, it gives your audience a forum with which to connect with each other.
Users can share arguments, personal perspectives, tips, critiques, and more. It helps provide your audience with a sense of a community comprised of like-minded peers. And users who engage more with content are more likely to share it with their social media circle, so make sure you have your social media sharing buttons handy!
Con #1: Requires Policing
The downside to user-generated content is that any old Joe Shmoe can post, and the Internet is filled with unsavory characters. Just about every website that hosts user-generated content is going to, at some point or another, attract the attention of trolls. Other times, users may engage in anger and hate-fueled tirades over the most trivial of matters. As such, you’re going to have to take time to put together an acceptable-use policy that outlines what behavior is acceptable and what behavior is not.
How do you make these determinations? Well, the most important consideration is that of your audience. How old are they? What is their education level, gender, and nationality? For instance, if your audience consists of adults and children, then curse words will need to be prohibited. If, however, your target audience is males aged 18 to 34, the crass language may be tolerable.
No matter what your policy may be, however, you’re going to need to do a fair amount of policing. Fortunately, WordPress plugins have features that send you an email whenever someone tries to post on your pages, allowing you first the chance to moderate a user’s post. There are ways to promote self-policing by your visitors, however, such as volunteer moderators (yes, some folks who are passionate enough about a subject will do it for free), but even they need to be watched.
Pro #2: Less Skepticism of Marketing Ploys
Some users are downright skeptical when they see a piece of content these days because they’ve been click-baited so many times, they’re starting to grow wary. And I must admit, I’ve seen my share of blatantly financially-driven posts that it’s no wonder users are trying to judge whether or not a business is trying to exploit their needs and desires.
However, with user generated content, people don’t have any internal sirens going off in their head crying out warnings. This is because the content is coming from their peers.
Sure, some users may spam links in forums to try to get back-links or to drive traffic to their site (a practice which doesn’t end well, these days), but by and large, people tend to let their guard down in the absence of marketing tactics.
Con #2: Accuracy Must Be Accounted For
Whether you simply allow users to comment on your posts or allow users to make their own posts, you must take time to check what they say for accuracy. If a user posts something that’s inaccurate, it needs to be addressed. One prime example of this need I have personally witnessed is comments on online articles in the computer security niche. Sometimes ill-informed users will post contrarian opinions based on misinformation or bias (you know, people that hate Microsoft or Google for instance).
The moderator or web administrator of these security blogs will then respond in a manner as non-inflammatory as possible with citations and outbound links to resources that disprove the inaccurate post. If you fail to maintain the accuracy of the content, credibility will fly out the window, and people will be biased against the information found on your site. For instance, when anyone discusses something they read on Wikipedia, it’s taken with a grain of salt.
Pro #3: Anonymity
A case could be made that anonymity is a pro or a con. For instance, trolls typically like to remain anonymous so they can’t be found in real life. However, I’m going to make the case that anonymity is a pro, if you’ll just hear me out. Often times, people will either flat out lie or stretch the truth when they know their statements can come back to haunt them, or become immortalized on the Internet.
But when users are afforded a way to post content anonymously (such as a self help, AA, or medical website which allows users to query doctors for advice), people are a lot more inclined to open up. Because their username isn’t indicative of their identity, it’s possible fore people to make progress with personal struggles like addiction, abuse, and things of that ilk.
Con #3: Lack of Conformity
When a website owner or blogger oversees content production, there is often a unity of voice among different pieces of content. The administrator can create specific editing rules that dictate what words, phrases, strategies, and techniques should or shouldn’t be used. As such, users can expect a polished final product whenever they see a new piece of content posted.
But with user generated content, there simply isn’t any unity or conformity (even with policing) because the content was posted by so many different people. In fact, some of the content may not even be useful or easily digestible – even if it was written by someone who truly understands the topic – because the original poster failed to format it correctly.
Pro #4: Free for All
As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, user-generated content costs you nothing. You provide the platform and a good topic, and people will generally jump in with their thoughts.
From a search engine standpoint, this is terrific. Google sees all this natural language going back and forth about a topic, your users are using keywords related to the topic, and your page is constantly getting longer and longer about said topic.
All of this leads to higher rankings, domain authority, and more traffic.
Con #4: Free for All
By the same token, allowing user-generated content can get out of hand pretty quickly. While on most platforms you have the ability to moderate, you need to be careful about which posts get approved, which ones might upset other readers, and which are just untrue (all points I've already made).
There's also the possibility that your post could end up backfiring on you and your own readers rebel. Fact checking is obviously very important, and really knowing your stuff will help you defend that position, if required.
A Thought About Negative Posts
When it comes to moderation, a lot of times business owners just won't approve user generate content that's opposite of their position. I think this is a bad idea, and causes the content to be very one-sided. At the end of the day, the good will rise to the top, and the negative will expose itself for what it is. Google likes the variety, and quite honestly some of the best keyword-related content comes out of those opposing opinions.
Yes, moderate, but don't be afraid to allow those other posts through, if not abusive. You'll continue the conversation and reap the benefits. Heck, you might even learn something.
User Generated Content = Win
If you’re thinking of adding a user-generated content element to your website, I implore you to first weigh the pros and cons against each other. It’s not as simple as it may seem. Even a simple commenting system or forum feature of your website can require a lot of attention and supervision. Having the right systems and policies in place can help keep this (good problem to have) under control.