Is (User Generated) Content King Kong?

Among the three elements of the 3Cs business model, content is the one that has undergone the most profound change in recent years. The rise of social media has allowed Internet users to create and distribute content with ease. User generated content (UGC) now shares the stage with commercially developed content (CDC) that once ruled the world of Web content. Will content, or more precisely UGC, actually be king this time? If not, what will it be?

What is UGC?

UGC is also known as consumer-generated media (CGM). It refers to the materials created and uploaded to the Internet by non-media professionals, be them product reviews on Amazon, seller ratings on eBay, photos on Flickr, videos on YouTube, bookmarks on Delicious.com, or user profiles on Facebook. It has been around in one form or another since the early years of the Internet such as examples include the bulletin boards on portal websites like Yahoo and AOL and “product rating” websites in the 1990s. Over time, it has evolved to encompass blogs, wikis and media-sharing, social-networking, and virtual world sites, and has become a dominant media and one of the fastest growing forms of content on the Internet. In 2006, UGC sites attracted 69 million users in the United States alone, and in 2007 generated $1 billion in advertising revenue. By 2011, UGC sites are projected to attract 101 million users in the U.S. and earn $4.3 billion in ad revenue (IAB, 2008).

Practically all social media applications (from blogs, social bookmarking sites and wikis to online social network sites) enable some form of UGC. An effective way for classifying UGC is to do so according to the motivations for users to contribute content and the level of communal involvement in doing so. The motivations can be either rational or emotional. Rational motivations may include sharing knowledge with the world (knowledge sharing) and advocating a particular stand toward an issue (advocacy). Emotional motivations may include building social connections with friends, relatives, or other Internet users (social connections) or entertainment (self-expression). Users can contribute content through individual efforts or group collaboration (Krishnamurthy and Dou, 2008). The entries on Wikipedia are collaborative efforts of tens of thousands of contributors from around the world who are motivated by a desire for knowledge sharing. User profiles on online social network sites such as Facebook are created by individual members who seek connections with friends online. Massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPG) such as World of Warcraft involve a very large number of players who interact with one another within a virtual game world. They are found to prefer socializing online to offline and have very strong emotions when playing these games.

While there are many types of UGC sites, for branding purpose, marketers should pay close attention to three specific types.

  • Review sites. They are where consumers share their brand experiences in order to help others make more informed purchasing decisions, making them an important place for marketers to have a voice. Most review sites focus on a specific product/service category (e.g., CNet on consumer electronics, Edmunds.com on automotive, and TripAdvisor on tourism). They are generally well moderated and can be very brand friendly to the company that respects their culture and is willing to participate.
  • Blogs. Blogging has been around in one form or another since the mid 1990s, but it was the launch of Open Diary (the first site to provide blogging software and the first to facilitate user comments) in 1998 that turned blogging into a UGC phenomenon. Letting readers reply to blog entries, thus allowing interactions between bloggers and readers and among readers, is the hallmark of blogging and UGC in general as well. It should be noted that blogging today is no longer for users only. Among the rank of bloggers are many salaried professionals (e.g., huffingtonpost.com), marketers and corporate CEOs.
  • Media sharing sites. They tend to be specialized by content formats such as photos (e.g., Flickr, Photobucket and Smugmug), videos (e.g., Youtube, Metacafe and Dailymotion) and presentations (Slideshare.net and Scribd). The huge audience of some of these sites such as YouTube and their popular media formats, particularly videos, can get brand messages, good or bad, spread extremely far and fast.

Advertising on UGC Sites

This is still an uncharted territory. Much is yet to be experimented and learned. Below are a few more common practices. They involve placing commercial messaging in and around the content or by becoming a part of the content itself.

  • Video Ads. One common method is “pre-roll” video — a short ad that runs before the video itself. Another method is “overlay” ad, which pops up about 15 seconds into a video and only covers the bottom one fifth of the screen. The ad disappears after a few seconds if the user does not click it. If the user does select the ad, the main video will pause, and the video ad will play; once the ad has ended, the video will resume. The idea behind this method is ensure the ad does not interrupt the user’s viewing experience. Some UGC sites, including YouTube, now prefer this “overlay” method over “pre-roll”.
  • Conversation targeting. Marketers can target specific conversations that are relevant to their brands, be them on some blogs, online communities or social networks. They can then add their “voice” (e.g., product or company information, press releases, and experts’ opinions) or place their ads next to these conversations. A camera producer, for example, may try to identify widely read blogs about photography whereas a sport apparel producer may look for some online forums on physical fitness. They may utilize the service of some third-party specialists in finding not only the most relevant conversations but also the most influential.
  • Custom communities. Marketers can build custom communities that provide an online hub for brands — entertaining and engaging consumers through relevant content, interesting games, useful applets, or exciting contests. They may use off-site advertising to drive consumers to these communities, where these consumers participate and pass along interesting or valuable content to others. A variation of custom communities is dedicated channels for specific brands on content-sharing sites such as YouTube.
  • Brand profile page. Marketers can create profile pages for their products or brands on social networking sites such as Facebook. On such pages they can offer relevant and interesting content, from demonstration videos to widgets that let site members include these pages in their “friend” network or tag themselves as a “fan.”
  • Widgets. Some marketers now make available branded widgets for users to download onto their computer desktops or embed in their blogs or profile pages and through these widgets to import some form of live content. American TV network ABC, for example, offers a series of widgets around its popular primetime shows such as “Desperate Housewives”, “Grey’s Anatomy”, “Ugly Betty” and “Dancing with the Stars”. These embeddable widgets let fans add exclusive ABC.com content to their blogs, web pages and social networking sites. Each widget includes video clips, photos, news alerts and links back to ABC.com’s media player for viewing of full episodes.

Kong: a King Gone Wild

With the rise of UGC, is content fit to be king? To put it differently, is the notion of “content is king” any closer to reality in the UGC era  than it was in the CDC era? Survey data from the OPA shows Internet users spend the largest share of their time online at content sites (39.6 percent), far ahead of communication (24 percent),  community (20.6 percent) and other sites (e.g., commerce and search at 10.9 and 4.5 percent, respectively). Back in 2003 when data on community sites was not available, they spent more time at communication sites (47.3 percent) than content (33.6 percent) and other sites. Content sites are those designed primarily to provide news, information and entertainment (e.g., CNN.com, ESPN.com and MapQuest). Community sites are those combining UCG with communications in order to foster relationships between individual members and groups of members (e.g., Facebook and MySpace). Communications sites and those designed to facilitate the exchange of thoughts, messages, or information directly between individuals or groups of individuals (e.g., Yahoo! Mail and AOL Instant Messenger). Commerce sites are those designed for shopping online (e.g., Amazon and eBay). Search sites those scanning the Web to provide prioritized results based on specific criteria from user requests (e.g., Google Search and Yahoo! Search). Essentially, content-rich sites are where consumers have been spending their time at, then or now, despite the growing popularity of community/networking sites such as Facebook.

Website traffic statistics (Alexa, 2010) seem to confirm the predominance of content. Four of the top-ten sites globally are content sites (e.g., YouTube, MSN, Wikipedia and Blogger); the remainder includes four search sites, two of which (Yahoo and Baidu) are content-rich, a community and social network site (Facebook) and a communication site (Tencent QQ – a Chinese instant messaging site). For marketers it is clear that they can ignore the content element only at their own perils.

Utilizing UGC sites for marketing communication is not without its challenges, however. UGC sites are by nature a freewheeling exchange of opinions and points of view, in which an advertiser is expected to be just another participating voice. Marketers can no longer broadcast one-way messages at their audiences in a carefully planned and controlled environment. Instead, they must now engage in conversations that are initiated, maintained, and “owned” by consumers. They need to surrender some degree of control over the brand messages. That carries a level of uncertainties and risks much higher than what most marketers are accustomed to (see my other post: “Markets Are Conversations”).

So while content may turn out to be king this time, it is likely a different sort of king: King Kong. Like the infamous ape made in Hollywood, UGC can be wild and unpredictable; meanwhile its raw strength can be overwhelming. Recall the Chevy Tahoe online video contest discussed in an earlier post (“Markets are Conversations”).  The beast can be quite destructive but controlling it is equally impractical. Ignoring the beast does not make it go away either. Perhaps with a new mindset radically different from the traditional “command and control” approach, marketers can meet King Kong (or rather UGC) face-to-face. A different ending, less tragic, this time?

References

  1. Alexa (2010) “Top Sites”, at: http://www.alexa.com/topsites (accessed July 7, 2010).
  2. Online Publishers Association (OPA) (2010) “Internet Activity Index (IAI)”, at: http://www.online-publishers.org/page.php/prmID/421 (accessed July 7, 2010).

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