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by • October 28, 2011 • ProductComments (2)69

User-generated content for startups

This is a long and specific post, but enough startups rely on UGC (user-generated content) to some degree that I wanted to put a few thoughts down.

Customising, voting, and sharing are not use-cases

Saying your app is “fun” because it “lets you share” is like saying the fridge is useful because it has handles.

Sharing is an enabling feature, not a value proposition.

The use case is that your friend is having a bad day and you want to send something funny and personal to cheer them up (Elf Yourself, Facebook, JibJab)

The use case is that a mom wants to wish happy birthday to her away-at-college daughter and your tools have allowed her to create something she never could before (Instagram, Muzy)

The use case is that you’ve got a tall podium in front of a big audience so normal peoples’ voices can reach the world (Tumblr, Reddit)

Selling UGC technology (or platforms) is a sticky wicket

This includes new ad formats, competition platforms, rating systems, and basically anything you’re tempted to white-label.

The hard part of UGC is getting the users to generate content. The technology side is trivial. If you provide clients the tech, they’re going to mess up everything else and then blame you when they receive zero user-generated whatevers.

You won’t be getting a testimonial.

There are 2 ways I’m comfortable selling UGC platforms.

The first is to be able to provide proven funnel costs, from acquisition through creation & sharing

Put this widget on facebook, spend $10k on that display network with this ad, and we guarantee you’ll end up with 500 entries because our acquisition, engagement, creation, and sharing rates are XYZ & Q, respectively.

If you don’t have that data, you want to think of it as an e-learning course. Your tech is just an accessory — the real product is a 30 day calendar of day-by-day client todos, best practices, and sanity checks.

If you don’t have either performance data or best practices, then you need to either charge based on performance (which nobody will be happy about, including you) or spend a while as your own guinea pig running a [set of] user-facing campaign[s]. Both of these take a while and won’t generate revenue.

If you’re selling a UGC platform, clients will do everything imaginable to shoot themselves in the foot and then blame you. We had a client put a 30-field registration form in front of the creation bit and then wonder why our advertised conversion of 25% was… slightly different than their experience.

In that unfortunate case, just do your best to make yourself available as a scapegoat. You’re already not getting a contract renewal, so you may as well prevent anyone on their end from getting fired.

Open problems in UGC

The first big challenge is finding a way to provide value to the early contributing users. There are lots of tactical examples (Reddit faked the community until strangers began to care about karma) but very few good repeatable strategy.

On the advertising side, brands want to “engage” and “include” and “collaborate” with their customers, but their UGC campaigns are always either over-hyped wastelands or full of pornography.

The second challenge is that most people are un-creative, boring, and incapable of making anything other people will want to watch. This is usually solved by only showing the content to loved ones (Elf Yourself) or by providing extreme constraints/scaffolding so there’s only so much creative chain for people to choke themselves with (Elf Yourself).

The third challenge is allowing users creative freedom while avoiding inappropriate content. When we made an animation app for kids, we had to cut rotation (a commonly requested feature) because its existence meant that every video featured a pile of celebrities humping each other.

A combination of #2 & 3 is why video never took off as a UGC format — people typically make boring videos and the contents are too hard to quickly verify. The campaign owners then invoke draconian moderation programs (“Your creation will be available on the site in 24-48 hours!”) which kill the virality and thus the campaign. Those problems aren’t easy to address until you hit youtube scale (and even then, “easy” is probably the wrong word).

UGC features usually don’t belong in v1

If the core of your value proposition is UGC, then this obviously doesn’t apply. However, stuff like voting, reviews, comments, etc all does more harm than good if nobody engages in it.

Users engage with those features not because they love voting, but because they believe their opinion will reach lots of people and have an impact.

This sort of UGC is rarely a critical feature, so you can often save some development time and wait to turn them on until you have a bit of traction.

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2 Responses to User-generated content for startups

  1. Vin Cara says:

    I hate it when piles of celebrities humping each other causes problems.

    I wasn’t aware that reddit faked any type of interaction early on. Some new message boards will actually pay people a small amount to post, to try to get things going.

  2. cathy says:

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