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Pros and Cons of Reader-Generated Content

Posted on Wednesday, April 29, 2015 at 4:44 PM

Should you put user-generated content to work in your publication?

By William Dunkerley

The idea of getting content from readers has a lot of appeal to many editors. It has two main things going for it: First it can be relatively inexpensive and readily available. There is plenty of content awaiting almost any editor on the plethora of social media sites. The second thing is the idea of increased reader involvement. Many readers will feel closer to a publication if they sometimes see their input in print or online.

User-Generated Content

Reader-generated content is actually a subset of the broader term "user-generated content," often referred to simply as UGC. The concept first burst onto the scene at the end of 2006, according to Google Trends. Now a Google search on the term returns over 8 million hits.

The trend by commercial companies to make greater use of content marketing is probably propelling interest. Last year Digiday proclaimed that UGC "makes a brand more approachable." As non-publishers increasingly try their hand at using content as a draw in their marketing, UGC pops up as an attractive approach.

A Not-so-New Trend

When you think of it though, magazines have been using UGC since long before the dawn of the digital age. Isn't a letters to the editor page UGC? Aren't op-eds? I've seen magazines that run long, regular columns that consist largely of reports from readers. That's UGC too. Some publications carry articles that are largely written by readers and then edited by the professional editorial staff. So these are some time-tested applications of beneficial UGC.

Most of the above variants of UGC are incorporated in digital publications as well. Online publishing has also ushered in reader comment sections at the end of each article. I've seen some online articles attract hundreds of comments.

The Risks of UGC

Unfortunately, though, you can find a lot of lively discussions out there where the comments have devolved to the level of moronic street talk. It can't do your publication much good when you offer proof that so many of your readers are nincompoops. That makes a strong case for moderating reader comment features.

One frequent criticism of UGC in publications is that it often lacks the gravitas and expertise that readers expect from credentialed authors. But that concern can be contained by limiting the percentage of your publication that is devoted to UGC.

The Allure of Editorial Convenience

Our recent two-part series titled "Is Wikipedia a Reliable Source?" turned up something interesting (see those articles here and here). We had surveyed editors on whether they allow quoting from Wikipedia or referencing its content. Few admit that Wiki content is as good as any other source. Far more say it depends.

But a striking finding from our mini survey is that so many editors use Wikipedia in their own work. It's not considered an ultimate source. Editors treat whatever they see in Wikipedia with a good measure of skepticism. Nonetheless, quite a few editors consider Wiki to be a real convenience, even if its accuracy is dubious. It's a convenient starting point.

What this means is the editors, certainly a critical group of information seekers, are willing to trade off reliability for convenience. That being so, wouldn't this same principle apply to many of our readers?

Convenience, breadth, and accessibility of information shouldn't be ignored when planning your editorial approach.

Should Your Publication Offer UGC?

Is this something worth developing for your publication? I'm talking about a UGC section or pockets of UGC disbursed throughout the issue. The pro is the opportunity you provide to readers for added convenience, breadth, and accessibility. If readers would appreciate that, why not give it to them?

The con, of course, is that we're talking about content that may not meet your usual standards.

But the survey of editors suggests that this may not be perceived by readers as the turnoff you might imagine. And especially if you label UGC as UGC, and perhaps add a "Caveat lector" ("Let the reader beware") tagline, what risk is there in testing UGC to see how your readers might react?

William Dunkerley is principal of William Dunkerley Publishing Consultants, www.publishinghelp.com.

Add your comment.


"I'll add my two-cents worth (because that's an accurate assessment of UGC's value) to this excellent article. We've always encouraged UGC as a way to boost readership. The "social media" phenomenon, which seems to have started with "forums" attached to blogs, and degenerated from there, is an example of UGC gone wild. Before technology turned them into "social media," we called them either "bull sessions" or "hen parties," depending on circumstances. They were entertaining, and sometimes informative, but nobody in their right minds imagined them to be 'journalism.'" --C.G. Masi

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