Technology is not a strategy: it's a tool

Here’s another draft section from the book chapter on UGC I’m currently writing I’ve written which I’d welcome your input on. I’m particularly interested in any other objectives you can think of that news organisations have for using UGC – or the strategies adopted to achieve those.

A common mistake made when first venturing into user generated content is to focus on the technology, rather than the reasons for using it. “We need to have our own social network!” someone shouts. But why? And, indeed, how do you do so successfully?

A useful framework to draw on when thinking about how you approach UGC is the POST process for social media strategy outlined by Forrester Research (Bernoff, 2007). This involves identifying:

  1. People: who are your audience (or intended audience), and what social media (e.g. Facebook, blogs, Twitter, forums, etc.) do they use? Equally important, why do they use social media?
  2. Objectives: what do you want to achieve through using UGC
  3. Strategy: how are you going to achieve that? How will relationships with users change?
  4. Technology: only when you’ve explored the first three steps can you decide which technologies to use

Some common objectives for UGC and strategies associated with those are listed below:

Objective Example UGC strategies
Users spend longer on our site
  • Give users something to do around content, e.g. comments, vote, etc.
  • Find out what users want to do with UGC and allow them to do that on-site
  • Acknowledge and respond to UGC
  • Showcase UGC on other platforms, e.g. print, broadcast
  • Create a positive atmosphere around UGC – prevent aggressive users scaring others away
Attract more users to our site
  • Help users to promote their own and other UGC
  • Allow users to cross-publish UGC from our site to others and vice versa
  • Allow users to create their own UGC from our own raw or finished materials
Get to the stories before our competitors
  • Monitor UGC on other sites
  • Monitor mentions of keywords such as ‘earthquake’, etc.
  • Become part of and contribute to online UGC communities
  • Provide live feeds pulling content from UGC sites*
Increase the amount of content on our site
  • Make it easy for users to contribute material to the site
  • Make it useful
  • Make it fun
  • Provide rewards for contributing – social or financial
Improve the editorial quality of our work
  • Provide UGC space for users to highlight errors, contribute updates
  • Ensure that we attract the right contributors in terms of skills, expertise, contacts, etc.
  • Involve users from the earliest stages of production

Can you add any more? What strategies have you used around UGC?

UPDATE: ‘Pursue the goal, not the method‘ by Chris Brogan puts this concept well in broader terms.


21 thoughts on “Technology is not a strategy: it's a tool

  1. Vadim Lavrusik

    I think that this is implied in a lot of these points, but also I would add community. A site that has a strategy of creating a sense of community among its readers by allowing them to contribute and participate.

  2. Mark Pack

    Although you touch on it a bit, I think it’s worth bringing out explicitly that on many stories someone amongst the readers will have knowledge which the news outlet does not have. It may be a photo, an on the spot account or a piece of specialist expertise (e.g. about an organisation involved in the story).

    Tapping into that knowledge makes for better stories but also is increasingly important given the time pressures on journalists means they often don’t have the time to develop in-depth expertise in areas.

  3. Case Ernsting

    I think your list is very complete Paul and the book looks like a good read. I’d emphasize that point you make: “Acknowledge and respond to UGC”. Actions like responding to reader email and interacting on social networks like a peer rather than a distant robot will improve UGC across the board.

  4. Susi O'Neill

    The idea of a journalist being the ear to the ground that collects stories about what is happening is emphasised through new orgs participation. Scanning social media for breaking stories and views, rather than relying on phone-in reports or PR, will become increasingly important to remain relevant to readers in addition to hosting spaces which allow that to happen.

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  6. Charles Borwick

    It’s a good list and I think it’ll be helpful for people starting out. I think it’s missing a couple of things:

    1. Advertising revenue as an objective
    The objectives you list are largely subsets of some larger revenue goal such as increasing advertising CPM or CTR. I think this deserves its own goal because there are ways to make UGC better for advertising. One paper I worked with got the highest CPMs ever for a social Q&A on their site.

    2. Blending UGC with Expert Content
    There are ways to blend UGC/Expert content which keeps quality high while increasing content and perspectives.

    3. Interaction with Experts/Journalists
    One of the things that papers can do is convene an audience interested in authoritative opinion. Typically experts appreciate access to this audience. But too often the role of media middleman interferes with the experience, filtering it down and making it sound bland. There is nothing quite like original, authentic voices and hence the success of UGC.

    I’ve worked with The Stranger in Seattle on numerous aspects of these things and they have been not just thought leaders but have implemented may iterations of their Questionland and Electionland products to the point that they are now the most popular parts of the site after their main page/blog.

    It’s good to have some great case studies that show how people have progressed through the various stages of UGC as they have learned. Some of these steps cannot be skipped, and are necessary for the cultural adaptation that makes UGC a part of the culture rather than a side project.

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  8. Ade MacLeod

    I agree community is an important aim in itself. Making a publication feel more like a conversation than a broadcast seems to be important in differentiating web from print products. It is also seen as important in dealing with competition from blogs and forums.

    Some publications are using UGC as part of brand marketing. Because the web seems to favour humans over corporate brands, conventional magazines are using UGC as part of a strategy to build the profiles of individual writers. Direct dialogue between writers and readers is part of that.

  9. Paula Cordeiro

    There is still another point to be understood in this matter: competition between media. Press, radio and tv often compete between them using copies of what others are doing. Just because. My competitor has a corporate blog, so I should also have one. I can’t be aside. All the users from that website use podcasts, should I should also have podcasts on mine. I rarely see a driven strategy built to fulfil the media needs of expansion, of audience or revenues increase. Most of what I know started like this, “because other have, I should also do it”, copying from international successful examples. Strategies are starting to be developed considering mostly the needs and uses of the medium loyal audience and most media websites in Portugal are actually developing a strategy around the idea of loyalty to their brand, connecting to audiences through every online tool they can use. As for UGC, it’s still the “just because” strategy. What is mostly used is videos (for TV) and comments (for Press). Radio is aside of it. There are few iniciatives of UGC. Mostly have to do with music choice, from a previous defined list. There is, though, a very good example on a local radio station, in which the listener compose an entire hour of music (is called the cake time, presented at 5 o’clock every Sunday).


    I am familiar with the cry mentioned above We need to have our own social network! In my experience, this cry arises from anxiety – the feeling that something terribly important is being missed and that everybody, literally the whole world, knows something that is being missed out on. But of course, the strength of feeling of being the outsider is not necessarily matched by a coherent social media strategy.

    I agree that technology is primarily a means to an end, at least in this context.

    I think the list on the site: Some common objectives for UGC and strategies associated with those, is a good starting point. My main point in responding to the list is that it is rather general and that, to be strategically effective in a real-life scenario, it needs to be adapted rigorously to concrete examples: particular sites with particular objectives.

    Also, a lot of what’s mentioned on the list is rather one-sided: what does a site wish to get out of engaging with social networks. How is it beneficial to ‘me’? Does that not rather miss the point that social networks are there to be engaged with and contributed to on a more equal basis? What I would therefore say to the list is that there should be more emphasis, when considering one’s objectives and strategies, in what a site can usefully add to a social network. What will others get from engaging with a social network of which a particular site is a member.

    Noone wants to feel that they are being ‘used’. That isn’t the point of social networks, really.

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