User-generated content: Free isn’t its competitive advantage

For news organisations to survive and thrive, they have to understand their competitive advantage and the relative competitive advantage of different digital strategies. I was reminded how important this is when I read a great article by Anika Gupta, the product manager for Citizen Journalist Online, a new user-generated content portal for Indian news channel CNN-IBN. Writing on MediaNama, Gupta points out that free content is not the competitive advantage for user-generated content:

Either you pay content producers or you pay content editors, but somebody has to get paid. There is no such thing as a free lunch.

Even if you don’t have a portal, it still takes time, someone’s time, whether that’s a social-media savvy reporter or editor or a dedicated team and portal. She writes about the challenges of “polishing” UGC, making sure the content is spelled correctly while also retaining the voice of the user. She works for a citizen journalism or UGC portal, and there are also issues of filtering and verification. If your UGC portal is even mildly successful, you also run into scaling issues. You receive more content than you can use much less evaluate. The ability to filter relevant content can become huge even before you have to assess whether it’s accurate. This is all to say that user-generated content, especially done right, might be less expensive than original content but it is far from free.

If free content isn’t the competitive advantage for user-generated content, what are its true competitive advantages:-

Become the go-to news organisation for UGC

Of course, as Gupta points out, tapping into UGC allows news organisations to get photos and videos from a much wider range of sources. It is impossible to anticipate breaking news events, but now, many of the first bits of footage we see come from mobile phones. However, to gain an advantage over your competitors, you need to have already established your news organisation as the outlet where people will send their photos, videos and first person accounts.

Long before the BBC created its UGC hub, the BBC News website (where I worked from 1998 until 2005), had long been engaging its audience to help it report the news. The BBC had a couple of journalists who monitored and verified photos and emails that came mostly via an email address put on the bottom of stories. However, this allowed the BBC to develop a relationship with its audience so that when big news stories broke, members of the public would send their photos, videos and first person accounts to the BBC. That became a huge competitive advantage for the BBC even in early 2000s, long before many outlets had even realised the opportunity.

Nothing beats local content”

This is a huge competitive advantage for local news operations, and one which a lot of local news groups have yet to fully embrace. As Gupta says:

A blog post by your neighbor will always feel more authentic than a TV news story by an unknown anchor who has visited your town once.  People are drawn to what they know.

Build up a group of core contributors over time

Al Jazeera is relaunching its UGC portal, Sharek, and one of their goals with the new site is to allow them to more easily identify consistent, credible contributors over time. Developing an effective UGC strategy means building up a relationship and sourcing information about those contributors. This will make it easier to evaluate material in a breaking news situation because you will develop confidence with frequent contributors.

Make sure there are ways to reward those contributors. A couple of years ago, the local version of freesheet Metro in Finland actually listed the price they paid for high quality user photos on the photo itself. However, the reward doesn’t need to be monetary. The BBC’s interactive radio programme World Have Your Say (I was on the launch team) developed ways that active members of their community could take on informal roles in helping the show, whether that was with community management or suggesting show topics.

Increased audience loyalty

Most newspapers in developed digital markets boast a larger digital audience than a print audience. However, many of these visitors read a single story per month and can’t really be considered a core audience. Again, this type of engagement is not free. It takes a lot of time from smart social media staff who blend traditional journalism skills such as evaluating sources and verification with community management skills.

The deeper your engagement and UGC strategy, the more savvy news organisations will have to become with their business strategy to support it. This goes back to Gupta’s original point: UGC isn’t free. UGC and engagement strategies have often been poorly thought as editorial products, with the primary emphasis being on tapping low or no-cost content. The Guardian recently launched its new citizen journalism project, GuardianWitness, with a partnership deal with mobile phone operator, EE.

For local news sites, I still believe, even in the age of Facebook, that there are opportunities to develop deeper relationships with their communities through user-generated content. One of the big issues with these local strategies is that they need to represent a much broader range of the lived experience of local communities and not just focus on hard and breaking news.  The national newspapers (and national journalists) love to poke fun at what they see as boring parochial news stories, but local food, fêtes and sports are part of that lived experience. News sites that become truly woven into the fabric of the fabric of their communities will have a better chance of attracting the loyal audiences that advertisers want. Building up a loyal audience of community contributors will also help news organisations gather the kind of user data that is critical to modern, targeted advertising.

That again, will take investment. I think that local and regional newspaper groups in the US and UK are facing what could be their last opportunity to adapt their editorial and, just as crucially, their business model to the market they find themselves in. It’s not clear that many of the hollowed out groups have the money, the stomach and the smarts to make targeted strategic investments. They might think that UGC is the way to pad out the skeletal products left by years of savage cuts. They should think again.

HSBC: The suckage never stops

Oh, HSBC, I can’t untangle my personal finances from you fast enough. After my last post about firing The World’s Most Incompetent Bank, I unfortunately still have a couple of credit cards with them because changing my credit cards might impact my credit rating, and Suw and I are hoping to buy a house in the next six months. Once that happens, I’m closing these cards. I have lost all confidence in HSBC’s security, and they need a root-and-branch review of their customer service and communication processes.

Coming up on two weeks ago, my HSBC UK credit card was declined on a routine purchase on Amazon, and then a couple of days later, it was again declined again when I tried to pay for my British citizenship ceremony. (Yay!) This was the first indication that there was a problem. I logged into my account, and there was no indication that anything was awry. No big warning that my card had been compromised or messages asking me to call the fraud department on the internal messaging system. Business as usual for HSBC, which means some level of inconvenience and incompetence.

I sent a message asking for clarification about the status of the card on the internal messaging system. They informed me that there was a block on the card and that I was to call the fraud department but otherwise, they couldn’t actually do anything for me.

The call was enlightening and infuriating in equal measure. On the 23 April, HSBC detected that the details of my card were “copied by a known fraudster”. This is at least the second time that this has happened with HSBC. Wah? I hadn’t used the card since the 15 April. Was it part of a massive credit card theft online? Dunno. They have special software that lets them know about such things but provides them with no other details.

After finding out that my card had been compromised and that yet another new card would be sent to me, I asked to speak to a manager. (I think I’m up to four of five compromised debit or credit cards with them in the seven years I’ve done business with them.) He said that they tried to call me on the 23 April when the software flagged up the issue. I was in the US at the time, and my phone registered no call or voice mail.

I suggested to the HSBC manager that they had an internal security problem, and the manager assured me that they abide by the Data Protection Act. Fine, but what are their internal security procedures?  I’m sceptical about the tightness of those procedures due to the high level of fraud that I’ve experienced as their customer. I told the manager that if I have serial fraud on cards with them that they might want to review their internal security protocols as well as investing in shiny anti-fraud software.

However, I also said that they needed to improve their customer communications. Put bluntly, I found out that they broke their own procedures. The manager said they should have tried to call me 10 days later, and if they couldn’t reach me, they were supposed to send me a letter. The call wasn’t made. The letter was never sent. There was no communication on the internal messaging system, which HSBC has but seems loathe to use. Instead, I found out my card had been compromised because it started to be declined. They assured me that a call was on their to do list today. Uh-huh, that’s nice to know. I have a lot on my to-do list today too.

As with so many of the issues that I’ve had with HSBC over the years, they didn’t solve my problem. I did. That’s what you can expect from HSBC, the world’s most incompetent bank. Customer service? Yes, absolutely, you the customer will have to provide your own service.

PS: This will hopefully be the last time I rant about HSBC. After heavy travel in May, we will return to our regularly scheduled media blogging immediately.

Want to get paid for journalism? Don’t be afraid to ask your audience

Last autumn, I was talking to a colleague and we were discussing the economic challenges the news industry, and really just about every other content industry, faces. I finally just boiled it down to this:

Anyone can write these days, but getting paid for it is a bitch.

We live in a world where 72 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute (as of May 2013) and between 600,000 to 1 m books were published this year in the US alone. The amount of content available creates a challenge that not only journalists but also musicians, film makers and writers face. There is just so much stuff competing for people’s attention. National Public Radio’s On the Media asked recently: Who’s gonna pay for this stuff? 

Here is how the hosts framed the discussion:

BOB GARFIELD:  As far back as we can remember, media was among the most lucrative industries on earth. The symbiosis of mass media and mass marketing was a path paved with profit for the  entertainment and information industries.

But today’s cheap and relatively simple technology have lowered the barriers of entry into that world, yielding a nearly infinite glut of stuff, brilliant and otherwise, to compete for audience and funding from every other thing out there, whether made by Warner Bros., or a Korean pop singer whose video was the first to hit a billion views on YouTube.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  The “Big Bang” in content has exploded the mass of mass media into a zillion fragments, most of which lack the critical mass to survive solely on ad revenue. So, who’s gonna pay for this stuff?

It’s a great show, well worth listening to if you’re passionate about finding the new business models to support journalism and other media in this age of abundance.

It’s a great programme that unpicks some of the issues, and if journalism is your passion, it’s well worth listening to the section on crowdfunding, including a Kickstarter campaign by Roman Mars, the host of 99% Invisible, to fund his third season. I loved this bit:

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Has your success using Kickstarter changed your view of your future?

ROMAN MARS: Definitely. I did Kickstarter because I needed a problem solved. I needed to, to pay myself a little bit of something and pay my contributors to do this show, because I was going broke paying them and not paying myself. It was just about that.

What I got from Kickstarter changed the way I viewed like my audience and how I can operate in this world. It gave me time. There’s a perversity of money that money follows money [LAUGHS], and so like when I raised money on Kickstarter, I got more underwriting support.

Exactly, that’s exactly it. You know, I realized in this process, and part of this is, you know, me enjoying the success of the Kickstarter campaign, is that I kind of like solving the problem of funding the show. I didn’t think I would ever enjoy this part.

But I kind of like it. I kind of like this idea of entrepreneurial journalism. It’s just a puzzle, like anything else. And I’m a producer, and my job is to solve problems. And this is just the most immediate problem that we have.

Listen to the entire segment. It’s worth it just to hear Mars’ enthusiasm.

I really loved this for so many reasons. He became passionate about solving the problem of funding his journalism, but in the end, he found an authentic, honest way to involve his audience not just in creating the podcast but also in supporting it. US public radio has long history of listener pledge drives so crowdfunding projects is just a natural extension of that. The crowdfunding campaign showed that there was demand for what he was doing. That’s important, and crowdfunding isn’t just about raising money but also seeing if there is demand for what you’re doing.

What really grabbed me about this was Mars’ passion about solving the problem of sustainability. It’s great to hear, and I hope that Mars’ passion is infectious. It certainly rubbed off on me.