The Content Corner: Harness the Power of User-Generated Content

Sep 21, 2015
Internet Life

As of 2015, Millennials spent 30% of their time consuming user-generated content (UGC), and 54% of that group find UGC more trustworthy than content generated by a specific brand. This covers everything from user-generated reviews on Yelp! to short-form videos.

Another benefit of UGC is that it helps crowdsource the burden of feeding the content beast and can allow you to more fully engage not only with your customers, but with other staff within your agency that may not be a part of a typical content creation regime. But, anytime you engage with the general public, whether it’s posting photos or replying to comments, there are a variety of concerns to be aware of.

Masters of Reality

As stated above, one of the main reasons to hand the content creation keys to your users, is that users (especially Millennials) demand authenticity from any brand/entity/agency they interact with. They view brand-generated content unfavorably in relation to user-generated “real” content. Respected content marketers have even gone as far as to say: “The future of content creation is user-generated content and employee-generated content.” The reference to employee-generated content refers to staff outside of the established content generation workflow. Allowing any staff member to produce public content marks an embrace of a more organic content creation process and places more importance on the quality of the content itself as opposed to a hierarchical content workflow that most of us are accustomed to. Anyone else have to submit a ticket or some formal request to get content changed or published to a public-facing website? Yeah, I thought so.

And while some form of a content moderation regime is still completely necessary, especially in the public sector, the rise of UGC is broadening the pool of who is and isn’t considered a content contributor. Certain public sector agencies have embraced these “real” content contributors because they are creating great content that is far more engaging for their audiences.

This Land is Our Land
Slinkard Wilderness Study Area, BLM California, photo by Bob Wick, BLM

One of the best examples I found recently is the Bureau of Land Management and their work to highlight the mission and work of an agency that many Americans may not be very aware of. BLM embraces their large national staff to highlight the mission of the agency; the interesting thing is that while public affairs staff still make up a majority of their content contributors, they do have outdoor recreation specialists, an archaeologist, and a rangeland management specialist. Their bloggers cover a decent swath of the west, from Colorado to California, and only two of them are from the D.C. area. This staffing makeup alone shows the agency’s commitment to their mission and leverages their diverse national staff to strengthen their content production and help the public get a better sense of the service they provide to the country.

They are also using staff and social media to promote the agency as a potential employer by adding the voices of staff and even their children to show a human side of the agency. Again, having an actual employee talking about their feelings and experiences as an employee has a much greater impact than even having someone else tell their story for them. UCG is eliminating the middleman and allowing for a much purer storytelling process that can’t help but be more real and authentic.

High Profile UGC

A recent high-profile example of user-generated content came during President Obama’s recent trip to Alaska. During his visit to highlight the effects of climate change on the 49th state, the president took over a variety of White House social media platforms to provide a first-hand account of his travels. Along with Instagram, Obama also used Twitter and Medium to personally share his experiences and create a social media fueled travelogue of his Alaska visit. As with all user-generated content, his first-hand accounts and personal approach provided a stronger message than having an aide or public affairs staffer report on or document the trip. The user’s personal experience was key in providing an authoritative and trustworthy tone to the content (also didn’t hurt that it was the leader of the free world).

Things to Consider

As mentioned, and as you can probably imagine, introducing the general public into your content creation workflow will require some careful planning and additional policies. One agency that has done an excellent job with enabling UGC via clear guidelines is the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). Their tagging policy page is a great resource for not only managing user contributions to tagging and adding descriptors to archival content, but for all forms of UGC. Some of the highlights and must-haves for any UGC policy from their list include:

  • Profane, abusive, or any unacceptable content will be removed
  • Promotional content for a product, party or person will be removed
  • Personally identifiable information (PII) is not permitted
  • Content may be treated as part of the Federal Record
  • Intellectual or copyright ownership is not retained once content is shared.

These five items really touch on some of the more immediate issues that need to be clear as you embrace user contributions. NARA also provides tool-specific guidelines so they remain flexible as needed for a particular social media tool; for example, blog guidelines may have specific differences compared to Instagram.

Another clear difference (that NARA does a great job of pointing out) is the change in privacy policies between government-hosted sites and social media platforms that are controlled through a company with a terms-of-service (TOS) in place. These privacy policies may vary per company and TOS, so make sure that you inform users of this difference, and as applicable, link to the social media entity’s privacy policy as well.

One final important consideration, also pointed out by NARA, relates to retention policies and how UGC is treated as part of records keeping. As with all of these policies, consult with the appropriate department and staff member in your agency. Many of these policies will be applied the same for any Web content produced by staff, but a flexible policy that adapts to the speed of social media is critical.

As consumers’ desire for every online entity to be open and authentic has increased significantly, user-generated content has become a critical factor in facilitating this more “real” conversation. UGC is now a standard part of the conversation that you should and must be having with your audience, and it offers the potential for better content generation and help in feeding the beast itself. With proper planning and policies, you can leverage your individual users to benefit all.You’ve just finished reading the latest article from our Monday column, The Content Corner. This column focuses on helping solve the main content issues facing federal digital professionals, including producing enough content and making that content engaging.