Want to Monetize User Generated Content? Make it Consumer Generated Media!

Users_AdvertisersOne of the biggest things Web 2.0 will be remembered for is its proliferation of user generated content (UGC). With falling bandwidth and storage costs, the thinking was that entrepreneurs could amass a large audience fast, and lock-in users in the process, by offering visitors a place to create, upload, manage and/or share their personal content (articles, photos, videos) with friends- and provide it all for free. The network affect would drive adoption as users invited friends to the site to check out their content, who in turn would sign up for the service themselves (thus the user acquisition costs could be defined as the per user cost for hosting and delivering the content). Once a site’s audience reached a certain threshold, the idea was to monetize these visitors through advertising and, to a lesser extent, premium services (i.e. get people to pay for more storage, additional features, etc.). Sites like Blogger, Photobucket and YouTube were launched to meet specific user needs around content verticals (articles, photos and videos respectively), while social networks like MySpace enabled the content to be aggregated by allowing their users to embed widgets from these UGC sites for everyone to see on the social network. While this tactic was a boon from a user adoption perspective, the revenue opportunity hasn’t proved itself for the acquirer of these web properties (both Blogger and YouTube were acquired by Google, while MySpace and Photobucket were acquired by News Corp/Fox) as of yet. While adjacency issues (displaying a brand advertisement banner next to objectionable content on a website) have been a primary excuse for poor CPM rates on UGC sites, the real issue has been the lack of higher value, integrated branding opportunities available to advertisers to leverage the unique behaviors of these communities. Since visitors to UGC websites are there to develop their content and interact with other users, standard ad units that push contextually irrelevant content are completely ignored. Considering that the Internet population is increasing the amount of time it spends on these types of properties, advertisers need a way to reach these users in a manner that is consistent with how people use these sites. So what’s the solution that provides UGC sites with more revenue, advertisers with better value for their ad spend and users with a enjoyable ad experience? It’s consumer generated media (CGM). While some might consider the difference solely semantic, there are differences between CGM and UGC in how the content is produced. Consumer generated media is created based on explicit and/or implicit sets of guidelines while user generated content has no such restrictions. These parameters enable producers of user generated content to create three types of consumer generated media.

  1. Participation. Self-promotion is a big reason why people upload their content creations to sites like YouTube. So what better way to help some of them realize their 15 minutes of fame than by having them participate in an ad campaign! YouTube_ContestThe typical model for participatory campaigns is to create a contest where users upload their videos or photos with explicit guidelines around what content qualifies, how winners are chosen and whether the prize is fame and/or fortune. Doritos was an early adopter of this model, leveraging fans to create Super Bowl ads on behalf of its brand, with the top 5 entries getting a monetary prize ($25,000) and a grand prize winner having their creation aired during the Super Bowl (in fact this year’s contest winner was also named the best ad by consumers, resulting in an additional $1 million prize!). According to Forrester Research, consumer generated video campaigns are are a popular way for a wide range of industries to drive brand loyalty. With the growing popularity of Twitter, even commenting-based campaigns are gaining traction as advertisers include a filtered set of publicly available tweets in widget-based ads. In both cases, you can see how leveraging the participatory nature of UGC sites can provide a quick and cost effective method for reaching and engaging with an audience, and in the process create ads that are more relevant to the intended audience.
  2. Endorsement. Out of those seeking fame and fortune online a few have actually achieve celebrity status. Due to the open, promotional nature of UGC sites, individuals such as Justine Ezarik (iJustin), Rhett McLaughlin and Link Neal (Rhett & Link) and Gary Vanyerchuck (Gary Vee), have been able to grow their popularity from within specific communities. As such there is a stronger perceived relationship and level of trust afforded to these individuals by their followers than you would find with more mainstream celebrities. This has also enabled these internet celebrities to leverage their success on one content platform to create devoted followers across other UGC sites (Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter, etc.). Thus, an endorsed campaign centered around one community’s platform offers an opportunity for the endorsement overflow into the individual’s other audiences as well. But because of the relationship these personalities have with their followers, advertisers interested in leveraging the endorsement model need to trust these internet celebrities to communicate the value of the advertiser’s brand in their own voice. Scripted endorsement could be construed as disingenuous and risk damaging both the celebrity’s and the advertiser’s brand. In putting together this type of program explicit guidelines should only be placed on the topic and context the online celebrity will be communicating to their audience, while implicit guidelines should be used around the content itself (the individuals’ thoughts, experience, etc. with the brand). Companies such as Carl’s Jr. and JetBlue have both recently experimented with this type of consumer generated media to promote their respective brands. For UGC properties, highlighting these celebrities or power users (if the former doesn’t exist) as potential brand advocates can yield high engagement- as long as the brand is willing to give up a certain level of control in the messaging. In addition to the monetization opportunity for both the web property and its endorsing personalities, this type of campaign can further strengthening the relationship of the site with its community as users see how the time and effort they put into the site can be rewarded.
  3. Mashup. Combining user generated content with elements of professionally produced media (user generated video that incorporates a popular song into the experience is an example of this) can create an unexpected branding and, more importantly, revenue opportunity if embraced by the copyrighted content owner. These UGC productions are traditionally taken down by the UGC site host at the request of the professional content owner before the mashup has a chance to gain any traction in most cases. But the viral success of the JK Wedding Entrance Dance (choreographed to Chris Brown’s ‘Forever’) shows what can happen if allowed to flourish with the appropriate technology capabilities and business relationship in place to identify and capitalize on the opportunity. The popularity of this video mashup resulted in increased music sales for Chris Brown and his record label in addition to providing YouTube with a new revenue opportunity. In fact, YouTube is encouraging future mashups by allowing producers of viral video hits to participate in the revenue generated from their creations. Imagine the creative mashups that would be produced if content from media companies and the like were readily made available to a site’s users to mashup on a consistent basis? A scenario could evolve where the professional content owner wouldn’t need to spend marketing dollars to promote their content as a site’s user would essentially be doing it on the company’s behalf. This could evolve into more of a participatory model, though with a focus on revenues versus branding. Because the mashup model is user-initiated, the only parameters a brand can place on the experience is implicitly around the content as the professional production can only be spliced or layered into UGC content but the quality cannot be altered. The key for UGC sites is to have identifying and tracking technologies in place to enable monetization (instead of inhibiting it as most copyrighted content owner seem to do) and the right business partnerships to execute and share in the revenues.

While the ability for advertisers to control the brand message and user experience decreases as they progress from the Participation to the Mashup model, the potential brand engagement value actually goes up as the ad unit becomes pull-oriented versus the typical push model (where a user proactively grabs the content ad to consume versus landing on a page where an ad is ad served) making the experience more engaging. The key for advertisers is to find their comfort zone with these guidelines and the right UGC web property to help plan, deliver and report on the appropriate model.

Here’s to the evolution of consumer generated media!

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