Generating user content

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The latest trend in Web site design is incorporating Web 2.0 tools that allow users to comment on, recommend and rank stories; interact with bloggers; participate in forums; create personal profiles; "make friends" with other users; and post their own photos and videos. But visit many of these sites and you will find lots of zeros in the comment fields, half-empty forums and minimal activity in the sites' versions of Facebook.

In spite of the fanfare surrounding the term, user-generated content is not easily generated.

Scott Raynovich is editorial director of CMP's, a b-to-b site for digital content industries—media, music, video and content delivery networks. "User-generated content doesn't come about like magic," he said. "It comes from relentless pursuit and constant proselytizing."

Raynovich added that half of his job before the site's midyear debut was kick-starting the community with e-mails and phone calls.

Seeding a site with comments and user content is critical before community features go public, agreed Dora Chomiak, senior director of product development, digital media and e-commerce at McGraw-Hill Construction. "I've learned the importance of the soft launch," she said. "You need to invite people to participate and spark some dialogue before you open up the site to your general audience."

Once a community starts to sprout, someone still needs to monitor and nurture participation on an ongoing basis, Chomiak said. At the redesigned Architectural Record site, for example, a series of "galleries" are set up for users to submit photos and renderings of their work. "Our editors will call people they know and say something like, `You just finished that new hospital project. Would you send some photos?' "

Chomiak added that user-generated content can be showcased in media other than online. For example, publishers can include the best online comments in their print magazines.

Rex Hammock, president of Hammock Publishing and a longtime blogger and e-media enthusiast, pointed out that "others have already created community platforms online, and people are using them to create their own networks." Because these online networks are not new, he said, "You need to find out where your readers are already expressing themselves online."

Hammock added: "You can't create a walled garden. You need to become an aggregator for content your audience is already creating elsewhere. You can be a hub for the community conversation, no matter where it's happening online."

Members of b-to-b audiences won't create content for a site unless they see some value in it for themselves, said Prescott Shibles, VP at Penton Media's New Media Group. One way to do that is to help boost a person's credibility in the industry with a tool that allows audience members to rate one another's posts.

One of the biggest challenges in the Web 2.0 media world is engaging community members in a dialogue with one another, Shibles added.

"The most important thing is to make some reader calls to feel out their needs," he said. "You ask them, `What kind of information do you want to hear from your colleagues?' Poll them for topics and people of interest. Then build the tools from there."

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