What's the Future of Brand Journalism? Collision Content

How to Balance Consumer-Generated Content With Brand Content

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John Young
John Young
There is no denying the radical shift from companies and brands controlling their messages to consumers controlling them. From blogs to YouTube to social networking, consumers have a bigger, louder voice than ever. And they're being heard.

Progressive companies are engaging consumers through blogs, video submissions, product reviews and consumer forums. But sites can get bogged down in unfiltered contributions. What's more, poorly written, irrelevant, false or incorrect submissions drive away high-quality consumers, and all reflect badly on your company.

Of course, at the same time, companies continue to crank out their own content -- some corporate websites boast hundreds of thousands of pages. When these two engines of content creation collide, there's too much, and many desirable consumers flee.

Other companies or brands are moving in the opposite direction. They seek old-world control. They demand minimal, product-only information where they shout their message at consumers. It's as if their mantra is, "To hell with online engagement. The store shelf is our point of engagement." That thinking is simply out of touch with consumers.

The reality is that neither route is tenable; one is overload, one irrelevant. So what's a brand manager or corporation to do? Seek a balance.

Despite the changing world, you can create a lasting content strategy. In regards to content collision, embrace the voice of the consumer, recognize where to keep hands off and where to edit. Second, continue to create user-centric, brand-built content -- after all, the brand still has a place as the authority of its own product.

Here are five ways for companies to find a balance between company-generated content and consumer-generated content and use both to their best advantage:

1. Get comfortable with contradiction and relinquish control.
Because companies no longer control the conversation about their products and services, create a home for the conversation. Don't be afraid to allow negative comments to live on the site. Angry or annoyed customers -- or joyful advocates -- will fill their desire to speak out somewhere. View it as a chance to improve your product (think free focus group). Let customers have their say on your site, and don't regulate ratings and comments. (Research also shows that most people who comment do so with positive ratings.)

2. Invite bloggers and other consumers to pen content, and pay them for it.
Not all of your blogging customers are worth listening to, but many are. So ask them to submit articles, and pay them. Even $100 or $300 is a big reward for a blogger who typically expects nothing. When they get recognition as being "published," they're likely to link back to your site, increasing search-engine optimization as well as creating more goodwill and better communication for your brand. If you don't buy their submission, thank them, offer constructive feedback and suggest they use it on their own blog. Either way, you'll show consumers that you are open, listening, engaged and want them in the conversation.

3. Publish selectively; it's why people still seek out The New York Times.
Maintain high standards for quality and accuracy. For both internal and external content, edit and collaborate with authors to produce something worth publishing. Avoid shoveling drivel onto the site. This is where many sites lose readers, and readers miss great nuggets because they have to wade through poorly focused blather. People go to The New York Times because they know it's well written and edited to high standards. If you want to engage your consumer, hold yourself to high standards too, and make sure your content is worth reading -- from the consumer's point of view.

4. Listen for dissenting voices. Then comment on them.
Troll the blogosphere at large to see what people say about your products or services. Comment on what they say. Invite them to submit opinions or articles to your site. When they're right about a problem, thank them for the insight, tell them you're sorry and explain what you're going to do to make it right. If they get something wrong, gently and respectfully correct them, explaining the misunderstanding. Treat these people with respect and they'll spread goodwill about your company's reputation, as an organization with integrity that cares and pays attention to customers.
John Young is the exec creative director at Bridge Worldwide, an interactive agency that is part of the WPP network, based in Cincinnati.

5. Generate company content based on what customers want.
Instead of approaching content creation from your point of view, give people the information they want or need or request. In short, resist the urge to shout -- which is what corporations have done for more than 100 years -- and start listening. Really listen. Your consumers will form a relationship with you if you prove to be relevant to their interests and desires. To do that, pay attention to everything consumers say in 1-4 above.

All of this may sound impossible or it may sound simple. Either way, they are necessary steps to follow if you hope to manage a company or brand's reputation and image in the world today. Wishing it away is pointless. Reach out to your customer, make friends, have a conversation.

Manage the collision of giving consumers a voice and generating content that's relevant to them. That's collision content, and it's the future of corporate communications.
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