The future of user-generated content

It’s hard to believe that user-generated content (or “UGC”) has only been a mainstream phenomenon since 2005. Even by Internet standards, its proliferation and growing cultural impact have been astonishing.

Through personal blogs, social networks, online communities and discussion boards, product reviews,Tomorrow’s winners will be the brands that not only help people to participate in the UGC revolution, but make it more manageable and meaningful for them as well. wikis, news sites, travel sites, video and photo-sharing sites, average citizens are exerting an increasingly profound influence over our culture and economy. Entire industries are being transformed. Retail, for example, will never be the same:

  • 81% of people use consumer reviews in their purchase decisions. [Source: Nielsen Online via BizReport, Feb 2009]
  • Online reviews are second only to word-of-mouth when it comes to influencing consumer purchasing decisions. [Source: Rubicon Consulting, Oct 2008]

And UGC is only getting bigger. According to eMarketer, the number of people creating user-generated content online will rise from 88.8 million in 2009 to 114.5 million in 2013.

Tomorrow’s winners will be the brands that not only help people to participate in the UGC revolution, but make it more manageable and meaningful for them as well.

But as with most rapid social transformations, UGC has developed some growing pains that you’ll need to address if it’s a part of your online business strategy. Chief among them:

  1. Quantity. There’s just too much UGC out there and it’s starting to overwhelm us.
  2. Quality. When everyone has a voice, whose voice should we listen to?

Tomorrow’s winners will be those brands and start-ups that not only help people to participate in the UGC revolution, but make it more manageable and meaningful for them as well.

Too much of a good thing?

The flow of information through social media and other UGC channels has grown so dramatically that many of us have reached overload. According to digital research firm Econsultancy:

  • There are more than 3.5 billion pieces of content (web links, news stories, blog posts, etc.) shared each week on Facebook.
  • Towards the end of last year, the average number of tweets per hour was around 1.3 million.
  • 15% of bloggers spend 10 or more hours each week blogging.
  • 38% of bloggers post brand or product reviews.

More and more people are tuning out in response. Last year, both The New York Times (Facebook Exodus) and Newsweek (You Can’t Friend Me, I Quit!) covered the growing number of defections by beleaguered Facebook users.

The problem of UGC overload will increasingly drive users to the best and most reliable sources of content, especially if they allow them to filter it quickly and effectively. Now let’s talk quality.

Who is this cityguy224, and why should we care what he thinks?

What do we know about the people whose opinions we increasingly rely upon through their product reviews, blog posts, or comments on their Facebook pages? We do know they’re a small percentage of the overall Internet population. According to studies by Jakob Nielsen of the Nielsen Norman Group:

  • 90% of online visitors to social sites are “lurkers” (people who look, but don’t contribute)
  • 9% are occasional contributors
  • Only 1% are active contributors

And we know they’re overwhelmingly young. A study by Rubicon Consulting found that young people aged 22 and under account for about half of the content and comments posted online.

It is ironic that the concept of consumer-generated media, so often portrayed as a democratizing force that empowers consumers to participate in the conversation versus just being spoken to, is actually dominated by a small fraction of relatively young Internet users.

  • Do those movie reviewers on Netflix share your unique tastes and sensibilities in film?
  • Does that affluent middle-aged suburbanite realize that the restaurant reviews she’s reading on Citysearch were written mainly by twenty-something urbanites?

As with the problem of quantity, there has been some backlash, skillfully portrayed in Newsweek’s 2008 Revenge of the Experts, which discussed mounting demand by both website owners and consumers for a more reliable, bankable web.

Conclusion: Power to the people?

The success of UGC has created new opportunities for consumers and brands, but also new challenges; primarily how to deal with the massive amount of content that is available. What’s needed are new methods to filter all of that information for relevance, as well as reputation, accuracy and similarity of viewpoint. Until that happens, our growing body of UGC faces the prospect of becoming a collection of noise that we no longer bother to rely upon in the future.