November 9, 2010

As news organizations experiment with user-generated content, they’re learning that users are capable of creating quality content that can be turned into powerful projects. What’s not as clear: How can news organizations motivate people to submit the kind of content they’re looking for?

This was the topic of conversation during a recent panel discussion featuring Alexis Madrigal and Sarah Rich, two of the three co-founders of Longshot Magazine, and Laura Brunow Miner, the creator of Pictory. During the panel, which was held at last month’s Online News Association conference, the speakers shared tips on how to tap into the power of the community for stories.

Moderator Robin Sloan, who works for Twitter, pointed out that the panel wasn’t going to be about citizen journalism or examples of news organizations asking users to submit photos during breaking news events, for instance. Instead, it focused on the specific techniques that go into getting quality content from users.

Avoid using the term “user-generated content.

The speakers on the panel, which was titled “Don’t Call It UGC,” said the phrase “user-generated content” can sound off-putting. Instead, they suggested calling these efforts “community editorial” or crowdsourcing.

UGC suggests a “factory farming of content,” said Miner. “If you say crowdsourcing or community editorial, it shows the relationship and the respect and the hard work that goes into it a little bit more.”

The term UGC also can lead some journalists to make false assumptions about the type of content they’ll get.

“When you say user-generated content,” Rich said, “I have found a lot of the time it is either something people are really excited about, or more often there’s terror of opening the floodgates to the audience, who presumably will send a lot of crap in.” People think “you’ll have no ability to control it, and it’ll suck up everybody’s time trying to deal with it.”

Being specific, then, about what you’re looking for can help both your potential contributors and your colleagues understand what’s expected.

Master the “fine art of the prompt.”

Community editorial in large part comes down to the “fine art of the prompt” — the question or phrase you use to tell your audience what type of content you’re looking for. 

“The prompts, ‘Hey, what do you think?,’ or ‘Tell us something cool,’ emphatically don’t work,” Sloan said. “Instead, it’s these slightly more specific and slightly more constraining prompts that do.”

The key, he said, is to make the prompt “something that anyone, in theory, might have something to say about.”

One of the more popular prompts on Pictory, Miner said, was, “The one who got away: stories of lost love.” After Miner asked users to submit photos and captions that embodied this theme, they submitted powerful photos of people they were once in relationships with but had drifted away from.

Sometimes, when she’s in need of a prompt, Miner looks to other sites for inspiration. (She noted that The Boston Globe’s “The Big Picture” blog inspired her to create Pictory.) In the past, she’s turned to Flickr to find creative captions that could be turned into prompts. She’s also gone on a “meme safari” and looked for popular phrases that she could play off of.

“If it’s something people are talking about anyway and that they already have on their hard drives,” Miner said, “they’re likely to share it and find an outlet for it.”

Rich and Madrigal, who’s also a senior editor for, used the prompts “hustle” and “comeback” for the first and second editions of Longshot Magazine. With the help of others, they put together a creative video about comebacks to encourage people to submit content. Users interpreted the comeback theme in a variety of ways and submitted written stories, photo essays and even a detailed quiz.

Understand what motivates people to submit content.

Community editorial, Miner said, requires finesse, hard work and a lot of respect for your users. Knowing what motivates users can help you provide them with the incentive to contribute. Here are six motivating factors:

  • Getting exposure: “Knowing that your work is going to look its best,” Miner said, and that it’s “going to be refined by a professional editor and designed by a designer in the context of other great work, can mean a lot to people.”
  • Being edited: A lot of user-generated content on news sites doesn’t get edited. All of the speakers, however, said they prefer to edit users’ content because it adds to the quality and gives users an additional incentive to contribute.
  • Having their work featured on a nicely designed site: “I think with any product,” Miner said, “the level of design tells you the level of quality.”
  • Having an opportunity for self-expression: People find it cathartic to express themselves and vent by telling stories for an audience, Miner said.
  • Being part of a community: Being connected to a like-minded community that they wouldn’t otherwise reach can be a big selling point, Madrigal said.
  • Making money: You don’t have to compensate contributors to make community editorial projects work, but sometimes people will put more effort into their content if they’re paid. “You’re probably going to get better work if they did it for a grad school project or as a personal project,” Miner said. “That’s sort of a trade-off when you’re not paying people or not paying them much.”

Realize that your content providers aren’t necessarily your content consumers.

Miner talked about the “Joe Francis theory of community editorial,” which her former coworker Laura Simkins coined. (Francis is the brain behind the Girls Gone Wild videos.) The theory suggests that the girls who appear in the videos aren’t likely the consumers of the DVDs. 

“I think that’s something really important to think about with any crowdsourcing project,” Miner said. “Don’t assume your readers are the ones who are going to produce the content that you’re looking for.”

Longshot Magazine has found Twitter to be a valuable tool to reach new contributors and audience members. “Almost all of our traffic,” Madrigal said, “has been people who sign up on our e-mail list or via Twitter.”

Reward contributors, even if you don’t select their work for publication.

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Rich and Madrigal said Longshot Magazine contacts every person who submits a story. If the magazine’s editors turn down a submission, they encourage the contributor to find another place to publish it. Once it’s published elsewhere, Longshot Magazine links to it on its Tumblr blog.

“This allowed us to give a lot more of our contributor base exposure even if they didn’t get into the print magazine” — which only featured about 3 percent of the overall submissions in the first issue, Rich said. 

Figuring out how to reward and motivate contributors is an ongoing learning process that comes with challenges. “Crowdsourcing is a craft,” Sloan reminded the audience. “It’s something you can learn and get better at.”

Now it’s time to put some of these techniques into practice. We want you to send us a photo that captures the phrase “My fall.” You can interpret the phrase however you’d like. (See examples here and here.) Upload your photos to Twitter using the hashtag #myfall, or post them to Flickr with the keyword “myfall.” We’ll look at your submissions and then feature some of our favorites. 

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As managing editor of The Poynter Institute’s website,, I report on the media news industry, edit the site’s How To section, and moderate the…
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