Lessons from sites that rely on user-generated content

Image via Dave Bledsoe

Image via Dave Bledsoe

Building a product that relies on user-generated content can start with you and your best friend posting everything, but that plan isn’t going to get you far. Since you can’t force anyone to create content, here are some lessons from Pinterest, Quora, and Hacker News since they’ve figured out how to get users to contribute.

Pinterest

Pinterest may have had a rocky start, but there’s no doubt that the platform is now one many aspire to emulate. In the beginning, Pinterest launched pin it forward campaigns to generate content by leveraging power users. Users would create a board, and then encourage their friends to create the same board with their own pins. How do you get your most active users to hand-hold newbies for you? Well, you could ask them nicely and hope for the best. Or you could offer them some incentive. Pinterest did just that by giving users more invites if their campaign worked. If you don’t have an invite-only community, you’ll have to be more creative, just make sure the reward is something users will actually care about. The best incentives reward both existing and new users as well as lead to increased product usage.

Since brands get so much value out of Pinterest they are much more motivated to have their images pinned than individual users. You might not be excited about the thought of having marketers use your site for their own agenda, but it works for Pinterest and many others. Especially if you’re looking to monetize later on. Pinterest built the Pin It button to make it easier for brands to have visitors pin their images, not to mention promote Pinterest. The button also means users don’t even have to be on Pinterest to create content. Building a tool this awesome that actually works starts with segmentation. Don’t just assume your most active users are the ones with the most to gain from your product.

Sometimes there’s just too much friction to creating new content. New users don’t want to look stupid and share the wrong thing, or they might not understand how your site works. I know you’ve spent weeks trying to design a beautiful interface, and are genuinely angry at users for not clicking on that now huge button, just to see what it does, but consider taking a step back. Instead of asking users to create their own original content, start by asking them to reshare someone else’s. Pinterest does this with the baked-in repin button. Users can easily repin images they like and see how well they’ve performed for other users by checking out the public number of likes, repins, and comments. This makes their first time pinning not as scary, and creating new boards becomes less overwhelming. Pinterest isn’t the only site with this type of feature, so if the concept of repinning doesn’t inspire you think about Twitter’s retweet and Tumblr’s reblog.

Quora

Quora has so much potential, so you might hear some rumblings about how it’s not doing that great. Ignore those and hope that people have such high expectations for your own site one day. Instead of listening to the haters, Quora focuses on delivering an incredible experience to its users. There’s a difference between telling users how magical it will be when, or, let’s be honest, if they create content and actually proving it before they ever start posting. When you want an answer to your question, you head to Quora. Chances are someone else has already asked the question and you can check out the answers. It’s less about showing how Quora works through random questions and answers, but more about having a search function that allows users to see how valuable it would be if they had posted the very same question. You bet that the next time that user, or visitor, has a question they won’t think twice about asking it on Quora. Be careful not to spend too much time building cool ways for users to engage with content if these features don’t actually motivate them to create, otherwise there’ll be nothing to interact with. The important lesson here is to gain users’ trust by spending less time making promises and more time improving their lives.

Speaking of broken promises, getting influencers is a classic move to drive customer acquisition. New users join in the hopes of having an opportunity to interact with people they look up to, but usually these influencers are just for show and don’t end up using the product. This isn’t the case with Quora. If someone asks a question about Robert Scoble, anyone can answer it, but often Robert himself will take the time to jot down the obviously most accurate response. Quora recognizes top writers which helps encourage quality answers, but before that you have to get well-known experts to join your site. Make a list of the leaders in your industry, and ask shared connections for an introduction. A cold email can work, but an introduction will increase the odds of them becoming a user. Since these influencers won’t have much time, be prepared to send personalized emails with a clear ask. Occasionally, that will mean creating content for them.

If influencers don’t convince Quora users to create content, then Quora hopes friends will. After new users sign up they usually follow some familiar faces. Existing users are then prompted to suggest topics to their new followers. Quora knows you probably don’t have a clue what your friend wants to ask, but you definitely know what area they’re interested in. Similar to the way Pinterest enlisted the help of power users, Quora knows that a recommendation from a contact is far more effective than an email from their team. Initially, you should manually reach out to highly active users and ask them to become advocates. However, you should observe what users do naturally, and then bake that into the product to make the behaviour easier to repeat.

Finally, Quora allows users to post their questions anonymously without the hassle of creating a new account. Before simply copying this, you should consider if anonymity might negatively affect the experience for other users. Quora’s decision was made long before all the hype around anonymous apps and was likely based on research and feedback from inactive users. Asking a question online can be embarrassing, and users might have a bunch of reasons why they don’t want the question to be associated with their identity. Being able to ask the question anonymously solves the issue for Quora, but might not be the right solution for you. Your users might prefer to instead limit the visibility of their content to their friends. Depending on your product it might be easier to build one of the above features over the other, but make sure it’s the one that actually increases content creation.

Hacker News

Hacker News has a straightforward design that makes it super easy for users to navigate the site and submit links. There’s no surprises after you hit HN’s submit button, and there are only two fields to fill out. No categories, no summaries, no checkboxes. Sure, there are also Show and Ask style posts, but new users don’t have to know what those mean and probably won’t notice them. Users not only understand how to use HN, but they can quickly learn exactly what HN is and what content is most appreciated. This isn’t a fluke, HN has very clear guidelines about the type of content that’s on-topic and quality posts that comply get upvoted to the front page. There’s no confusion that HN was made for hackers by hackers to exchange news that gratifies one’s intellectual curiosity. Strong brand positioning is one of the most effective way to increase user-generated content. This also happens to be very difficult to pull off. Whether your site relies on user created content or not, you should drop everything right now if you can’t fill in the blank: “When users need ________ they think about my product.”

This article focuses on how to get new users to create their very first piece of content, so I won’t delve into the promised rewards that follow which include making it to the front page or getting traffic to your own site. However, the articles written about the impressive power of HN are relevant since they are a proof of HN’s amazing ability to make things happen.

Endorsements from users are priceless, and you’re lucky if your users write about their positive experience. Actually, it’s not about luck at all. You don’t have to hope or wait, you just have to ask. Your users want to help but the biggest barrier is figuring out what you actually need from them.

It’s interesting to see that many sites, including Quora and Pinterest, allow users to do something new with the same address book. Perhaps the most unique reason that users create content on HN is because they want to belong to a pretty niche community. Even if most of your friends are part of the tech startup ecosystem, and have heard of HN, they probably don’t all frequent the site. Many users post content because they feel like they finally found a place in the internet where they can share their interests with peers. Building such a loyal community takes time and effort, but if you succeed you’ll find that users are eager to upload and create content they care about.

Key Takeaways

Here’s a summary of the actionable advice to help you get started on building your own product that relies user-generated content:

  • Leverage power users by rewarding them when they encourage new users to create content.
  • Identify the users with the most to gain from your product, and build tools that help support both of your goals.
  • Allow users to reshare content from others to reduce the pressure of creating original content.
  • Don’t just tell, but actually show users how much value they would gain from creating content.
  • Reach out to influencers and make it easy for them to stay active.
  • Build features that empower existing users to repeatedly motivate new users into taking action.
  • Help users overcome feelings of fear or embarrassment by letting them post content anonymously or to a limited group.
  • Design a straightforward product that doesn’t require users to struggle to create content.
  • Clearly communicate the problem your product solves and the content that performs best.
  • Ask users to share stories about their positive experiences on your site.
  • Build a community of users that are eager to share things they care about with each other.

 

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