Lately, it seems as if consumers are being courted more aggressively than ever to participate in the burgeoning "user-generated" content phenomenon. It's become the "it" thing that portals, programmers, and marketers are focused on in the digital video space and rightly so, given democratized production, easy online access, and consumers' addiction to YouTube.
We are now moving from the early stages of user-generated content (when viewers were ahead of programmers and marketers in their own communities) to a stage where the financial realities of the business are hitting home. Bandwidth isn't free, and where there is a new way to engage consumers, commercialism isn't usually too far behind.
Of course, purists will always seek out niche communities. But as user-generated content goes mainstream, we'll begin to see a lot of experimenting by all participants in how to make the model work - from the financial (ad-supported), programming (media company), and customer-engagement (marketer) perspectives.
I propose that the experiment on which we are about to embark isn't that different from what the TV industry has been doing for decades.
User-generated content is about reality. Whether it is entertainment, instruction, news, sports, or commentary, at the end of the day, user-generated content is about all of us. And guess what? The television industry laid the foundation for user-generated content years ago. Consider "America's Funniest Home Videos" and reality shows such as "The Real World" and "Survivor." Then there's the NCAA's March Madness and daytime talk shows such as "Jerry Springer." They proved that, while scripted dramas and comedies provide entertainment value, a show that is about us - our lives, competitions, issues - and created by us generates an extra connection with viewers.
And what has allowed the TV versions of user-generated content to work for so long? Context. It's that simple. There has always been a broad range of production qualities, acting capacity, and overall societal value in such content. But it works because the producers who create it present it in context. There is always an organizing principle and a programming hook, and very importantly, to ensure that the content will find marketer support, a line that isn't crossed.
As the new world of viewer participation evolves - whether through social networks that provide organic platforms for user-generated content, or programmer/marketer-driven ideas that leverage viewer participation as a hook - context will continue to drive the model. This will become even more important as mainstream viewers migrate to digital outlets. Audience scale will require content that is basic, easy to find, relevant, and programmed. Marketers will need to find a balance between absolute consumer control and the safeguards to which they want to cling. Context is what it's all about, but over time, it will become a more complex and shared responsibility.
We're starting to see this play out across the board. Social networks are organizing and promoting premium content. News organizations are recruiting "citizen journalists" to submit items. Vertical programmers (e.g., parenting, pets, epicurean content niches) are requesting that their communities self-program. And, most interestingly, marketers are inviting consumers to create and program their own content. These are often tied to passion-based triggers or events: user-generated Super Bowl ad, anyone?
There are potentially millions of contributors and tens of thousands of distribution choices. New ad models and solutions for marketers will evolve to enable scaled and relevant participation by those who continue to underwrite the costs. Most importantly, context won't be forced down viewers' throats by groups of network executives deciding what is programmed. Rather, it will be facilitated by the viewers themselves and content managers charged with organizing and filtering what is submitted.
Ultimately, this is all about the viewers. And as always, they are interested in participating - whether as consumers, producers, or organizers - in the content that reflects and represents them. There is no reason why marketers shouldn't participate.
It just comes back to context.
Adam Gerber is vice president, ad products and strategy at Brightcove, an Internet TV service. (firstname.lastname@example.org)