Can Mobile UGC Turn A Corner?

Let's face it. User-generated content is a big pain in the ass for just about everyone in the traditional digital content value chain. I know we are supposed to embrace and love that wondrously democratic vibe it strums for us. The long-promised digital empowerment of the individual user blossoms finally in piano-playing cats on YouTube and relentless online polling. And we keep hearing about the new political power of the blogosphere -- mainly via self-congratulatory blog posts. Listen to the sound of vox populi break through decades of stifling repression by big media... to give us incredibly garish personal profile pages, thousands of links to the same story, and more homemade videos involving Sesame Street Elmo dolls than you (well, I) would have thought possible in a world where good hallucinogens are hard to come by (well, at least they are in my neck of the woods). Kumbaya and all that.

For traditional media, however, UGC is a puzzlement. Content providers can't figure out how to leverage it in ways that work seamlessly with the formal content. The advertisers don't know if they want brand exposure in potential mosh pits. And the forward-thinking advertisers that want to be part of the rabble are struggling to find formats that work organically within the platforms and spirit of social media. Even the main beneficiaries of UGC seem to me a little stuck. They are getting loads of traffic and media attention now, but what is the next stage for their business models and even their platform? Frankly, both YouTube and MySpace look only slightly more polished and flexible than the old Tripod and GeoCities.

Most of these issues are amplified on the mobile platform. The attempts to move the UGC video model to handhelds has been mixed, at best. One of the attractions of YouTube is the easy sampling it allows, along with the personalization that lets you filter the bad Elmo clip from that worse Elmo clip. On mobile both video sampling and personalization are tough to achieve, which is why I found the first iterations of YouTube on Verizon VCast just awful. Without good editing, UGC on phones can be a frustrating waste of time -- as opposed to the entertaining waste of time it is online. The plight for advertising is even worse here, too. It is going to be bad enough when the CPG ads start getting fed into those piano-playing cat clips at YouTube, but on mobile the intrusiveness and incongruity will be tortuous. The mobile platform doesn't have the real estate or the consistent technology to handle wraparound

And so it was good to see this week a genuinely promising first stab at ad-supported UGC video at ( on your WAP browsers) that tries to solve some of these problems. The clean white-on-black layout packs a strong design sense in a small space. This looks a lot better that the VCast deck or Sprint TV's uninviting folder trees of on-demand clips.

MyCorner actually invites browsing by putting the top three categories of video above the fold and above a prominent mid-screen ad served by Third Screen Media. The banners come at us one to a page and are no more or less relevant than the typical ad on MySpace. BestBuy, Microsoft Outlook, and other mobile content providers are early advertisers. There are no pre-roll ad inserts, and I hope there won't be. By dividing the video into categories, MyCorner opens the door to more robust category sponsorship that might work better in this context. One can imagine a BestBuy sponsorship of relevant channels, sub-hub pages that the advertiser might dominate around the thumbnails or, better, include their own promotional videos as on-demand material in the mix. I actually find the ad placements in MyCorner welcome because they remind me I am getting a deeper, more elegant mobile video experience from these guys for free than I get from the Tier 1 decks.

What I like most about MyCorner is that it blends UGC with channels of branded content like Google Videos and small online video services like Urban Sky Net, MetaCafe and SOMA. The MyCorner user-submitted content is above the fold of the home page and the familiar Web brand partners. This balance of catch-as-catch-can amateur contributions and the more polished collections like movie trailers from Google and celebrity clips from TotalMass works very well. It also gives the site the feel of a genuine video portal.

The interface in any of these video categories also invites the kind of sampling users pursue online. Drill into any of the categories and the system gives you a decent scroll of thumbnails, something that Verizon's VCast and Sprint's Media Player TV channels cannot. While quarter-screen thumbnails on a mobile handset are a challenging way to index a collection visually, it is still usable.

Which is not to say that an ambitious project like MyCorner is without problems. I continue to have technical difficulties logging in and activating any customization and media-sharing tools. You can save channels and videos as favorites, however, which promises to make navigation easier and more personal. The marriage of WAP browser and handset media player remains rocky. One or the other of the two components can drop the ball and disrupt the experience. And plopping banner ads in the middle of an otherwise well-designed site still seems to me merely a lesser of two evils -- the other being pre-rolls in UGC. Sponsored pages, video offerings from the brands themselves, all seem to be formats that are more in line with the experience of UGC video mining.

Even in this beta stage and clearly a work in progress, the best thing about MyCorner is that it demonstrates the benefits of an ad-supported, off-deck model. It is simply smarter, more broadly accessible, and ultimately usable than the alternatives that are hobbled by the mechanics and the economics of the carrier decks. Even better, it combines effectively the rag-tag serendipity of a purely user-generated video portal with the more reliable content of formal media sources. You can have your polish and (vox) populi, too.

But the first guy who starts singing "Kumbaya" gets tossed in the campfire -- a sight we will videotape and post on YouTube.

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