User-generated content: Myths and lessons learnt

Demotix is a London-based, award-winning “citizen journalism” website and photo agency. The site has around 15 000 members in 190 countries who contribute content on a daily basis. More than 200 media outlets around the world receive their daily feed. One of the founders, Turi Munthe, writes for Memeburn about how the site approaches, manages and makes a business out of user generated content:

Most people are passive observers and readers, and most people don’t like creating content. Creating content is difficult. There is nothing wrong with that, but that is the way the world works. People who do create content are different. They are passionate and driven, and they care about their content. A community of content generators requires identifying something people are passionate about, finding those people, and then rewarding them for their work.

At we source user-generated photographs and videos from freelance journalists, amateurs and anyone who happens to stumble across the news. We then market them to the mainstream media, and whatever fee we make we split 50/50. Fifty percent for Demotix to keep running, and fifty percent for the contributor.

Sites like YouTube, Wikipedia and others are powered by extremely few users who create entries or upload videos. Most people who visit the sites never create content. Less than two percent of people who visit YouTube or Wikipedia or other sites create content. At Demotix, more than 35% of our users create content regularly. That is extremely high. Our success at generating content isn’t coincidence. We are a niche photo/video site, we identify with our audience of passionate photojournalists, and we reward them for their work.

Most of what we’ve learnt about creating a vibrant online community, we’ve learnt by trying, doing and sometimes failing. Some of the lessons are so obvious, they almost don’t bear repeating, but without learning them, you can never manage an online community.

1. Be honest, and believe in what you do.

If you aren’t honest and you don’t believe in what you’re doing, then you’ll get rumbled immediately. Demotix passionately believes in a few things. Free speech, the power of crowds, the enormous importance of open news, that great work deserves compensation, and that business can achieve a lasting social good. We also built Demotix for ourselves, and that’s a good place to start.

2. The work is endless.

Even though users generate content, creating an online community where none exists is difficult. If you are thinking of creating a site and then waiting for people to find you and create content, forget about it. An online community requires constant care, attention and nurturing. Only after a site has reached a critical mass, can you sit back and allow the community to run and manage itself.

There is a chicken-and-egg problem with many user-generated sites. You can’t really start without content, and if there are no users, there is no content. That is one reason why Demotix launched very quietly and slowly built up its content and archive. Now we have news stories on everything, but we didn’t when we started, and nothing looks worse than a blank page.

3. Listen to your audience.

At the end of the day, on a user-generated site, you live and die by your users. They sustain you and keep you going. If you are not responsive, they will leave and find another site. Websites aren’t like retail stores. No one has to walk by your website on the way to work every day. If you don’t listen to your customer and provide them with a good user experience they will leave. Like all start-ups, we have had teething experiences and growing pains. When we have failed our users, they have left and told their friends. When we have done well, they have been pleased and also told their friends.

4. You can’t create PR coups, but you can work hard to be lucky.

The biggest events in user-generated content are the ones you can’t plan for. That doesn’t mean you should sit back and wait for people to come to you though. The biggest user-generated news story of 2009 was the news after the Iran election. Demotix stood front and centre and provided photos to AP, Reuters and EPA. We had the story, even though we could not have guessed we would. How did it happen?

We had an active online community in Tehran already, and when things popped, we were there. You can’t create big buzz like that, but you can make sure that by steadily doing the right work, you can create your own luck. We like to think that if it hadn’t been Tehran, it would have been another big event. With 15 000 contributors in 190 countries, we’re working hard to cover the world and “be lucky”.

5. Find ways to reward your users in non-financial ways

We market the very best news stories and images from our contributors. We try to license them and generate income for our contributors. Realistically, though, not every photo will sell. So we need to find other ways to reward our contributors in ways that are non-monetary. We promote great stories on our photo blog, we do massive social media pushes for our stories, we send out a daily email with the best photos and tweet the best articles.

6. Humans like to imitate, but that’s a good thing.

If you publish junk, you’ll get more junk. If you publish great content, you’ll get more good content. It is that simple. Humans like to imitate, and they will imitate what they see. We went out of our way to bring on a community of top-level users working on the areas of news we’re really interested in. What happen is that they attract similar types of people — so the community self-moderates.

We’re not particularly interested in celebrity news, so we don’t get it. We are, on the other hand, seriously concerned with reporting news that others miss, so we get the extraordinary reports from Sudan, Serbia and South Africa. In a way, high quality news is itself a great way to prevent junk or spam. Once you let your standards fall too low, you’ll never get them back.



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