An Important Lesson About Grassroots Media

This column originally appeared on Editor & Publisher Online. It’s re-published here because it’s no longer freely accessible at editorandpublisher.com.

By Steve Outing

NEW YORK (November 26, 2007) — This month I’m going to talk about my company, the Enthusiast Group. I haven’t mentioned it much in this column, for obvious conflict of interest reasons. But earlier this month my business partner, board of directors and I decided to close down the business, so that reason for silence is gone.

Why should you care? Because our experiment in grassroots media and social networking (as applied to niche sports) taught me a lot of important lessons. I’m going to talk about one of the key lessons here, because I think it will be useful to the news industry as it more and more incorporates grassroots or citizen reporting and content into its operations, and dives into social networking opportunities.

I feel like I have learned — the hard way — some truths about grassroots content and online community. This column is my small attempt at preventing you from going through similar business heartache.

My Business

Let me start with a brief description of the Enthusiast Group. A couple years ago, when I was working primarily with the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, I had been very focused on “citizen journalism” and knew that I wanted to do something involving that and the whole concept of “social media.” I was then and still am passionate about mountain biking. So I came up with the idea of creating a website, based on grassroots media or user generated content and social networks, for mountain bikers. And that was to be the first of many sites serving people who are passionate about various sports.

To start this business, I hooked up with an Internet entrepreneur who also lives here in Boulder, Colorado; we raised a bit of money from some angel investors, and about a year and a half ago quit our respective days jobs to give this business a go. We struggled with getting enough traffic from our initial model to attract advertisers, then veered off to another business model in hopes of saving the business. When that too grew very slowly, we had no choice but to shut down.

The lessons that are pertinent to the news industry come from our first business model, so I’ll focus on that.

Not The First To Flounder At This

I take some solace in knowing that some other smart people — who raised far more money from investors than we did -– also couldn’t figure out how to make user contributed content work as a business.

Backfence.com, for example, went dark last summer. What we were doing with the Enthusiast Group had some things in common with Backfence. Its model was to create grassroots online communities for cities and towns –- especially suburban cities in major metro areas, like Reston, Virginia; Bethesda, Maryland; Palo Alto, California; etc. Like my company’s sites, the idea was to largely rely on news and information contributed by community members — volunteers. And Backfence provided a community forum for people to communicate with each other, share ideas, and perhaps meet each other in person as a result of its “hyperlocal” websites.

Backfence burned through about $3 million from its investors. Another website that relied on user content, Judy’s Book — which had as its initial business model collecting reviews of local businesses from community members, though it later switched to a local coupons model — had raised $10.5 million before it died recently. In other words, building a business on a core of user-submitted content is tough.

Our Grassroots Model

Our sites (we built 5 of them, but had planned many more) were primarily powered by content and conversation from our users. Each site had a leader or editor — we called the position “enthusiast-in-chief” — who was there to blog, shoot or produce video, do podcasts, and interact directly with users by commenting on their content and answering their questions. The enthusiast-in-chief provided the “professional” content meant to attract visitors, but the majority of a site’s content — blogs, photos, videos, maps, forum discussions — came from users. On our YourClimbing.com site, where the editor, Katie Brown, is a well-known professional climber and a former world champion, the site generated so much user content that I’d guess only about 1-2% came from Brown. (Other, less active sites had higher percentages of enthusiast-in-chief content.)

We gave users lots of incentives to post content and participate, with regular and ad hoc contests rewarding the best content with prizes from participating sponsors. There was a user points system, but rewards for gaining lots of points were purely psychological; we were surprised to see users on some of our sites compete with each other to move up the points ladder.

(If you’re interested in tips on how to increase user participation, I wrote a white paper on the topic earlier this year. The PDF version is here.)

Overall, I considered our sites to sit somewhere in between a professional niche publication (say, a climbing magazine, with mostly professional content) and a discussion forum, where the conversation between members is the content (nearly all amateur).

User Content Isn’t Good Enough

Because our users were passionate about the topic of the websites, we thought going in that the content posted by users would be good enough to keep people’s attention, and keep them coming back. The enthusiast-in-chief content was designed to ensure that there was a base level of quality content, but we thought that the passion level of site visitors would mean that user-submitted content alone would be of high interest to site visitors, even if most of it wasn’t professional-level quality.

We did get some really fantastic posts from users. A lot, actually. Of course, we also got plenty of user content that was average, mediocre, and some outright awful.

We didn’t put ourselves in the position of killing the awful content; we just let it run through our content river but didn’t highlight it. When a really good photo or story or video came through from a user, we put it on our homepage — our “front page” — and perhaps highlighted it in our weekly e-newsletter.

What happened with us is that we did attract a core group of regulars. Folks who we categorized as “super-enthusiasts” did join in the spirit of our sites and participated frequently. I saw them recommend our sites to their friends, and some of them showed up. While a few of those people stuck around, many more participated a little bit, then faded away. Our growth in traffic was slow and steady, but unremarkable, and not enough to sustain a business.

In hindsight, I think we tried to rely too heavily on user submitted content. Even though a lot of it was really great, the overall experience was weak when compared to, say, reading a climbing or a mountain biking magazine filled with quality professional content throughout.

We believed that having a core level of professional content –- from our site editors -– would be enough to attract a loyal following even if the user-submitted content wasn’t enough on its own. But I think we didn’t have nearly enough of that. If I had any money left to throw at the business, I’d hire more well-known athletes and adventurers, so that the core was a larger pool of professional content — and I’d mix that in with the best user content.

I’m not saying that user-submitted content isn’t worthwhile, let me be clear about that. I am saying that I think you can’t rely too much on it. And you need to filter out and highlight the best user content, while downplaying the visibility of the mediocre stuff.

About Hyperlocal Citizen Content

I mentioned Backfence.com earlier, which tried to establish an independent network of city and suburb hyperlocal community sites based almost entirely on user submissions. A similar initiative — which is still alive — is YourHub.com, which was started by E.W. Scripps.

Those two ventures are (or were) similar, but there are some key differences: Backfence was a pure-play online startup, with no affiliation to news companies. There was no print component. YourHub.com is operated by a mainstream media company, and is a combination print-online operation. User content is collected on the YourHub websites and it’s all published there. And there’s a print edition that is distributed freely in various communities — and that features the best submitted content, as selected by editors, targeted at specific areas and neighborhoods of a city.

If you look at the content that’s on Backfence.com (and you can, since the servers are still running; there’s just no new content being added to the site), it’s predominantly press releases from local community groups, or local event announcements. Backfence staff did contribute content, but often of the same variety. There was some great content on Backfence.com, but to my eyes the bulk of it was pretty dull.

I see the same thing when I look at YourHub.com. The editors of YourHub can easily point to some great content that’s been posted to the sites. But just as with our Enthusiast Group sites, the overall experience is a lot of average stuff punctuated by a lesser amount of great content.

As destination sites, I don’t think that Backfence or YourHub work. My company’s sites didn’t work, which is why in hindsight I realize that a much higher level of professional content needed to be added into the mix. Quality matters.

Destination Unknown

Key in on that word, “destination,” for a moment. If you’re operating an online service that’s keyed to user or citizen content submissions, I encourage you to think about how to utilize that content beyond just a destination website. I don’t expect YourHub-like sites to ever become huge traffic draws if they rely too heavily on user submissions. The quality just isn’t there for them to be interesting — especially in an Internet environment where there is so much high-quality news and information available elsewhere, for free.

I am not trying to diss citizen or grassroots content here. Actually, I think it’s incredibly important. I think that any news publisher would be a fool to ignore it. (So, bravo for Scripps for its YourHub initiative.) I think there are opportunities with citizen content to make journalism better — and there are probably ways to make money from it.

But my message is that you need to leverage citizen content appropriately.

Take a look at some news organizations that are soliciting and trying to attract citizen content. Most of the time it’s put in a separate website or webpage, off to the side and separated from the professionally produced content. That strategy alone, in my opinion, dooms the citizen content to obscurity. Some people will find it, but my bet is that it will never get significant traffic.

For example, it’s common after a natural disaster for a news website to request that eyewitnesses share photos or blog about their experiences. Typically that content is aggregated in a page with all the other amateur submissions. Meanwhile, there’s another, separate page for photos of the disaster taken by professional photojournalists. Flipping through the amateur photos is arduous to most of us; you have to scan a lot of crap to find the few great images.

That’s the wrong approach, in my view. The best way to leverage those eyewitness photos is to have editors identify the best ones, then add those to a presentation of the best images of the disaster, period — whether they’re from the pros or the eyewitnesses.

That’s really what this whole social/grassroots/citizen thing is all about, y’know! News organizations need to stop thinking of themselves as islands, and reach out and grab all the other relevant content that’s being published around them. The news website that covers the local wildfires exclusively with staff content is hopelessly lost in the web 2.0 environment. The news site that gathers, identifies and filters all the wildfire coverage from local bloggers and other sources — and adds that in with its own staff coverage — understands where it should be going.

In my view — and based in part on my experience with the Enthusiast Group project — user content when it stands on its own is weak. But it’s powerful when appropriately combined with professional content, and properly targeted.

Map It, Make It Relevant, Share It

If citizen-content-exclusive destination sites don’t make sense when it comes to hyperlocal content, what else can you do with user-submitted content? Another approach is to focus on micro-targeting the citizen submissions. I’m intrigued by websites like YourStreet.com, which geo-tags local news and information and puts it on a map mash-up. Using a model like YourStreet’s, a news organization might create a map service that presents hyperlocal (geo-tagged) content on neighborhood maps.

While I live in Boulder, Colorado, I couldn’t care less about news from schools or community organizations serving neighborhoods across town. But I care a lot about anything to do with the school near my house that my daughter attends. I care about the announcement from the local fire station about staffing changes. So targeting that sort of news and information to me is a powerful service that a news company can provide. (Of course, I’d want the option to expand the range of micro-news and information that I view.)

If you can gather, slice and dice hyperlocal citizen news and information, think too about disseminating it outside of your own website. Create a customizable widget that a neighborhood blogger, say, can include on his site to offer his readers links to news and information pertinent to his neighborhood. That’ll drive traffic back to your website, or might include ads that you place within the widget. Win-win.

If a news website can filter the minutiae (from a wide variety of sources, internal and external to the news organization) that’s relevant to a specific online user, and present that in context with the professionally produced output of the news organization, then I think you’ve got something valuable.

Parting Words

I went in to the Enthusiast Group venture believing that grassroots or user content could survive (mostly) on its own. After all, Youtube has done pretty well for itself with amateur video; there are a lot of crappy videos on that site, as well as brilliant, funny, entertaining ones. Ditto for Flickr for amateur photos.

But those websites managed to catch fire, and the size of the audience ensured that there would be enough great content to attract and retain a huge audience. For less-grandiose operations with smaller audiences — and unlikely prospects for hitting it big — I am not convinced that user content can a successful website make.

I depart my latest venture nevertheless convinced that grassroots or user content is immensely powerful. We just have to figure out how best to leverage it.