User-generated content offers audiences a sense of belonging


When an Australian tourism agency offered up “The Best Job In the World,” 130,000 people filmed and submitted video applications.

Last month, in another user-generated content (UCG) phenomenon, 4,000 users uploaded their own Harlem Shake videos to YouTube in a single day.

Preconceptions about user-generated content run rampant, including assumptions that participation is motivated by prizes, spurred by extreme reactions (such as restaurant reviews), or stoked by a desire to be showered with likes and laughs.

(Luckily for all of us, most Internet users can resist the urge to submit their precious progeny to a “cutest baby” contest in the hopes of rearing the next Honey Boo Boo.)

But user-generated content does offer publishers an opportunity to appeal to a larger audience and build brand loyalty, while also adding meaningful context and depth to credible news reporting. And it does so by appealing to a motivation that 100% of homo sapiens respond to: the need to belong.

To illustrate how this can be applied to user-generated content, let’s play out a couple of themes:

  • “We are all connected.”

    Social sites like Facebook and Google+ are built upon this foundational need to belong by emphasising connections with others. They highlight that we are part of a community — be that family, a circle of friends, colleagues, interest groups, or drawn from the world at large.

    News organisations can build experiences that help more tightly weave those connections and communities.

    For instance, The New York Times taps into the importance of family while poignantly allowing readers to share in their UGC feature, “The Lives They Loved.”  

  • “You are not alone.”

    In a survey, the Los Angeles Times found an overwhelming 47% of respondents chose to share a story if they felt it would help people. When a group of individuals share their own experiences, they are not only helping others to realise they are not alone; they are fueling their own sense of belonging.

    I was deeply shocked and moved by The Daily Beast’s call for user stories after global anger erupted around rape cases in India and Ohio. The Daily Beast asked users to submit their rape stories in an effort to “lift the rug” under which many rape stories have been swept.

    Regardless of whether you personally have experienced rape or know someone who has, it is hard to resist being pulled in by the rawness and courage of those sharing, or feeling the urge to see more people share their stories in the hopes of facilitating change.

  • “The news is affecting all of us.”

    While the examples above are of a more serious nature and include powerful emotional drivers to share and connect with others, readers also are eager to participate in the everyday events  that are impacting their lives — from the light-hearted and fun events, like sports games and parades, to the disruptors, like weather and politics.

    An abundance of tools makes it easy to offer user-generated content (UGC) as a way to engage audiences. Many of these tools are free and integrate well with mobile devices.

    The Los Angeles Times’ annual Festival of Books, for example, each year attracts more than 150,000 southern Californians. This year, we are asking users to submit digital photos of what they are reading online or via social apps such as Instagram, with the hashtag #whatareyoureading.

Overall, by aligning initiatives and news events with opportunities to share, publishers can ignite a sense of belonging that creates unique audiences and brand loyalty.

Speaking of prizes, there is great power and lasting impact in driving audiences and creating environments that knit together communities.

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