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Is User Generated Content dying or has it just come of age?

3 September 2012

There are countless forms of user-generated content (UGC) which we accept as the norm: tweets, blogs, forums, comments. One of the commercial forerunners of UGC reviews is TripAdvisor. But with experts starting to question the site’s future, is there still a place for user reviews? And if there is, should non-profit-making organisations be harnessing this kind of material?

Online reviews: the rise and decline?

I’m a bit of a sucker for websites with user reviews. It’s one of the modern joys of sourcing things online: you can select based on customer opinion as well as whatever the organisation wants you to think. We’d all pick the 5-star rated curry house over the 2-star one. But the catch comes when a reasonably-rated place has one or two *appalling* reviews and you don’t know if they’re one-offs or signs of a systematic korma-related decline. And given that people only tend to leave a review if they feel strongly one way or another, can you actually trust the user review system in the first place or is it fundamentally flawed?

Helen Edwards argued last week in Marketing Magazine the end is inevitably nigh for review-based sites like TripAdvisor. Old reviews make the user feel that the system is dated, and make the hotels feel that they can’t move on from long-ago poor performance. And trust is compromised when site users suspect that the site has been seeded with fake positives from panicked hoteliers.

Give them a yard…

Similar issues apply in all review-based spaces. Rumours have been flying around Twitter and in the blogosphere recently about some authors encouraging fake Amazon reviews of their novels in order to up their ratings. Whether true or not, this shows how easily the reviewing system can be twisted by the unscrupulous.

Some charming examples of unexpected reviewing can be found on Amazon. The Bic ‘For Her’ biro was scorned for the concept of a pink pen specially marketed at women, and my personal favourite is a series of reviews mocking the Olympic ‘Wenlock Policeman’ mascot. This all illustrates the point that if you give people an open system, then you can’t always control the type of responses you get.

But the public using a tool to make a collective point is a legitimate twisting of the rules compared with unscrupulous authors generating false reviews – the former shows, in a deliberately subversive way, a collective opinion. The latter is just out and out faking and results in a lack of trust. Is this a system which charities dare use to raise their own profile?

Experts vs the rest of us

I think that there’s still a place for user-reviewing and it’s far from dead yet. The public is now instinctively astute at recognising dubious reviews and it’s taken for granted in any case that unmoderated UGC should be taken with a pinch of salt. Most crucially, people still expect online rating and reviewing systems to be available to them. Charities should recognise there are opportunities to use UGC to their advantage, as much as commercial organisations do.

Opportunities for charities

There are some really successful examples of organisations in the charity sector using UGC. Great NonProfits  is a popular US review site which allows users to share their experiences of dealing with charitable organisations. Of course this site has the same potential for abuse as anywhere else, but the vast majority of users use it entirely in the spirit in which it’s intended. UK-based charities can take heed of the huge success of a site like this – it’s a tangible illustration of how if you touch people then they’ll be keen to share their story, especially if you make the means of sharing easy and accessible.

Likewise individual charities can use this kind of reviewing system as a tool – you might want to include a layer of moderation, but why not encourage your volunteers and users to candidly share their stories about you? The desire is out there if charities can put in the resource to make it work. MacMillan is doing great things with various forms of UGC and volunteer-interaction on its online community.  Positive reviews offer good exposure for your brand, and negative experiences give you valuable information about how your organisation works which you might not otherwise have access to.

Whether you like it or not there are people online discussing your charity at the moment. So the choice comes down to whether you provide a forum for them to do that directly with you, finding ways to use their content to grow your charity’s influence and engage them, or ignore the potential to learn and evolve with their ideas.