How to improve user generated content

May 21, 2015

When creating an app with community content, the success of your app depends on the quality of the content created by your users.

Here’s some strategies for improving and maintaining high quality community content.

Define quality content and stick to it

It’s important to set concrete guidelines for what quality content looks like in your community. Clear guidelines help set expectations for users creating content and also helps new users understand what your app is about.

What do I mean by concrete guidelines? You should be able to hand your content guidelines to someone who isn’t familiar with your app and they should be able to approve/disapprove of the same content you would. If they’re unclear about the guidelines, your users will be too. Vague guidelines lead to poor user content and confusing communities.

Take a look at StackExchange:

StackExchange Ask a Question page

StackExchange shows what kind of content they’re looking for in their help boxes next to the form to ask a question. They’ve summarized their guidelines into a few sentences and linked to pages where users can get more information.

What quality content looks like for StackExchange is questions that can be answered. Asking for jokes or personal preferences might be fun, but can ultimately damage the quality of community posts and makes quality content harder to find.

Oink: A case study in no guidelines

Oink launched in 2011 as a mobile app for people to share what dishes they liked at a particular restaurant. Yelp was great for finding out if a place was worth visiting but didn’t tell you much about what dishes were worth ordering. It also couldn’t tell you things like where to go if you wanted the best California burrito in San Diego (El Zarape on Park, obviously).

The app was simple: select a place, select what dish you had and rate it. If you wanted to see what was good at a restaurant, you just look up the restaurant and see what dishes had the most likes. If you were in the mood for something like pesto pizza, you could do a search and find the best place nearby.

Oink launched with 150,000 downloads in the first month. After some initial success, the Oink team decided recommending dishes at specific places was too limiting and updated the app to allow users to recommend anything, anywhere. It wasn’t long before the stream of what people liked degraded to users liking Apple, caffeine, laughing with friends, and clouds.

The app quickly became worthless. Not because people were trying to ruin it, they were just sharing things they liked. But without any kind of guidelines, it made finding recommendations more difficult than it was worth. The app was flooded with junk content and what core users they had quickly left. Later that year, Oink was declared a failed experiment and shut down.

You have to draw the line somewhere. Low quality content, left unchecked, can make an app unusable.

Suggest existing content first

When you have a question, you want an answer as quickly as possible. When some people go on StackExchange see the “Ask Question” button and go right to it without looking if someone asked a similar question already. StackExchange solves this in their communities by suggesting existing posts as the user types the title of their question.

StackExchange answer suggestions

As Steve Krug points out in Don’t Make Me Think: people don’t look for the best option, they look for the first possible option. Show there’s a quicker way to get what they’re looking for.

Help users improve their content

Sometimes poor quality content can just be an issue of users not having the knowledge or skills to create better content themselves.

So what can you do? Either do it for them or show them how to do it.

When Airbnb got started, the founders knew photo quality played a huge role in convincing people to stay in a stranger’s spare bedroom. They also knew most people are crappy photographers, and taking beautiful interior photos is especially difficult. So to fix this problem, they provided professional photographers, free of charge, to come out and take photos of every space listed. Not only did this help every listing look great, but by using the professional photographer, hosts got their listing “Airbnb Verified” so visitors knew exactly what they were booking. This helped build trust in their community early on.

Etsy is another good example of helping users improve the quality of their content through their Seller’s Handbook. In it they provide information for sellers on everything from taking photos of small objects to writing effective product descriptions.

You have to curate

You can’t get around it. Doing everything else in this post will reduce the amount of curating, but it won’t eliminate it. There will always be lazy people, trolls, help vampires, and many other kinds of people that can hurt the quality of your community content. If you’re going to host input from other people, you have to curate.

How can you curate your community content?

Hire moderators or promote people in the community to be moderators. Have a small team and limited budget? Take a page out of Basecamp’s playbook and have a weekly rotation where everyone on the team spends time moderating posts. Your team will be more aware of the product and how they can improve it.

Give the community members the ability to flag content. Your users will often catch things faster than your team and it can help alert you of trending content you don’t want in your app.

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