The Digital Signage Insider

Can user-generated content find a home on digital signage?

Published on: 2007-03-11

Two weeks ago, I had the opportunity to speak at the Strategy Institute's "Out-of-Home Digital Networks Content Strategies and Awards Summit," a conference dedicated to addressing the growing complexities of creating and distributing content to digital signage networks. While most of the speakers (who really know that side of the business much better than I do) focused on practical aspects of content creation and hot-button topics like outsourcing and brand management, I instead spoke on a much more speculative issue. Specifically, I looked at whether user-generated content has a place in business (and in retail media in particular), and if so, how companies can best position themselves to get a piece of the action. In the next two blog articles, I'm going to share much of the argument I made during that presentation, starting with today's focus on the rise of user-generated content, and what's currently keeping it from being more frequently utilized in out-of-home media networks.

What's all the fuss about user-generated content?

User-generated content (UGC) is basically any piece of media that is created by a regular consumer, rather than a professional creative agency. While typically non-commercial in nature, over the past year or so we've started to see more consumers experiment with creating pieces (everything from blog articles to video clips on YouTube) focusing on specific products or brands that they felt strongly enough to talk about (for either good or bad reasons). Whatever the motivation, this new kind of UGC was produced en masse, and likely contributed heavily to TIME Magazine's decision that in 2006 the biggest impact in the world was created by us, the collective group of YouTube posters, bloggers, podcasters, videographers, writers and plain old web surfers who have taken up the Web 2.0 mantra of "if you create it, they will come... and if they don't, no big deal, just keep creating." As if on cue, Advertising Age also decided to bestow an honor upon us, naming "The Consumer" as 2006's Agency of the Year. According to these highly respected organizations, we're now not only mere consumers of media, we're all empowered creators.

Fortunately, some of these consumers are apparently pretty good at creating content, and if nothing else, the speed at which some user-generated content has spread across the Internet has been enough to make major marketers sit up and take notice. The availability of good UGC really made itself known during this year's Superbowl, as Doritos, Chevy and even the NFL itself aired user-created spots (Doritos actually had two). That kind of explosion into the mainstream, along with the success of websites like YouTube, MySpace and Joost has forced many brands and creative agencies to reconsider how they might incorporate UGC and social media into their marketing campaigns. After all, consumers are often closer to the products that they're promoting than the ad agencies are, so the content they create might be more relevant. User-generated content can also be a quick and inexpensive way to test lots of new ideas and get feedback from the people most likely to purchase (or spread the word about) the advertised product.

How can we get marketers to adopt it for digital signage campaigns?

While many marketers and agencies would like to experiment with user-created and social media, there are still some significant hurdles to overcome before it becomes a widely-accepted marketing practice. In my mind, there are four key issues that must be addressed before user-generated content can play a significant role on out-of-home media networks. Those four items are:
  • Manageability: This is the nuts-and-bolts technical and logistical wherewithal to collect the user-generated content in all of its different forms, orientations and technical formats, and somehow make that content available on a large scale and to a wide variety of media outlets. An entity providing these services will have to work with a large number of different content creators (possibly thousands), and be able to deliver this content to an even larger number of display devices.
  • Accountability: This means being able to vouch for the content -- who made it, where it came from, and what you're allowed to do with it -- and having a high degree of confidence that the entity providing the accountability is doing so in an accurate and complete way. Likewise, the entity providing accountability services also has to be accountable itself, which includes being able to take input from the content creators, brands, digital signage network owners and host venues who request changes when information isn't accurate.
  • Responsibility: Perhaps even more important than accountability is responsibility, which in this case means taking charge and making decisions about the content and its use. This role also involves acting as the liaison between the content creator and the other parties involved with the network. Since the quantity of user-generated content on even a single digital signage network could be staggering, it seems improbable that every conflict requiring a remedy will be handled directly by the content creator or screen owner. Thus, some entity that can aggregate many screens and many sources of content and then act as the decision making go-between could potentially automate much of the conflict resolution process, thereby making UGC on out-of-home media a practical possibility. And of course, being responsible also means taking the blame (or at least acting as a clearinghouse for it) when something goes wrong.
  • Trust: Perhaps most important of all, there must be some way to provide a seal of approval or an affirmation that prescribed rules, values and judgments will be applied uniformly across all members of the content ecosystem. Trust is especially important, because it needs to flow in all directions: Advertisers need to trust content creators in order to be comfortable with their content, and they need to trust the host venues to believe that the content will be displayed properly. Host venues obviously need to trust both parties to ensure that their own brand isn't jeopardized by a poor marketing effort (or worse). And of course, content creators need to trust that they will be fairly compensated for the use of their creations. Trust is a frequently overlooked part of the decision-making process for many media buys, and it's going to be particularly hard to set up an automated, digital counterpart to the relationships that many media buyers and planners take for granted in their day-to-day operations.
Next week, we'll use this list to identify some of the likely players in this new media marketplace (hint: I've mentioned them before, like in my article about how YouTube could make a great content source for digital signs). We'll also look at what the stakes might be, and how different kinds of companies may be able to reap the rewards when user-generated content is allowed to thrive on retail networks. In the meantime, you might also want to check out my analysis of the Strategy Institute's Digital Signage Content Strategies Summit from back in 2006.

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