How to cultivate a vibrant UGC ecosystem

When we look at the healthiest relationships between website owners, consumers and contributors, we see a value exchange that occurs between these three entities that culminates in a vibrant UGC ecosystem. In this ecosystem, website owners will see increased sales from the presence of “enough” UGC, increased SEO benefits because of “fresh” relevant content and pointed insights that sharpen as volume increases. Consumers will see the “critical volume” that establishes an adequate level of trust to make a purchase decision. Contributors will receive comments, helpfulness votes and other indicators that their UGC is appreciated and useful.

Value exchange

 Volume expectations

From a consumer’s perspective, how many reviews on a product do I expect or require before I have an adequate level of trust to purchase? The proliferation of ratings and reviews across the web has resulted in higher volume expectations. The chart below shows this growth in appetite for ratings and review volume. The X-axis represents the number of reviews per product that a consumer requires to make a purchase. The Y-axis represents the percentage of consumers that this number captures.

Piper Jaffray demand curve

Elements of volume

The lion’s share of responsibility for ensuring the “UGC ecosystem” takes root and flourishes lies with the website owner. I am going to discuss four main areas that are essential to guarantee an UGC ecosystem achieves critical volume.

  • UGC visibility (sunlight)
  • Reasonable contribution costs (growing conditions)
  • Social image (water)
  • Rewards (fertilizer)

UGC visibility

UGC visibility is the sunlight in the ecosystem. It’s simple: The more prominently your website features UGC, the more likely people are to contribute to that effort. If a website has ratings prominently displayed on the home page, category page, search results and above the fold, we see the beginnings of a healthy ecosystem. To illustrate the effect of visibility, think about an event that uses a Twitter hashtag and displays tweets on screens within the event venue. This exposure will generate more volume than an event that doesn’t aggregate and display tagged tweets–people want their contributions to be seen.

Reasonable contribution costs

If I throw a party, I can expect more guests to show up if I choose a spot closer to their homes than if I choose a spot that is farther out, all other things being equal. The costs in time and energy are higher to attend the second party than the first. Likewise, sites that create unreasonable contribution costs (i.e. registration, payment information) see dramatically lower contribution costs. The most effective way to reduce these contribution costs is to send post-purchase emails to customers containing special links that allow them to contribute without logging in. Clients that use this method regularly see contribution volumes increase 400-800% vs. the on-site ‘Write a Review’ link.

When the cost of contribution is excessively high, the ratings distribution will be depressed in the middle. The contributors that will jump over any hurdle that you place in front of them are the ranters and ravers, consumers that either love the product or have had an unpleasant experience. These voices should be heard but they should be heard alongside consumers that had less polarizing experiences.

Social image

This is the water in our ecosystem. As it flows, it helps to move one-time contributors back into the contribution cycle. Yelp’s mastery of reputation is a well-known example of the power of social image systems (and gamification). This of course does not mean that all sites need to create a contributor social image system as elaborate as Yelp’s, but any well-designed effort to highlight your most valuable contributors and their efforts will result in loyalty and continued contributions.


This dynamic is powerful, but should be used with discretion. Focusing on rewards before you have sunlight, reasonable growing conditions and water will result in a sterile ecosystem. When employing rewards to help encourage users to contribute, make sure they do not dramatically overshadow the value of the product. When using contests make it explicit that the winner will be determined independent of the rating or review contributed, so that user sentiment is not skewed by the contest or reward.

Time to prosper

Each ecosystem is unique and will respond differently to these efforts, but we rarely see ecosystems flourishing without most of these elements in place. UGC is not a “build it and they will come” opportunity. Neglect it, and it will fail to provide value. Take good care of it, and it will thrive.

Customer Intelligence

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