At 6.43am yesterday I checked my alarm clock and hurtled downstairs to turn on Cbeebies. My three-year-old wasn’t even up at this point – the normal trigger for Cbeebies being allowed to beam into our house. Yesterday, however, was her birthday and my hurry to watch Cbeebies was less about not missing one of the new episodes of Pingu, and much more about seeing if her birthday card would appear on TV.
I was just in time. As the telly warmed up, the first thing I saw was my daughter’s face in the middle of our carefully stuck-together Octonauts card with a birthday message being read out by Cat (on the right of the picture above, obviously).
Hit Sky+, dash upstairs, grab my now-awake daughter, plonk her in front of the TV, repeat same pattern with my wife carrying our two-week-old youngest daughter, press play on TV and watch everyone smile, not least my three-year-old as it dawned on her that it was her the people on the TV were saying happy birthday to. She even stopped talking about her current favourite TV cartoon, the dreadful ‘Little Princess’ over on Channel 5’s Milkshake.
I posted the screengrab above on Facebook about an hour later and got a flurry of positive reactions. We mentioned it to people during the day. My three-year-old wants to watch it again, and again.
In a nutshell, what I’ve outlined above is the magic of User Generated Content, and it’s a key ingredient for regional news brands if they are going to survive long into the future.
UGC has its critics in journalistic circles, with claims about putting journalists out of work, predictions of filling pages with ‘rubbish’ and worries over the quality of work submitted all cited as reasons to be afraid. But in an age where people don’t think twice about sharing content, not getting involved isn’t an option.
The challenge is make the generation of UGC for the user a rewarding experience, so they come back time and again. The formula needs to look a bit like this:
Look at how Cbeebies do it. They invite you to share a special occasion with them, and they’ll add something you can’t – showing it on TV. They also have a (long) list of rules to make it work, ranging from the size of card and restricting characters on the cards to only those the BBC has permission to show on air. You have to get it in four weeks in advance and they can’t deal with recorded copies if you miss it.
They manage expectations well while at the same time making no promises. And when the card does appear, it’s special and it builds a sense of loyalty towards the channel.
On one hand, the idea of getting excited at seeing a media show you something you’ve made yourself seems a little odd, but it definitely meant something in our house yesterday. You could just dismiss this as the ramblings of a potty parent high after four days of birthday cake. But I’ve seen similar reactions in newsrooms too.
Look Dad, they used it!
When the Birmingham Mail first began running pictures of children dressed for their school prom, people emailed in to say thanks for publishing them – and asked to buy photographic copies of the pages. Seeing you, or your work, in a media which is seen by many others means something.
Rules of engagement
When we launched the Liverpool Daily Post Flickr group, it soon became clear that people wanted some sort of house rules – how we’d byline them, when we’d run the pictures in print and how we’d choose the pictures. By no means did those rules become as complex as those on the Cbeebies page – but the rules of engagement helped build a stronger, ongoing relationship. Look at Channel 5’s Milkshake – your birthday card could appear at any point during three hours of telly. That’s a faff. Look a Cbeebies – three or four dedicated slots a day. If you’re not on, you know about it quickly. If you are, happy days.
I’d put money on Cbeebies seeing the other big benefit I see UGC delivering too – if you get one type of UGC content right, people are quick to get involved again. Cbeebies also runs ‘what I had for breakfast’ features, with lots of smiling children. I guess it’s a an elaboration of effort vs reward – and proves the point that if you get the relationship right, it’s a relationship for the long term.
The Bourne Local – the Johnston Press newspaper which is handing over large chunks of the paper over to readers to decide what should be written, but crucially curating it before it appears – carries up to a page a week from just one 21-class primary school. There has to be a relationship and a sense of reward for that school to keep doing it.
Now the birthday card thing is as old as kids telly itself but that doesn’t make it any less effective if it gets people talking to each other and talking about the brand involved. When the Newcastle Chronicle does ‘kids in kits’ or the Huddersfield Examiner appeals for nativity photos, the result is often parents sharing the fact their child has appeared in the paper or online – in fact, from what I’ve seen, the difference between the importance of being on paper or a newspaper website is negligable – assuming there’s an easy-to-access share button.
Getting the balance right
The challenge with UGC is getting the balance right. Seeing it as a way to fill newspapers or web space is doomed to fail – as experiments by publishers big and small have shown. Think of those radio shows which seem to constantly fill the gaps with Tweets (or worse still, publishers who do that with curating them). It’s just as easy to do rubbish UGC as it is to do rubbish journalism – and the reader, user etc sees right through it.
But if you see UGC as way to engage with the audience, and show them you care about what’s important to them, then you’re not just helping to fill space, you’re helping to build a relationship which will last years.
Call it the Cbeebies test if you like. It’s certainly working in our house.