User-generated content, or UGC, can open businesses up to a great deal of risk. While the text, video, and audio that a user creates are, generally, tied to their profile and listed under their name, all of that content is nonetheless presented as part of the business’s identity.

Even if it’s only unconscious, interacting with unwanted content can significantly affect a brand’s reputation – and if a user is led off-platform by a piece of UGC, any negative consequences that are likely to still be associated in their mind with the platform they originally came from.

In spite of this, the adoption of UGC in online business is continuing at a high pace. This is obviously the case for companies for which content and interaction are their raison d’être, such as social media networks, but it might make less obvious sense for those where this content is optional, such as online retail.

If you can trade without it, why take the risk?

The consequences of creativity

There are many good answers to this question, of course. UGC brings users’ endorsements of the platform’s value into the heart of the user experience. It creates feedback loops of interaction that can encourage people to stay on the platform. It enables businesses to develop a richer identity and culture with less up-front investment.

It could be argued, however, that these and other answers are really just examples of a larger, more fundamental point about the value of UGC. Where interacting with a traditional business means choosing options from a menu of what that business thinks a person might like, UGC capabilities give people a much more authentic sense of choice and agency.

This freedom to shape one’s own path is what leads to all other outcomes, whether positive or negative.

People, in short, love to create, and it is the emotional driver of creativity that businesses are tapping into when they allow users to set up their own storefront, create and join sub-communities, or craft an online dating profile that really feels like them.

As in the physical world, however, that freedom and agency do not come without potential issues. The freedom for users to present their authentic selves could be misused to imitate someone else. The creative leeway for sellers to brand their online shopfronts could be misused as an opportunity to lead buyers away to other platforms.

The consequences of creativity, then, are emotional fulfillment – but also a serious threat to a business’s sustainability.

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The art of moderating art

Understanding creativity as the driver of the value businesses can glean from UGC, however, has important consequences for how we might think about managing and moderating that content.

In the example of users being led off-platform, for instance, the immediate consequences might include revenue loss, as users transact outside of the platform’s channel, and reputational damage when users who are out of reach of the platform’s protections suffer losses.

A traditional view of content moderation might be to maximize the ability to identify and eliminate these interactions; a well-trained AI system can spot signs of such activity, such as disguised URLs or phone numbers, and elevate cases to a human team of moderators when the nature of the interaction is ambiguous.

A mature approach might further use those tools to generate insight into how a platform is performing, and what the context of inappropriate actions tends to be. If issues are consistently being flagged around a particular product category, or in certain markets, businesses can take action such as modifying the user interface or adding targeted warning messages to make those events less likely.

If, on the other hand, we see what users are doing on a platform not just as interaction, but as creativity, that might point us towards the need to use moderation in a way that maximizes their scope for self-expression. Rather than relying only on the ‘stick’ approach of punishing bad content – which will always shift the experience closer to the traditional model of having limited options from a business – we can also look to offer a ‘carrot’ approach which avoids a sense of limitation on what users can do.

This might, for instance, involve automatically promoting content that closely matches the brand’s values to the forefront of a user’s experience, giving them a clear social model of how they could or should behave on the platform.

It might respond to potentially problematic content by asking the user to reconsider their approach, rather than immediately putting it in a queue for approval by a human moderator. It might even allow people to manage what kinds of content they are comfortable seeing, giving other users greater leeway to express themselves freely.

Ultimately, the goal of offering UGC options is to attract and retain the users who best match a brand’s personality and values. That means allowing them to exercise their creative instincts – and content moderation tools can be just as valuable here as they are for limiting inappropriate speech.

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Otis Burris

By Otis Burris

VP – Partnerships, Mergers & Acquisitions

This is Besedo

Global, full-service leader in content moderation

We provide automated and manual moderation for online marketplaces, online dating, sharing economy, gaming, communities and social media.

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What social shopping teaches us about the future of content

In June, Etsy committed to one of the largest ecommerce industry acquisitions of all time when it announced it would pay $1.625bn for the UK-based fashion marketplace Depop. It’s a bold move that represents an enormous vote of confidence in the future of peer-to-peer selling.

Marketplace platforms like Depop are not, of course, entirely new. In fact, eBay might have been the first truly breakout dotcom success, making the idea of buying online familiar to millions. Even so, we can foresee a much more social future for retail. Depop, after all, is distinguished partly by a user experience which is much more like using social media than traditional retail channels. A big component of what Etsy is buying isn’t just the revenue that Depop draws, but its style and userbase, which The Guardian describes as ‘mostly under 26 and mark[ing] out the future direction of retail: more online, sustainable and social’.

Between the acceleration of digital adoption brought about by the pandemic and a growing consumer concern with sustainability, the appeal of Depop is clear. This does not, however, mean that things will necessarily be plain sailing for Etsy’s new acquisition. Indeed, brands with similar offerings to Depop have struggled recently, with Poshmark losing over half of its value since going public at the start of the year.

A question of freedom and trust

The question, then, is how these business can become truly sustainable – not only reducing their users’ carbon footprints, but finding the growth they need to thrive in the long term and continuing to demonstrate positive social impact. It’s something that many CFOs and finance teams, of these and other disruptive industry players, will be weighing up as they balance the pressures for short-term expansion and long-term security.

One key to doing that successfully will be to fully understand that for these businesses revenue is driven not just by the quality of the physical products people are trading, but by the quality of the user-generated content (UGC) that people create to represent them.

The UGC-powered revenue model is unique to the internet age; it’s the bread and butter of the social networks which Depop’s interface aims to mirror. While other forms of mass media have opened the door to interaction with their audiences (as with readers’ letters to newspapers), only since the internet became ubiquitous has it been possible to place that content centre stage. For social media, that means relying on your users to share engaging ideas. For peer-to-peer selling, that means handing your users the task of creating engaging merchandising content.

At the same time, all of the requirements placed on ‘traditional’ retail – whether in-store or online – are still in play for peer-to-peer selling. Shoppers need to be able to trust that the products they see are being accurately represented. They need to believe that the prices they are paying are fair. The need to know that they will be supported if and when things go wrong.

All of this means that the highest of business standards will be required of something which is, by its nature, difficult to control. Much of the commercial power of UGC lies in the fact that it forms a personal connection, and – just as when we talk to people socially – the results can be surprising, joyful, and at times anarchic.

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Why moderating content without censoring users demands consistent, transparent policies.

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Building sustainable growth for long term success

Sustainable growth, then, will mean finding a way to have it both ways, upholding UGC’s potential for self-expressiveness and imbuing it with the reliability that retail demands. It would be a mistake to see this as something which can be figured out on the fly, waiting to see what kinds of problems arise and then developing responses to them. While there are times that customers will accept this style of working, a poor interaction with a retail business is likely to mean losing not just that customer, but a build-up of negative brand perception that can be fatal.

A proactive and preventative approach will place the quality of UGC at the heart of metrics like brand loyalty and user lifetime value, seeing it as a precondition for strong revenue, not as a secondary factor. No two businesses will be the same in this regard. For example, what constitutes a high-quality listing on Poshmark, which deals in homeware as well as fashion and focuses on luxury brands, will be different to Depop’s ideal listing of fun, youthful street fashion.

The contrast between the positioning of these two brands which offer fundamentally similar services highlights the fact that UGC is not simply a risk: while everyone is aware that bad content can damage a business, we also need to recognise that good content – however that is defined – is how these businesses thrive. This is content moderation as a core capability.

It’s not a challenge that’s unique to marketplaces. Other sectors, like online dating, are based on UGC, while others such as gaming are becoming increasingly reliant on it. Just as the future of shopping is more social, opportunities to find value in UGC are arising across industries. The implications for finance in these businesses will be a learning process: just as they now look at pipelines, funnels, and run rates, they may soon be tracking content health.

By William Singam

Regional Sales Director – APAC + France

This is Besedo

Global, full-service leader in content moderation

We provide automated and manual moderation for online marketplaces, online dating, sharing economy, gaming, communities and social media.

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