All That (Content) Glitters is Not Gold

Starting before it, but increasingly so after the MySpace acquisition last month, we at Masthead have seen an inordinate amount of companies pitching web services with a foundation on “user-generated content.” I personally believe that there is a lot of opportunity in user-generated content – we just invested in Intercasting, for example, which enables it on mobile phones. But a careful filter needs to be run through all of the companies out there screaming the buzz-word du jour.

All Content is Not Created Equal. First, different applications and different vertical subject areas have different users who are supposed to create the content. And there are many reasons why people generate content in the first place. For some, it is for intrinsic rewards, like a positive feeling of contribution for sharing and a sense of connecting with others. For others, the rewards are intangible and external, as many blog authors are seeking fame and recognition. And in some cases, like on Helium Knowledge, the rewards are explicit, tangible, and external ¬– there users get paid to contribute. For every vertical, the rewards must be sufficient in the area to match the user’s motivation to contribute. This “why” of user-generated content is extremely important, as it is paramount that the content itself contains value.

Size Matters. User-generated content can come in all shapes and sizes – from microcontent (text snippets, photos, and location information) to full-length (podcasts, vcasts, essays/articles, etc.). Does the type of content that users are going to generate match the type that they want to consume? How much of a critical mass of content is required before the system or offering as a whole delivers tangible value? In some cases, a tiny bit of info is immediately beneficial for the user, but in other cases it is not. (ex: Perhaps a wiki of all scientific formulas is much less valuable without a strong set of them in the compilation?)

Build it and they Will Come? Just because users can create a collection of content, it doesn’t mean that it is in turn valuable to consume it. Some areas of subject matter require certain authority to support the material. Trusting the source is imperative in nearly all types of information. So while end-users bear great authority on TripAdvisor, in some non-consumer applications they do not. There is a reason why people turn to experts in many cases for information – they’re the ones who know better.

User-generated content is indeed valuable, and I think that there is tremendous opportunity for significant innovation and investment in this arena. But professional content-generation – “traditional” media – is not going away anytime soon. All types of information out there should not be user-generated. The dimensions enumerated above (along with many other characteristics) must match both the producers’ and consumers’ needs when they are one in the same. So yes, there are certain applications where user-generated content makes a lot of sense; but there are many verticals and applications (especially outside the consumer arena) where content creation should be left to the professionals.

David Beisel

David Beisel is a co-founder and Partner at NextView Ventures. He has been focused on early stage Internet startups his entire career, both as an entrepreneur and venture capitalist. As an investor in the digital media space, David was most recently a Vice President at Venrock and previously a Principal at Masthead Venture Partners. Prior to becoming a venture capitalist, David co-founded Sombasa Media, an e-mail marketing company best known for its flagship product BargainDog. Sombasa was successfully acquired by where David served as Vice President of Marketing. David holds an MBA from the Stanford Graduate School of Business and an AB in Economics, magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa, from Duke University. He also founded and leads the Boston Innovators Group, an organization which holds quarterly entrepreneur events drawing a thousand attendees.