How to Get Users to Promote Their Own Content

Promoting content
Image credit: tanakawho

Today we have a special guest on SEOgadget – Will Critchlow, Founder and Chief Strategist at Distilled. I recently contributed as a guest of Distilled to a whitepaper for on UGC and SEO. Reflecting on that work, here’s Will’s take on something I feel very strongly about too: How to get users to promote their own content. Over to you, Will.

Getting more from user generated content

Over the years, I’ve been involved in quite a few projects with a focus on user-generated content (UGC). It’s one of my favourite SEO topics because of the potential for scale and integration of content and promotion. Richard recently contributed to a whitepaper we wrote for one of our clients on the topic of User Generated Content for SEO and he very kindly agreed to let me expand on some of my thoughts about UGC here on SEOgadget.

Some sites and businesses need help on growing a community and/or gathering more UGC. This post isn’t about that – today I want to focus on cases where you already have large amounts of UGC being created and want to get more out of it.

The immediate benefits of UGC

To my mind, there are three immediate benefits of UGC:

  1. Creation of long-tail content where essentially the whole page is UGC
  2. Enrichment of existing head- / mid-tail content with additional depth, interest and long-tail keywords
  3. Incentive alignment between the site owners and the users who both want to see content get “famous”

It is this third area that I’m going to focus on today. You can see the effect in action most obviously on sites such as etsy or Amazon marketplace where the alignment of interest is most clear. In these cases, the user is using a 3rd party as an entire platform and they have clear incentives to promote it in any way they can.

So, let’s run through some of the different kinds of incentive and scenario:

  • Aligned incentives – where the users and the site are clearly in alignment
  • User profiles – cases where users have a profile that they may care to promote
  • Comments / discussions – situations where the users have contributed content but may not have thought to promote it
  • Boring” UGC – what can you do when users are contributing content they may not care to promote?
  • Rich media UGC – how things change when the UGC is rich media

Aligned incentives

In the cases like etsy mentioned above, the incentive is clear to both parties and we have had the most success from two simple approaches:

  • Education
  • Tools

If you give your (already incentivised) users the knowledge and the power they need then they’ll be off before you know it. In the past, we have implemented the education with tools such as co-branded webinars, training material, q&a sessions, presentations etc. Where we have leant our expert brand to the site’s own brand to train their users in how they can go about marketing their own content and pages.

Tools range from simple embed codes to make it easy for people to link from other sites they control, through more complex widgets and plugins for common platforms (e.g. WordPress) up to affiliate platform integration and marketing consoles.

The underlying point here is that with aligned interests, you have cleared the hardest hurdle and from here on out, you’re constrained only by your imagination and resources. If you find yourself on the boundary of the incentives structure (for example in the case of a jobs board where companies are listing jobs on many boards and have limited incentive to promote your one), you can seek ways to amplify the aligned incentives. For example, if you have search listings, you could align your internal ranking factors with Google’s. This will incentivise people to link to their own listing to appear higher up in your rankings (with the nice knock-on effect that they raise your total domain authority).

User profiles

We start blurring the “incentive” lines when we consider sites that have profile pages for their users. In these cases, there is some benefit to the user in promoting their own page, but it is typically not a financial incentive and may be too weak to get over the hurdle for them to take action.

Here, in addition to the kinds of tools I outlined above (such as embed codes etc.) I think there is a continuum of possibilities from incentive alignment through to simple “nudges”. At the incentive alignment end lie such tactics as tying profiles to real world outcomes such as getting a job or even “imaginary” outcomes such as gaining points or badges. At the “nudge” end lie tactics similar to the LinkedIn “your profile is 90% complete” message or the inclusion of “analytics” style data in users’ dashboards. If you see the number of people visiting your profile every time you log in (or in a weekly update email etc.) then you are more likely to do what you can to influence that number even if you don’t really care about it. This strange aspect of human psychology explains why you get what you measure.

Comments / discussions

Probably the most common form of UGC is in the form of comments or discussion on other items on your website. In rare cases, these users are going to believe that their comment is so amazing that they can’t resist telling the world about it. Rather than relying on this, you should want to tap into two other powerful forces:

  1. the hard part is getting someone to take the first action – the second is always easier
  2. we are social beings so we want people to respond to us in order to have a conversation

The first principle is well-known by salespeople who will often work hard to get an initial soft “yes” to something irrelevant to make the true objective easier to achieve. You can combine them nicely by having the comment confirmation screen ask people to share the post in order to stimulate further discussion. The more you can build these factors into your core platform, the better off you will be. A superb example of this is the @reply commenting feature within disqus which turns your whole site into a social amplifier. I have a suspicion that in many cases, if you apply (non-indexable, javascript-driven) disqus comments to long-form content, the downsides of failing to add incremental indexable content could be outweighed by the flywheel effect brought by the social commenting features.

“Boring” UGC

The same kind of principles apply when we are talking about less interesting forms of UGC such as reviews where the user is less emotionally-engaged with the information they have provided. In these cases, we are relying heavily on the momentum that comes from the “second action effect” mentioned above but should also seek to exploit any emotion that does exist. In the case of a negative review, this could be the desire to save others from the poor experience – or for a positive review a philanthropic desire to share the great product or service.

Motivations vary wildly and it could be worth swapping intrinsic for extrinsic motivation in the form of prizes or rewards for sharing (or entry into a prize pool). You should be careful if you choose to go down this route as there is a variety of evidence that this swap can result in less of what you seek as people explicitly begin to weigh up the value of the action you are asking them to perform versus the reward on offer.

In this great post, Thomas Hogenhaven shows a bunch of ways you can increase intrinsic motivation within communities without muddying the waters with extrinsic factors. This reddit thread on small things your employer could do to improve morale is worth a read when thinking about your website community as well. One of the strongest messages I took away from it was the value of the unpredictable reward. People appear to value rewards and thanks that come out of the blue more than they do the scheduled “thanks” of pay reviews etc. It can be more beneficial to morale to buy a coffee unpredictably than to have a rule that the top performer each month is awarded a much more substantial financial reward. You can use this principle online as well. One of my more memorable interactions with a company recently was when geckoboard got in touch out of the blue to ask for my address to send me a t-shirt to say thank you for evangelising them (unrelated: you should totally check them out – a great service that we use heavily at Distilled!).

Rich media UGC

I lean towards simplicity and I like using 3rd party services to make my life easier when building websites. For these reasons, if I am integrating rich media sharing into a site I control, I am very likely to do so through plugins and external services. I have very little desire to handle the complexities even of image uploading and hosting, never mind video or audio. If you take this route, you have a built-in opportunity to tie your site into your users’ networks by using services where they already have accounts and naturally share your site in the process of interacting with it. Depending on the demographics of your site, this could be a classic social network or a more product-focussed site such as flickr.

Whichever boat you find yourself in, and whatever kind of interaction you have with your users, you should realise that they are probably an untapped source of marketing potential for your business. I’d love to hear more thoughts and ideas from others in the comments.


  1. Jim Seward

    UGC is great as long as it stays inline with the brand guidelines, problem when opening up to UGC is you could end up damaging the brand which can make it an intensive process to moderate all the content. If this isn’t an issue, great, leave them to it and watch the long tails grow

    Wholeheartedly agree about giving people the tools to share their content though, make it easy for them :-)

  2. Liz Strawford

    This is a great post, thanks for the actionable ideas- as usual! I think the last point, about users sharing your site ‘in the process of interacting with it’ really hits the nail on the head. I have recently seen a great example of making user profiles work even harder on the microfinance charity site Not only do they have profiles, but they have ‘teams’, whose donations are counted together. Each team can have a personalised, embeddable donation counter that tracks the amount they have given in microloans- thus adding an element of competition as well as link bait. Amazingly clever when you think about it.