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    FEATURE: Wake-up Call: Do it themselves

    User-generated content can make your Web site more relevant to shoppers than you've ever imagined -- if you've got the guts to empower them.

    By David Diamond

    Over the past five years or so, I've had many conversations about Internet marketing with my retailer clients and retailer friends, and we often end up in the same frustrating place: "I know I should do it, but who's going to create, maintain, and update all of that content?" While the question is a valid one, as the need to maintain and update a Web site is crucial to its success, more and more companies are embracing a new approach to generating fresh content -- letting their customers do it.

    One would have to have been hiding under a rock over the past two years to have missed the remarkable growth (and ensuing valuations) enjoyed by MySpace and YouTube. These two Web entities at first appear to be quite different. MySpace is an online community where each member has the opportunity to build and host his or her own page, while YouTube is a video-sharing site, where members can post and view videos of almost any ilk.

    The common trait between the two sites is that neither of them brings any content to the party. Rather, they provide the enabling technology, and the users do the rest.

    One doesn't go to MySpace to see what the Web site has created; one goes there to see what Bob has created, what Jane has come up with and -- oh, my God -- what my 14-year-old son, Ted, has chosen to say about himself. Similarly, one doesn't go to YouTube to see videos created by the site, or even to see videos created by NBC or MTV (though that sort of video does command a significant share of YouTube viewership). Rather, one goes to YouTube to see funny videos created by every aspiring artist, cartoonist, director, and comedian with a video camera and a broadband connection.

    If you want to see Ted's handiwork, for instance, just type "York Prep Star Wars" into the YouTube search box, and you can feast on 14-year-old creativity run amok.

    What's remarkable isn't that user-generated content exists, but that user-generated content is so popular. MySpace is now one of the five most visited Web sites on the planet, rivaling AOL, Yahoo!, and eBay in page views, while YouTube is the default way to see anything you want on video.

    The growth of user-generated content underlies the fundamental difference between the Internet and traditional media. In traditional media -- magazines, newspapers, TV, billboards, or radio -- there are the creators and the users, and the lines are not the least bit blurry. The possible exceptions to this rule are talk radio's call-in shows, but even these are tightly controlled by their creators, who define how the listeners participate. (No one calls Howard Stern to talk about interesting new novels, or Rush Limbaugh to have a reasoned policy discussion.)

    But the Internet is all about blurred lines. Wikipedia is an encyclopedia created by the people who use it. EBay is a shopping mall where most buyers are sellers, and most sellers are buyers. The separation between content creator and user is over. On the Internet we're all users, and we're all creators.

    The potential for 'MyGrocer'

    So what does this mean for the humble grocer puzzling over what to do with a Web site? Well, mostly it means that success will come to those retailers who have the courage to cross the line between creator and user, and give their customers the opportunity not only to find content, but also create it.

    HEB is out ahead of the pack on this one. The San Antonio-based chain has been generating excitement for weeks with the "My HEB Make-Your-Own TV Commercial Contest," a promotion that will award prizes to the person or group that submits the best My HEB commercial. As HEB itself pitches the program, "It's all about you and your HEB. Tell us what makes your HEB special." The grocer offers some "tips" to inspire, including focusing on its "low prices, great service, or fresh products," but it leaves the scriptwriting and producing up to customers.

    The chain's been making hay with the contest, posting contestants' submissions on its Web site and letting visitors vote for the best ones.

    The ultimate goal for budding commercial auteurs, beyond knowing their work's been viewed, is to win prizes. But HEB's going to be the biggest winner, as the contest generates buzz and brings customers to its Web site.

    Everyone's a chef

    Grocers should stop worrying about which recipe database to license and put on their sites, and instead offer a place where customers can post their own recipes and swap them.

    That means that we should stop relying on "experts" to provide household tips -- content that costs money -- and instead invite the expert homemakers who shop in our stores to offer ways to make household life a bit easier.

    It even means that you should let your customers have a place to discuss your own stores and how they shop them. Let them suggest the best time to go to the deli; let them comment that the produce looks better in the Main Street store than in the Walnut Avenue store (and then you can have a discussion with the Walnut Avenue produce manager later, offline). If you do this, not only will you be creating a dynamic, sticky, compelling Web environment for your customers, but you'll also be learning about what's really going on in your stores, in a way that's far more meaningful and actionable than consumer satisfaction surveys or mystery shopping.

    The lesson of user-based content on the Internet is simple: Users often create content that's compelling to other users. And because it's specific, they create it more effectively and efficiently than the "professionals" do.

    --Technical expertise provided by Ted Diamond

    By David Diamond
    • About David Diamond

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