THE BLOG

Millennials and New Media: Open For Comment

24/04/2014 10:44 BST | Updated 22/06/2014 10:59 BST

Millennials are changing forever the way we consume media and nowhere is this change more apparent than in the domain of user generated content (UGC) and online user engagement.

The now ubiquitous comments sections of an online article has assumed greater value than any letter to the editor may have in the days of old media. Correspondingly, revenues from user generated content is now an important source of revenue for digital publishers--and this number is growing.

Opinion and Observations

In a study carried out by marketing startup Crowdtap, in collaboration with research firm Ipsos, the data shows that the Millennial generation consumes media for 18 hours a day. 71 percent of this time in spent on social networks, which explains the estimated 5 hours a day that users are spending with UGC.

This translates into 30 percent of total media time spent on UGC, and while traditional media like TV and print still account for a larger share--33 percent--what is interesting is that Millennials find UGC to be both more memorable and trustworthy.

Consider the Twitter handles, hashtags, and Facebook links that most traditional media now carries as standard and one gains an insight into how the audience is now part of the content ecosystem and not just a passive consumer.

These trends have facilitated the emergence of a new type of content player on the digital landscape, an outstanding example being Buzzfeed--the one-stop destination for what is viral on the web today. Last year, Buzzfeed launched a Community vertical comprising solely of posts submitted by its rumored 85 million unique visitors.

Buzzfeed extends its buzz to its YouTube channel as well. It has approximately 2 million subscribers--a video on the channel titled "How to Survive Animal Attacks" garnered more than 1,800 comments and got 39 shares.

Old Media, New Habits

Forbes built its brand in the world of print media, yet its reinvention as a flag bearer of the digital age can be seen most impressively in the area of user comments.

What can make a commenter's day on Forbes.com is if the team of editors, sub-editors, and contributors "Call Out" a comment on a particular article because of its editorial value. Forbes not only spent some effort in customizing the WordPress commenting system on their website to enable this, but also actively encourages its staff to highlight noteworthy comments.

What this recognition creates is a positive feedback loop. Instead of the hundreds of often inane and frequently troll-like comments that one is used to seeing on many websites, readers have an incentive to contribute meaningfully to the original content published on the website.

Forbes is now exploring taking the comment threads to a new level, which they call "Active Conversations" where the comments and responses to them read like a back and forth dialogue instead of silo-based comments.

This is not just an American fad either--it cannot be, as Millennials exist the world over. Across the pond, Britain's venerable The Guardian created a new jargon for the comments section of its digital avatar, called "Below the Line." The site actively engages with quality commenters as a way to add value to the content of their website--in niche areas like science and possibly as a market research tool to identify what makes their most influential readers tick.

Tweaks and Technology

If managing a content operation is a challenge with professionals then imagine what happens when you are dealing with UGC. Guiding folks through the legal, cultural, stylistic, and editorial landscape which is the daily nuts and bolts of a publishing operation can be exacting.

A digital age hotshot like Buzzfeed--despite hiring dedicated staff in the form of Engagement Coordinators--has found it a challenge to live up to the promise of such "open" platforms. As readers get more engaged, they also get more demanding in their expectations regarding the content they have created.

We can agree though that we can put this in the category of good problems to have.

Getting journalists to think digitally is a larger challenge though. The world of code, algorithms, and search rankings seems far removed to most, especially those not on the tech beat. Now this is increasingly a skill set they need to wrap their heads around.

Interestingly, The New York Times has gone ahead and recruited a "Chief Data Scientist" whose mandate is to delve into the esoteric expertise of machine learning to figure out how readers are interacting with the website, and how their behaviors are correlating with the content out there.

Essentially, this is the stuff hardcore online operators like Amazon and Netflix do every second, every hour, every day, and the metamorphosis of established traditional media brands into disseminators of a digital experience is near complete.

We have come a long way from measuring reader feedback through online surveys.

Understanding the Ecosystem

While we can leave the data specialists to do their specialized tasks, the journalists on their respective beats need to understand the way technology is impacting the way their articles are consumed.

A Pew Research Center study throws up some interesting insights on the topic. For instance, social media tends to offer a much more polarized reaction to a news event than what might be otherwise. To observe this dynamic at work one just has to observe the reaction on the Twitter-sphere to any "breaking news" event to see the extreme for and against reactions to an issue.

Each social media platform has its own demographic skews that can further impact content consumption. As expected LinkedIn caters to an audience with higher educational qualifications, while Pinterest and Facebook score very heavily with female audiences as opposed to a YouTube or LinkedIn.

The tendency of Millennials to seek new experiences resulting in shorter engagement cycles with media properties is now the subject of modern literature. The comments section could well provide the basis for the forecasting mavens to predict where the eyeballs are headed next.