The Ultimate Management Challenge: The UGC Community

Think you’re a good manager? Now imagine that many of the people who are building your site don’t even work for you. You can’t tell them what to do. They don’t rely on you for their jobs or paychecks. They owe you nothing, and your business is to help them create.

It shouldn’t be surprising that these efforts generally fail. But there are some glorious successes. You need to align the systems so that users accomplish their goals while building the site.

I’ve been fortunate to watch some brilliant colleagues pull this off, and to learn from people who accomplished this before my professional revolved around User Generated Content (UGC).

If you’re going to take up the challenge, here are some things to consider:

You need to align to your users’ needs

The site’s content creators are doing so for one or more of the following reasons:

  • They want to create something great. This is the primary motivation behind Wikipedia.
  • They want to help others. This is the primary motivator behind many Q&A sites.
  • They want to be part of a community. Similar to offline communities and support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous or Weight Watchers. Or why it’s so much better to watch a sporting event with other fans.
  • They need to express themselves. Probably the main force behind WordPress.
  • They want to advance some business need. Technically eBay is User Generated Content. I guess so is Google Adsense, and advertising in general. More generally, marketers have discovered Social Media and they’re trying to use it to benefit their businesses. If you can build your business around helping others advance their business interests, great.

This blog post is probably motivated by all of the above needs.

Management often makes the mistake of focusing only on that financial need. I satisfy your financial needs, and you do what I tell you to. And using financial self-interest to help build your UGC community is great IF the financial incentive is sufficient to get the contributions you need. If it’s not, than offering a small financial incentive may actually backfire.

Do NOT make the rationalist’s mistake of thinking that the user’s monetary interests are greater than the other needs listed above. Many of us have an overwhelming need to create, help, share, join, and / or express ourselves and our ideas. And it turns out you can build a successful UGC site by helping your users do those nice things that they want or need to do.

Help your users accomplish their goals

I’m constantly bombarded with all the great product ideas that will help grow the site. But my top priorities are to make it easier, more fun, and less frustrating for the users to create great content. I see that as my part of the bargain with the site’s users. They’re creating great stuff. My job is to help them succeed and to have fun. I need to remove the obstacles and frustrations. The business is based on this relationship — they want to create, I help them accomplish their goals.

Recognize their accomplishments

Different sites recognize their users in different ways. The best ways — I’ve learned from my superhero colleagues — is the simplest (though most time-consuming). Personal messages. Actual appreciation. Feel the love, and share it. And if you think that personal connections with your contributors doesn’t scale, then you’re wrong. If you have so many great contributors that you need to hire more people to give them moral support, congratulations, you’re in great shape.


Product Management at a UGC site is a dream come true for a manager who grew up on books like In Search of Excellence. By taking away all the financial and top-down levers a manager normally has, you’re left only with your ability to help others shine. Which is the part of my job that I’ve always loved.