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Readers & Writers: Reader-Generated Content

November 4, 2012

Dog Ear Consultants

Outside Magazine’s reader-driven 35th anniversary issue

Some of your magazine’s best contributors might be whom you least expect: your readers. Reader-generated content is an effective—and often fun—way to fill your pages with subject matter that your readers clearly care about. They’re the ones providing it, after all.

Reader-generated content isn’t a new concept—letters sections have been an integral part of print magazines since the beginning. But over the past 10 years, more and more mainstream mags have turned to varying degrees of crowd-sourcing to fill their departments and feature wells.

In one recent example, Outside Magazine, handed the reins over to readers for parts of October’s special 35th anniversary reader issue. Outside devotees not only voted on the content for the magazine’s cover story (the top 20 U.S. adventure towns) and a few profile subjects, they were the subject of a variety of surveys published in the issue, and they provided some stellar photography for the popular “Exposure” section.

Similarly, National Geographic ‘s front-of-book “Your Shot” section has been featuring reader-submitted photographs for years.

Ladies Home Journal—a 128-year-old magazine—went a step further. This past March, in a move that drew both curiosity and criticism in the industry, LHJ made a radical shift in format to regularly allow average Jane readers to conceptualize, pitch, and write many of the publication’s short articles and features stories for each issue.

In one of the most extreme examples of reader-generated content, JPGa print based-turned-online magazine about photography—gets 100 percent of its content from readers. The articles are service-y and sharp—photographers offering how-to tips and inspiration for other photographers—and the photographic content is high caliber and thought-provoking. Not the stuff of amateur pap.

Of course, we don’t suggest you fill every page of every issue with your readers’ words and photos. But reader-generated content is particularly effective for alumni magazines because their content and readership are typically more niched than general reader newsstand publications. And with email lists, listservs, and social media sites at your disposal, pumping alumni for material is now easier than it has ever been. But the trick to making reader-generated content work for you is:
A) keeping it sporadic enough that it doesn’t get stale (in the case of a collection of alumni stories, for example) and/or…
B) presenting it in a clever, easy-to-digest format (like a list or survey) and/or…
C) filtering it so that you only use high-quality material (in the case of a longer piece like an essay, memoir, or short story penned by an alumnus).

The Penn Stater’s “20 Campus Spots You Can’t Forget” & “Tales from the Road” features collected personal stories from alumni

Penn State’s alumni mag, The Penn Stater, occasionally solicits and runs collections of short 200- to 300-word personal stories on a single theme: Tales from the Dining Hall, 20 Campus Spots You Can’t Forget, The Best College Road Trips, and so on. Over the past few years, The Penn Stater has run a half-dozen reader-driven features like these, and they’ve been largely among readers’ favorite features.

Maybe it’s a punchy front-of-book short alumni survey in every issue. Maybe it’s an annual collection of alumni stories on a single theme. Or it could even be a top-to-bottom reader-driven special issue once a decade. Finding the right way to use reader-generated content can help develop a rapport with your readers. And any time you can spur them to take an active role, it’s a good thing for your magazine, your alumni association, and your school.

5 half-baked ideas for reader-generated features:
1) Husband-and-wife alumni stories about where they first met on campus
2) Seasonal reading lists suggested by alumni (or English department faculty)
3) Science lab horror stories
4) Phys Ed horror stories
5) Stories about favorite professors

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