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5 Examples of Using User-Selected Content to Increase User Engagement

by Vincent Chan on Jun 26, 2009


This post is inspired by the webcast of Jamse Hong at Mixergy.com. This video interview is about how James Hong and his co-founder, Jim Young, bootstrapped HOTorNOT to over $5 million in annual profits. If you are into entrepreneurship, definitely check it out. You will learn a lot from it.

During the interview, James mentioned that a lot of social networking related sites, such as Facebook, MySpace, Slide, Digg…etc, using “User-Selected Content” to increase user engagement. Not sure if James coined the term himself, but I couldn’t find much information about this topic. So I decided to do some research on it.

(Update: James told me on twitter that the term “User-Selected Content” is actually coined by him. Thanks James!)

What is User-Selected Content?

User-Selected Content basically is a feature inside a user-generated content or social networking site. Using this feature, the users don’t have to create the content themselves. They just have to choose from a library of content in order to create an event between members easily and quickly.


It drops the bar for what it takes to generate user content for someone else to view. It encourages more interaction and conversation between users. Like James said, the easier to do, the more it’s going to happen.

Content and conversation are still two of the most important things on the web today. So if you want to grow your business, you better understand how your competitors are taking advantages of this feature.

Below are 5 examples of sites using User-Selected Content:

1. Facebook


In the early days, everyone loved to POKE each other on Facebook. You poke your friends and they will usually poke you back. Sometimes you don’t really know why you want to poke your friends but it is fun, it is an interaction and it is an easy way to get in touch with friends.

By using this feature, you don’t have to write anything to let your friends know that you are thinking about them. You don’t have to call them and you don’t have to think about what to say beforehand. Just have to click “poke’.

Later on, a lot of applications, such as SuperPoke!, Hug Me, Free Gifts…etc, and Facebook’s feature, such as Like it and Become a fan, are also using the same concept to promote activities between users on Facebook.

2. Slide


The popular Slideshow by Slide is another great example of using User-Selected Content. Members just have to choose pictures from their own computers and upload them. The site will then help you make a beautiful photo slideshow that you can showoff to your friends on Facebook, MySpace, Bebo, Friendster…etc.

The users can choose from a library of preset designs or choose their own styles, themes, music, background and special effects. Just to make their photos look nicer. If you ask people to create this kind of photo slideshow in Adobe Flash? It will takes days, weeks or even worst; most people will just give up. Without these widgets, all the content you can see on MySpace will be text and static photos. You think young kids will stay on such a boring site for a long time? I don’t think so.

3. Polyvore


Polyvore may be an under the radar startup. Yet if you check out their traffic in the past few years and their management team, you will be AMAZED.

I will say their whole site is 100% based on User-Selected Content. Their users can mix & match products from their favorite stores and brands, making their pages like a scrapbook. So the community members are able to find out the latest hot trends, brands, and celebrity styles.

Their easy to use, drag and drop editor helps people create sets composed of individual images. After that member can publish and share their creative and stylish sets with friends and the Polyvore community. Just think about this, the users just have to pick from some pre-upload and pre-edited images in order to participate in the community. They don’t have to search for the product images on the web and they don’t have to edit the pictures in Photoshop. The site has already done it for them. Everyone has an equal chance to make a unique and beautiful set of images. You know how long does it take just to clear the background of a product photo? No wonder their members are so passion about this site. What a brilliant use of User-Selected Content!

4. Last.fm


Besides fashion industry, User-Selected Content can be used in the music businesses, too. Last.fm is a music service, acquired by CBS for US$280m in 2007, that lets users discover new music they like, based on the music they already listen to. In other words, the site will learn what music their users love.

Using a music recommendation software called “Scrobbler”, Last.fm builds a detailed profile of each user’s musical taste by recording every songs the user have listened to, either on the streamed radio stations, the user’s computer or portable music devices.

Therefore, this “Scrobbler” application is the core portion of their User-Selected Content feature. Scrobbling a song means that when you listen to it, the name of the song is sent to Last.fm and added to your music profile. You can shift a song’s ranking on the site just by listening to it on your own computer. Just like what you would normally do. Users never have to change their habit or preference. Moreover, that particular song will be recommended to other users and they will know that you have listened to it. As a result, the site automatically connect you to other community members who like what you like.

Simple and easy! You listen to a song, the User-Selected Content, and the site will tell you which members have similar style and musical taste. So you can easily start a conversation with them because you already know what they love.

5. Club Penguin


Believe it or not, every action on Club Penguin is User-Selected Content. That’s right. You won’t be able to send a customized message to your friends or upload any content to the site. Members have to select conversation phrases from a pre-defined list. Club Penguin calls this the “Ultimate Safe Chat” mode. In this way, the children could never reveal their personal information and there won’t be any inappropriate talk.

Despite this limitation, the company has created many communication methods so that their members can play and talk with each other with ease. For example, you can send a postcard to other members if you want to tell them they are your best friends. Or players can express their feelings with emoticons, such as a happy face, a sad face, angry face, winking…etc. If you don’t know what to say sometimes, you can simply throw a snowball to others or choose the dancing action to draw attention.

Not interested in such a site? Me neither. However, the rapid growth of Club Penguin, with over 12 million user accounts, suggests that it has already achieved considerable success. With such a targeted audience and safe environment, it’s no surprise that the company was purchased by The Walt Disney Company in August 2007 for the sum of US$350 million.


So do you believe in the power of User-Selected Content yet? If you want to increase user engagement, make sure you have created features that make it quick and easy to facilitate dialogue between users just by pointing and clicking. Yes, make it so easy that a cavemen could do it. 🙂

Photo source: dreaminhealey, zen, Dan Eriksson, calperniaaddams @Flickr

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Built to Scale: Huffington Post

by Vincent Chan on Jun 23, 2009


We’re used to think that a long history and rich culture would be competitive advantages for a newspaper business. Yet this is not the case after the rise of the blogging and web 2.0 phenomena.

According to Google Trends, the traffic of Huffington Post, a four-year-old news aggregator and commentary blog with 43 employees, has already surpassed traditional media like, USA TODAY and CNBC. The site became popular after its heavy coverage of the 2008 presidential election. While major media anticipated its traffic would decrease dramatically after the election, the blog managed to sustain the growth and reached an all time high with 5.6 million visitors in April 2009.

At a time when a 158-year-old media giant running on fumes, how could the Huffington Post achieve such a spectacular growth in 4 years?


Know the Customers

Huffington Post called themselves a pure Internet newspaper and there are reasons for that. When traditional newspapers keep trying to make their websites look like a newspaper, Huffington Post makes their newspaper look like a blog. Their site has all the popular Web 2.0 features, like user-generated content, tagging, voting, live blogging, video blogging, YouTube videos, Google AdSense, RSS feeds…etc. They also let the readers easily submit and share their content to different social media sites, such as Digg, Facebook, Twitter, and Yahoo Buzz. Compare to other newspapers’ websites, they have a better knowledge about what their users truly want.

Community building is a major factor for online success nowadays. Not surprisingly, their users love their site A LOT. Have you ever seen a blog post with more than 88,850 comments??? It is unreal!

Marketing Savvy

Of course, knowing your customers alone won’t give you that kind of growth in 4 years. It helps when the site’s founder, Arianna Huffington, one-time candidate for governor of California, is a celebrity herself. Ms Huffington recruited professional columnists and celebrity bloggers, including Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Michael Moore to write for her site. With a bit of marketing savvy and buzz marketing, Huffington Post quickly became one of the most influential and popular newspapers/bogs on the web.

It seems a lot of traditional corporate giants still don’t understand well enough about the Internet market. Some of them don’t even have a well offline-to-online transition plan in place. With correct strategies and latest technologies, small startups are still able to compete with big corporations.

Do you truly understand what your customers want? Do you have the right talents to take advantage of this web evolution? Study others’ success and your competition; your company can also be the next Huffington Post.

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Scale Big but Start Small

by Vincent Chan on Jun 20, 2009

Just saw this interesting video from Seth’s Blog. It reminds us that every movement was started by one person or a small group of people.

When we are busy doing our day-to-day operation works, it is easy for us to forget about this fact. Every big organizations started small. We always feel amazing when a web site or startup obtains huge traffic in a short period of time. We feel disappointed when we see a different result in our own companies. A lot of startups will give up at that point.

Think about the first few members of Twitter, the early adopters of Digg or the beta users of YouTube. These web sites were far from perfect when they first launched. Yet they found a way to capture those supporters and gradually built from there.

Momentum is the key. Don’t let your fear to control you. Keep finding ways to improve your company. When you have acquired enough followers or reached the tipping point, no one will remember you once was a small tiny startup.

(oh yes, the first guy just freaks me out when I saw the video…)

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Who Says Big Companies Can't Innovate? What You Can Learn from Google Wave

by Vincent Chan on Jun 19, 2009


We always have a perception that corporate giants cannot innovate because of bureaucracy and slow moving speed. Look at how General Motor destroyed themselves. They know that sustainable growth is not possible without innovation. Yet often time companies are fear to change. They just want to stay in the status quo and try to protect their existing profits by cutting costs and firing people.

So does that mean scale and innovation cannot coexist?

Many people will just give up when facing this dilemma, especially when their firms are still profitable. However, in today’s challenging economic environment, businesses need to innovate in order to move forward. Like Steve Jobs said:

“A lot of companies have chosen to downsize, and maybe that was the right thing for them. We chose a different path. Our belief was that if we kept putting great products in front of customers, they would continue to open their wallets.”

Google is another great company that will do everything to foster true innovation. No one can argue that this company is highly profitable when they are earning more than 4 billion dollar last year. But they believe that’s not enough. With 20,000 employees, Google thinks they can keep innovating by taking advantage of their scale.

Google’s co-founder, Sergey Brin, can go to extremes to insure the continuous innovation in his company. He said:

“Instead of having our employees in large buildings, we could have several thousand houses each with a garage – there’s nothing stopping us from doing that.”

Due to this belief, the Google teams have produced numerous excellent products from Gmail to Google Maps and the latest one – Google Wave.


Two years ago, two engineers came to Brin and told him that:

“We want to do something new and revolutionary, but we’re not even going to tell you what it is. And we want to go back to Australia, hire a bunch of people and just work on it.”

The engineers thought Email was designed more than 20 years ago without any advanced technologies that we have today. Thus they believe they can do a better job and re-design this product.

I believe most companies in the world will reject this so-called proposal. Redesign Email? It’s just too crazy. But Brin thought otherwise as those engineers are the same ones behind Google Maps, a highly successful product. He thought it was a reasonable request.

Now they have created a product that aims to redefine email and online communication tools. Google Wave is an attempt to replace not one but all communication methods on the web – email, real-time chat, comments, media sharing, link sharing and wiki collaboration. We are still not sure if Wave is able to go mainstream. But this is definitely a high quality innovative product. It also proves that big companies are able to innovate when they have the right corporate culture.

How about your company’s culture? Have you motivated your workforce to innovate? If not, your company is standing still and eventually moving backward.

Additional Resources

Google Wave: A Complete Guide @Mashable

Photo source: starbuck77@Flickr

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Built to Scale: Common Craft

by Vincent Chan on Jun 18, 2009

Have you seen this excellent animated explanation before? It is made by an educational videos production company, called “Common Craft“, based in Seattle, Washington.

In the very beginning, this company started making custom videos for companies like Google, Ford, LinkedIn and Twitter. Due to their quality works, their instructional videos, which usually paid in five figures, have generated a lot of buzz on the web. Had they continue to make videos for private clients, their business should still be doing alright.

Custom Videos vs Generic Educational Videos

But their founders saw a different picture. They believe producing custom videos is too labor intensive and difficult to scale. Similar to doctors, dentists and lawyers, when these professionals are working on a project, they just can’t take care of other potential clients at the same time unless hiring more people. Common Craft wants to remain small and still able to grow. So they changed their business model to solely focus on making educational videos for educators and corporate trainers. They have built a library of educational videos to help their customers to explain complex subjects. In this way, one particular video can be sold to different customers again and again.

So what can we learn from this story? Does your business or product allow you to scale? When you realize that scaling becomes an issue, do you have the gut to change the direction of your company in a timely manner? Your business may be doing OK right now but don’t forget to review the scalability of your business from time to time. This decision may help your business to become the leader in your field.

Video source: Common Craft

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Did Insufficient Innovation Cause the Financial Crisis?

by Vincent Chan on Jun 18, 2009


Americans always love to do something new and different. It seems innovation is deeply embedded in their culture. So when you hear people saying US people are lack of creativity, you pay extra attention.

Coincidentally, Michael Mandel, Paul Kedrosky and Peter Thiel all recently talked about insufficient innovation may be a cause of our current crisis. Peter pointed out that the dot-com boom of the late 90s is a fraud and most innovation we have received is only marketing hype. Since technology had not made much progress to improve our productivity, people tried to achieve high returns through high leverage. He said we shouldn’t count on established technology companies like Cisco, Microsoft and Intel to give us innovation because their technological progress is extremely slow.

There is no better way to illustrate this situation than talking about what I have seen in the last company I worked for. For some reasons, that company always likes to change their product’s names from time to time but the content is still the same. May be they want to do something new and different but those products are the same old ones that they have provided to customers in the past decade. They may change the pricing a little bit but is that an innovation? Of course not! 🙂 The company changed the names just for the sake of change. Unfortunately, we can always see these practices in the market nowadays.

As Paul Kedrosky mentioned, “new products took much longer coming than anyone expected“. People sometimes underestimate the difficulty of commercializing technologies because companies like Apple and Google make it look so easy. However, how often have revolutionary products/technologies, like the Internet, radio, TV, got invented in the past? We need to understand that only breakthrough products can produce sustainable strong growth to the whole economy.

Discipline not Innovation

While these conclusions sound reasonable, the management guru, Jim Collins, has a different view. He thinks that the economic turmoil happened because companies lost discipline. Because people tried to do things differently all the time. He argues that our economy was not lack of innovation. Just think about those hedge funds, derivatives and creative financial engineering. Companies only tried to make things more complicated and forgot about their core values. We sometimes tend to rely too much on innovation to produce high growth.

At this moment, it’s hard to say which side is correct as Jim Collins won’t talk about this topic until his new book comes out and he still hasn’t started writing yet 🙂 . But in my opinion, insufficient innovation may have correlation to the economic problems but it shouldn’t be a cause. Taking on debt that you can’t repaid, buying a house that you can’t afford, and investing in derivatives that you don’t understand. I call them greedy or insufficient satisfaction 😉

Photo source: Jason Nicholls@Flickr

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How to Scale: Viral Loops 101

by Vincent Chan on Jun 10, 2009

viral loop

A “viral loop” is one of the most powerful ways to scale a web business. You may not know what it is but almost everyone have been influenced by its effect.

Definition of Viral Loops

So what are these viral loops? I think the best definition is the one defined by Andrew Chen from Futuristic Play:

[They are] the steps a user goes through between entering the site to inviting the next set of new users

Sounds like very simple? But it’s definitely not easy. They are powerful tactics behind some of the Internet giants, including Google, PayPal, YouTube, eBay, Facebook, MySpace, Digg, LinkedIn, Twitter, and Flickr.

Have you ever seen Facebook/iPhone applications acquiring MILLIONS of users in just days? If you do, then you have witnessed the power of viral loops.

Now, think about it. Have you ever seen such an amazing growth and user adoption for ordinary brick and mortar businesses? Not to mention web businesses are doing that at almost no cost.

Viral Loops in Action

This strategy is sort of like chain letters, pyramid schemes and multi-level marketing in the offline world, but we are putting it to good use. 🙂

How does it work? One of the most famous examples would be Google AdSense:


First, a site owner posts Google AdSense on his/her site. Then when their users visiting, they will see the AdSense box. If they click the link “Ads by Google”, they will be forwarded to a page showing them how to sign up for the AdSense program. If they are site owners as well and want to earn more money, they will join the program. So suddenly, Google Ads show up not only in their own search result pages but also in millions of sites using Google AdSense to monetize their contents. This is the reason why every web sites develop their own widgets nowadays.

Another common practice is using the “Viral Sign Up/Invite Loop“. Let’s take a look at what LinkedIn has done.



Click the picture above to see the full size on Product Planner

These are their invite and sign up flow steps:

  1. A user receives an email invite
  2. Viewing the email invite (usually from friends)
  3. Then clicks the email invite link
  4. Fills out the sign up form because it is suggested by friends
  5. The user clicks the next button after filling out the basic info
  6. The site then let the user finds existing friends in the network
  7. If his/her friends were not a member yet, invites them to join the network

This loop goes on forever. To me, I will never invite friends to join a site using the above feature because it is kind of like spamming my whole contact list. However, many people seem not to care about that as this tactic has done very well for sites like, LinkedIn, MySpace and all the applications on Facebook. If you get a good portion of the market share, the majority of users will not remember whether you have spam people before.

Viral Loop Features

Besides the Sign Up/Invite loop, other related product features include:

  • Challenge Flow (especially in gaming)
  • “Tell a friend” or “Share” links
  • Add to Digg, Delicious, Yahoo Buzz links
  • Address book importing
  • Widgets

If you want to see more live examples, Product Planner by KISSmetrics is a good resource for you. Its gallery is awesome.

Nevertheless, having these features alone do not automatically create a viral loop for your site. If your product is suck, no one will tell their friends about it. Like Andrew Chen said:

If the fundamental product doesn’t drive a viral motivation from its users, then it’s very hard to force it.

Viral Loop Channels

After designing the product features and user flows, you have to choose a suitable network for targeted users entering your loop. The channel can be email, blog, Twitter updates, MySpace profiles, MySpace bulletings, Facebook newsfeed, Facebook invite request…etc.

Andrew Chen believes integration and response rate are the major factors to evaluate a viral network. Also, Jia Shen, co-founder of RockYou reminded us that in every network, the response rate is always the highest when it is brand new. Then it will drop over time because of increasing competition. For example, people were excited about every applications on Facebook in the beginning but right now, those application invites are some of the most annoying messages in the world.

In the early days, Hotmail was a pioneer in using email to create viral loops. They placed a link at the bottom of every email, offering the recipient the ability to set up his/her own Hotmail account. 30 months later, their user base went from zero to 30 million.

One thing is unique about the Facebook channel is that their newsfeed is actually pushing data to you, including those application invites and updates. So users do not have to go to others’ profile page to see the entry point of the viral loop. They can easily enter the loop every time they log into their accounts. No wonder the co-founder of RockYou said:

Facebook has the only platform where acquiring 40K users in two days is our expectation.


Although this strategy is so powerful, it will backfire on you if you used it too often, didn’t care about the user experience or created a really bad product, just like what happened to Plaxo in the past. This will not only hurt your brand and reputation but also give your potential customers a really bad first impression.

According to Fast Company, viral loops are able to create an environment that is almost infinitely scalable in theory. They allow the users to do most of the works for the site. Inviting friends, creating contents, organizing the network…etc.

Ning, an online platform for people to create their own social networks, was designed to utilize viral loops in February 2007. Today, there are more than 230,000 social networks created by their users.

Is your business ready to exploit this power of compounding and predictable growth yet?

Must Read Resources
  1. Ning’s Infinite Ambition @Fast Company
  2. Q & A with RockYou – three hit apps on Facebook, and counting @VentureBeat
  3. What’s your viral loop? Understanding the engine of adoption @Futuristic Play
  4. Viral marketing is not a marketing strategy @Futuristic Play
  5. What is viral marketing? @Seth’s Blog
  6. User Flow Gallery @Product Planner

Photo source: Seb Przd@Flickr

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Scale Matters

by Vincent Chan on Jun 5, 2009
Scale matters - Crowd

Imagine that Facebook only has 100 members who don’t know each other, don’t have any common friends and don’t go to the same school. Or Twitter is only used by 50 random people who don’t have any common interests and none of them are celebrities. Will these sites still be so valuable as they are now?

So what makes them so special today? Their users. A tremendous amount of users. Without them, Twitter is only a page with a text box and an update button. Generating 20M unique visitors per month? Impossible.

However, people always underestimate the way scale can change the game.

In this blog post, Chris Anderson, editor-in-chief of Wired Magazine and the author of the famous book The Long Tail, talked about why Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google, didn’t believe that Wikipedia could work. Just like no one ever thought that FMyLife could be a hit. Because in the real physical world, most people do not tend to contribute. The contribution rate is just so low. Therefore, it’s very difficult for people to understand why people answer questions on Yahoo Answers, why people broadcast TV channels on Justin.tv, or why people work on Open Source projects.

Like Chris Anderson said, more is different. The Internet enable you to run a business under an extremely low response or participation rates. Wikipedia becomes a top 10 web site by the contribution of 75,000 active members, which is 0.01% of their user base.

If you want your business to reach customers at the largest scale, it’s only possible to do it on the Internet because it gives you near-zero marginal costs, zero-cost distribution method and zero-cost marketing.

Entrepreneurs always love to say they can make a fortune if they can get 1% of the market share in a huge population, like China. It seems that they finally are able to do so. And the fastest and only possible way will be using the Internet which works best at a huge scale.

Do you know any other sites that rely on a small fraction of their users to contribute? Let us know in the comment area.

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