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Week 7: "Tom Sawyering" Autonomous Content: Making Producers Out of Users

You've put a lot of work into building an attractive and streamlined user interface for your personal Web business. You've loaded it up with interesting and possibly controversial seed content to attract users. Now, how can you get users to add their own content?
Web business engineering expert Nick V. Flor is the creator of Web Business Engineering.com, a Web business content forum, and the author of Web Business Engineering: Using Offline Activities to Drive Internet Strategies (Addison-Wesley, 2001, ISBN 0-201-60468-X). Professor Flor is a regular contributor to InformIT on Web business topics.

Autonomous content is content that your users contribute to your personal Web business. For users to be able to contribute content to your site, you need to implement an autonomous content mechanism. This article examines how to implement an autonomous content mechanism using HTML forms, Active Server Pages, and Microsoft Access databases. But first, the "Hacker Phrase of the Week."

Hacker Phrase of the Week

"It's technical."

Usage: Whenever someone asks you to explain something and you don't have the time to do it.



This is Mr. Smith from Big Investor, Inc. Could you explain how your super-algorithm works?


It's technical.


"At this dark and hopeless moment an inspiration burst upon him! Nothing less than a great, magnificent inspiration." —Mark Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

Remember the classic story of how Tom Sawyer "tricked" the neighborhood boys into help him whitewash (paint) a fence? What's amazing is that they not only did Tom's work, they paid him to do it, in particular:

"...twelve marbles, part of a jews-harp, a piece of blue bottle-glass to look through, a spool cannon, a key that wouldn't unlock anything, a fragment of chalk, a glass stopper of a decanter, a tin soldier, a couple of tadpoles, six fire-crackers, a kitten with only one eye, a brass door-knob, a dog-collar—but no dog—the handle of a knife, four pieces of orange-peel, and a dilapidated old window sash!"

That little story is a microcosm of what you want to happen in your personal Web business. You want the users of your personal Web business to be like the boys in Tom Sawyer; they do all the work and pay you for the privilege of doing that work! And as in the story, they don't necessarily pay you with money; they pay you in a variety of other ways—with a variety of different currency. This is a very important point—as you'll see when we get to the article on advertising and information payments—which is why I quoted that long list of items Tom received as payment. For now, we'll look at one key way that you're going to get your users to "pay" you—in information. And as they pay you this information, they'll simultaneously be doing the work of adding content to your site.

Autonomous content is information that users contribute to your site. My last article focused on bootstrap content (see Figure 1), which is content that gets your users interested in your site and also makes them want to contribute their own content. Providing bootstrap content is like Tom Sawyer pretending that he was having a fun time painting the fence. His acting made the neighborhood kids want to paint as well. I discussed what constituted good bootstrap content and we implemented such bootstrap content in our sample Web site (that is, the database-driven, random hacker phrase generator at http://www.ProfessorF.com).

Figure 1 Bootstrap content (bold solid lines) versus autonomous content (dashed line).

I often hear, "What kind of content will users contribute to a site? I personally would never contribute content to a site." Well, if you followed my first article's guidelines for choosing a theme for your personal Web business, you really don't have to worry too much about this issue. The content your users will contribute is related to the theme of your Web site, and you've carefully chosen your theme so that users will naturally want to contribute to your site.

Many existing Web sites have themes that were not specifically tailored for autonomous content. Is autonomous content out of the question for such sites? No; almost every site has some portion of its content that can be made autonomous. If you have such a site, your task is to find existing content on the site that a) has broad appeal, b) changes frequently, c) users want to contribute, and d) users can naturally contribute. If you don't find existing content that you can turn into autonomous content, you must add new content to your site that has those four properties. For more information on the four properties of a good autonomous Web business, go back and read the first personal Web business article—"Week 1: The Business Model Approach to Web Site Design."

So let's say you do have content that can be made autonomous. The next step is to make it possible for users to contribute their own content, via an autonomous content mechanism. Despite the technical-sounding name, this typically amounts to a simple form (written in HTML) on your Web site, although if you want to get fancy it could be a Java applet or even a Flash program. But implementing this autonomous content mechanism may not be as easy as it sounds. There are some "obvious" details that you need to get just right:

  • You need to make sure that the link for contributing new content is immediately available and labeled correctly.

  • You need to make sure that the interface for adding content is as easy as possible to use.

I emphasize obvious because I'm always astonished at how many of my students miss these points. They bury the contribution link several layers deep in their site or place it in some obscure location on the page. Conversely, some students get the first detail right, but then have this incredibly long and confusing form for the user to fill out. (Sigh.) Remember, if you're going to have the user do some work, always—always—make it seem like fun, just like Tom Sawyer did.

Let's look at how to build a database-driven, autonomous content mechanism for our sample personal Web business, ProfessorF's hacker sayings (see http://www.ProfessorF.com).

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