When a business or organization takes on its first social media project, the communications team typically worries about how to handle a deluge of negative comments or inappropriate content. Rob and I always tell people that what they should worry about is the exact opposite: namely, getting no participation at all.

If you are running a project that relies on user-generated content, you have already discovered how hard it is to get people to contribute that content. Whether you’re asking people for blog posts, videos or even photos (the easiest contribution to make, typically) you’re asking them to go to some significant effort in order to add their distinctiveness to your own. So most online community projects, particularly in their early days, rely on some combination of incentives to get fingers on keyboards, cameras into hands, and content onto the site.

When we do an engagement and promotions plan for a new social media project, we spend a lot of time thinking about different kinds of incentives — contests, recognition, events — as well as other hooks for encouraging contribution. But there is nothing like switching roles to make you see a challenge in a new way. Through experience as a contributor to someone else‘s site — the Harvard Business Review — I’ve discovered a whole new way to create value for your contributors: editing.

We typically think of editing as a service to the readers of a site, by making content as readable (or watchable) as possible. But quality editing is a tremendous service to contributors, too. Particularly in the fast-turnaround world of blogging, which requires people to write frequently and quickly, an editor can help turn the daunting prospect of writing a good, widely-read blog post into an achievable goal.

Why is quality editing such a compelling incentive for contributors? Let me use my own experience as an example. When I started blogging for HBR, it was purely for the exposure. But the editorial guidance I got from my editor, Scott Berinato, quickly became an even greater source of value.

Scott is an extremely experienced editor and writer who takes my decent posts and makes them much, much better: compare my first draft of a post about iPhones and impatience with the final version on HBR as edited by Scott. Some of the lines that got specifically tweeted — like Patience is a virtue. There’s not an app for that. — were Scott’s, not mine.  And while Scott often makes significant changes to my work, his edits consistently capture what I think of as my voice and message. In fact, when my husband read the iPhone piece, the line he specifically complimented me on — the “what, you don’t?” — was, once again, Scott’s.

Scott’s skilled editing motivates me to contribute by providing benefits like:

  • Efficiency: I can write my blog posts more quickly because I don’t have to obsess over every turn of phrase or feel like I’ve completely nailed the post. Even if I feel like it’s only about 80% of the way there, I ship my post off to Scott because I know he’ll be able to fix what I couldn’t.
  • Reputation: My audience and impact has grown because my posts for Harvard are much stronger.
  • Trust: Because I trust Scott’s work I don’t need to get into a long back-and-forth over every edit; and when I make changes to his changes, he usually accepts them.
  • Learning: Getting Scott’s feedback on my pieces for HBR has improved my writing across the board, since I now hold the rest of my blogging to a higher standard.
  • Inspiration: Scott has suggested post topics and occasionally asked me to cover emerging stories, which encourages me to tackle new areas I wouldn’t have considered.

Editors like Scott can help you elicit exactly the kind of content you want: high-quality content from thoughtful, informed contributors. Contributors who care about the quality of their posts, videos and photos will deeply appreciate your help in getting from good to great.  For editing to be a real incentive for contributors, it has to be:

  • Accurate: Your contributors need to know that you’ll correct any spelling or grammatical errors or flag any issues that need fact-checking. They know that you’re protecting their reputation by keeping them from looking silly.
  • Deep: You have to offer more than copy editing. Your editors have to immerse themselves in the text or video that’s been contributed, and think about how to get the message across in the most engaging and effective way. That may involve some rewriting, recutting or requests for additional/different content.
  • Skilled: Your editing has to make the content better. Sounds simple, but I can’t tell you how often I have worked with editors or collaborators who make my work worse.
  • Timely: The faster you can get contributions posted online, the better. If it takes you more than a week to get material posted — and that’s with solid editorial attention, not a quick scan and approval — then you’re going to lose contributors.
  • Tailored: A good editor connects with the voice of the content creator, and revises the content in a way that’s consistent with that voice. But not every editor connects with every writer or videographer, so you are more likely to make a great editorial connection with your contributors if you can do a bit of matchmaking or experimentation to ensure a good fit.
  • Sensitive: Your editors’ work is to support and strengthen your contributors’ work, not redo it. Your editors need to be tactful and constructive in the way they provide feedback, and contributors have to feel like they have the final word over their content (or at least the option to pull it if it no longer meets their own standards).

If this sounds like a major investment of time, money or effort on your part, you’re right. But content contributors are a lot like customers: it’s easier to keep the contributors you have than it is to recruit one. And when you offer great editing, you build your best contributors’ commitment, loyalty and output.