User generated content is the new buzz word (or phrase) in online business. The mainstream adoption of social media such as Facebook, Flickr, Wikipedia and YouTube shows us a trend in online visitor expectations. These websites all allow people to put their own content online, make comments on other people’s content and generally interact.

The consequence is this: website visitors are increasingly expecting to be allowed to interact with all websites they come across. And with the competition increasing, it is easy for them to find what they want somewhere else.

This is user-generated content, and it can take many forms. Many of the large internet retailer websites, such as Amazon, allow visitors to review and rate the products. These retailers understand that user reviews can generate loyalty and attract new customers; it is the opinions of real people that real customers want to hear.

Other forms of user generated content could include wikis, forums and comments on blogs, in which people discuss products and experiences, and suggest new uses or accessories for your products, or new services they would like to see you implement. When visitors embrace these ideas, you will find that they are beginning to sell things for you.

One of the things many website owners are worried about is the effect of negative reviews or comments about their brand and business on the website. But it is these, or more accurately, the way in which they are handled, that truly build brand loyalty and protect your reputation. When someone reports a bad experience about you or your product on your website, you should quickly post an honest and personal response by a representative of your company, without the marketing speak. Not only will a poor customer experience be repaired, but new customers will be reassured that this is a company they can trust.

Remember: If someone posts something unreasonable or offensive, you can delete it.

The internet has always been about interaction and participation. The power of the social network for influencing and passing on opinions has always existed, but it was not always within a company’s power to influence it. People are going to interact through email, social network, instant messaging and so forth. Now, however, you can influence and join the conversation by incorporating it into your website.