In recent years, a growing number of brands have learned to adopt user-generated content or UGC in their digital marketing strategy. How can today’s businesses make the most out of this new breed of marketing materials? What parameters will allow them to use these to promote their offerings effectively?
Until recently, branded content has always been the object of thoughtful planning by digital marketers, the product of tedious collaborative effort of professionals. A team composed of a marketing specialist, copywriter, graphic designer, and an art director would work together, and their output is supposed to be elegant, precise, and consistent with the brand’s image and marketing messages and objectives. Today, however, we are seeing a new breed of material that seems to be bound by different parameters, but which brands now liberally publish on their digital marketing platforms: the user-generated content (UGC).
UGC refers to any form of media created by end-users or consumers that is available to the general public or other users through industry websites and databases, or more popularly these days, through social media. The content can range from written materials, such as blog entries, forum posts, and reviews, to image-based or audio-visual files such as photographs, GIFs, video clips, or audio recordings.
UGC’s rise in popularity is the result of a number of factors, foremost of which would be the exponential growth of the use of mobile, which had become so much more ubiquitous and affordable in the past decade. Many of the youth nowadays own a smartphone, something that would have been considered a luxury at their time by the generation prior. Moreover, internet access – especially through mobile devices – has increased all over the world, along with people’s tech savvy: gradually, they are learning the “rules” and how-to’s of publishing their material on the internet, such as how to do quality control before posting, how to use different editing apps, where to post, and how to boost their content.
Still, different consumers possess different degrees of media production skills, so that the content they create come in varying levels of quality: there are carefully written articles with accompanying well-shot photographs, or thoughtfully composed memes featuring original artworks. And then there are rough cut amateur videos with a lot of background noise, haphazardly typed tweets with spelling and grammatical errors, and low-resolution photos with caption in textspeak – in fonts that had been carelessly picked, too – strewn about the image. Ten years ago, these would not have been approved for official distribution. But the understandable flaws of user-generated content – in terms of composition, execution, etc. – are redeemed by its other value: the high potential for engagement, owing mostly to the notion of authentic marketing.
But the authenticity of UGC comes not only from its having been created by the users themselves; more important is how it is unpaid for, but serves the purpose of marketing a brand or its offerings just the same. This makes it the online version of word-of-mouth marketing, although not necessarily created with the intent of promoting, especially because today’s users are becoming allergic to blatant sales pitches. So, when a satisfied gourmand goes to a restaurant and crafts an unsolicited post about the experience – with food photos, of course – on Instagram, that is UGC that the brand can and should take advantage of.
To make the most out of UGC, however, brands still need to stick to a number of content distribution principles based on a thorough understanding of the context in which user-generated content flourished.
First, rigorous verification mechanisms need to be put in place, to ensure the legitimacy of the user account whose content will be reposted. While being compliant with pertinent privacy laws, marketing professionals should conduct a fair amount of research to check whether the account has a track record that might harm the brand, such as links to a competitor brand, a history of publishing false information, spam, hate speech, or graphic content, and a general perception among users as not trustworthy. For the last point, they must not be individuals known for accepting payments in exchange for favourable posts.
Second, brands should prioritize certain types of UGC over the others, based on their marketing objectives and target segment. Videos, in particular, are known for driving traffic, and appealing especially to the young consumers. As Facebook predicts, video will account for 70% of mobile traffic by 2021. In addition, marketing professionals should pick content that look good when accessed via mobile, which is how most people connect to the internet these days. These figures should not, however, deter brands from displaying UGC that their target market may be keen on, such as long reads, for academics or the elderly.
Third, the deployment of user-generated content should be about engaging ordinary consumers in a conversation. Beyond reposting the material in question as a one-off marketing move, brands should be ready to reach out to consumers, discuss ideas relating the content and the company’s products and services, and modify their offerings – perhaps even organize specific events – in response to the user’s message. In short, marketing officers should be able to think in the long-term, and conceptualize campaigns out of a UGC. Particularly effective are campaigns that tell a story that consumers can relate with and contribute to.
Finally, thoughtful curation is key. With mobile use being the context in which UGC thrives, it is important to think of users as quickly scrolling with their fingers to the bottom of their feeds, looking for something new. That said, digital space should not be thought of as unlimited real estate, a smorgasbord where anything goes. There should be a limit to the number of materials that convey the same value proposition, and the selection must prioritize freshness, originality, and authenticity. Furthermore, all content should still fall neatly within the brand’s marketing message and overall image.