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User-Generated Content – Is It Right For Your Brand?

A few years ago everyone got very excited about user-generated content. It’s what it says on the tin – content (such as blogs, tweets, videos, testimonials etc.) created by unpaid contributors such as customers, fans and employees.

Many companies have embraced user-generated content as a cost effective way of promoting their brand and products. It can be highly effective, especially when content comes from genuine consumers who feel passionately about your brand. For example, when a customer creates a Facebook live video sharing how amazing your product or service is and recommending it to their friends.

However, much of the user-gen content that exists these days lives in a slightly murky area between authentic user gen content and more contrived content that is initiated by the marketing department. A smartphone and a wonky camera angle doesn’t fool anyone – consumers are very adept at spotting when brand is trying to fake it!

Demand For User-Generated Content

Consumers are on the search for authentic user-gen content. They’ve become increasingly sceptical of advertising and paid for content: such as celebrity endorsed content, vloggers etc. As we’ve become more reliant on content – especially video – for making purchasing decisions, we’ve also become more interested in finding genuine recommendations and help in making those decisions.

Harnessing the power of user-gen content is an attractive proposition for the marketing department: all that free content that promotes the brand without any investment from you! However there are key considerations to address before spending your marketing budget on an all expenses paid holiday for the team! They are:

  • Lack of control – user-gen content might not say what you want it to
  • Lack of ownership – you can’t always use the content in the way you want

Let’s look at these points in more detail.

Lack of control can be a problem on a number of levels. The most obvious issue is when a customer is negative about the brand. Unfortunately this kind of user-gen content is the most popular. It’s called negative virality, we can’t resist sharing content like this.

Of course, the very nature of user-gen content means that whether your company invites content or not, it may be out there. However, if you actively promote and encourage user-gen content you must be prepared to manage any negative content and have strategies in place for handling it.

Not only can you not control what people say, the other problem is you can’t control who says it. If you commission a marketing video for your brand, a lot of thought goes into deciding how you wish to communicate and who tells your story. If you’re using actors or voice-over artists they will be selected to reflect your target audience and brand values. If you’re looking to work with celebrities they will also be chosen based on whether or not they’re the right brand ambassadors for your company.

With user-gen content you don’t have this luxury. Instead you are reliant on the ‘right’ users to promote your brand. There have been plenty of examples of brands distancing themselves from certain individuals or groups of late; sports star who’s tested positive for a banned substance, a group espousing controversial views, or even the President of the United States!

User-generated content can damage brand identities simply by having the wrong users promoting your brand.

The other key issue is that brands don’t own user-gen content, it’s owned by the creator or (more likely) the platform it’s on. This means it has limited opportunities for use by the brand, often restricted to specific channels like Facebook, YouTube and other social media channels. Therefore, brands can’t necessarily appropriate user-gen content for their own marketing campaigns; and if they want to, that free content suddenly isn’t free any longer. Consumers are well aware of the value of content and less likely to part with it for free.

Creating User-Generated Content

For these reasons many brands have started creating user-gen content for themselves. The trusty smartphone is wielded to film a quick interview or testimonial with a customer, a member of staff is roped in to explain how to use a product, or the CEO extols the virtues of the brand on Facebook Live.

While this approach can be used successfully in conjunction with other content – professionally produced videos, advertising and marketing campaigns – it is problematic. Often content lacks authenticity because it has been contrived; or the quality of the content has the potential to damage the brand.

Quality is not just about the technical know-how of creating an effective video – after all genuine user-gen content is often created by inexperienced people on their smartphones. Quality is also about ensuring that the key message is retained, that the video engages viewers, tells a story and results in actions.

Genuine user-gen content often achieves this because of the ‘real life’ element of the story. People relate to the person creating the content and that individual subconsciously identifies the key things that will resonate with their networks. Coming at user-gen content from a brand’s perspective can result in a story that’s what the brand wants to tell, not what viewers will engage with.

That lack of control and ownership of authentic user-gen content is often what makes it most successful – once brands try to take control they risk losing this authenticity and potentially create content that feels fake.

What’s the answer?

I think there are two sides to this. First brands need to devise strategies for handling authentic user-gen content; actively finding it, encouraging customers or fans to create it, promoting it and dealing with any negative virality.

Secondly, there are ways to tell ‘real stories’ without losing control of the brand image or creating ‘fake’ content. Professional video can be created with real people, whether they are employees, customers or anyone else. Those stories can be told in a way that retains their authenticity whilst also protecting the brand image and ensuring that key messages are conveyed.

Similarly, ‘real life stories’ can be told using actors. Just look at the success of the recent Sainsbury’s Food Dancing (Yum, Yum, Yum) advert using all the elements of user-gen content but with a cast of actors / dancers. As a result #fooddancing has gone viral with genuine user-gen content sharing photos, videos and engagement online.

I would suggest that a combination of all approaches creates video content (and other marketing content) that will meet the demands of consumers – for authentic and branded content – and ensure that brands have some control over their video marketing assets.

Below is an example of how we used real life stories, spoken by actors, to create a compelling video that has had over 250,000 YouTube views to date, and successfully raised awareness of the important issue of bullying. Brands can achieve similar results by telling their customers and employees stories in an engaging and inspiring way.

If you’re successfully using user-generated content to promote your brand and would like to share your experience, please leave a comment below.

Caroline Edmonds

Author Caroline Edmonds

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