American culture is in the midst of a sea-change. Consumers are turning away from overly commercial and manipulative advertising and marketing and instead turning to brands that have a social conscience and an authentic persona. While the first is pretty easy to define, what constitutes an authentic persona is harder to pin down and largely is a “you know it when you see it” proposition.

This change, driven primarily by consumers 35 and younger, means that in addition to getting your message out there, marketers must also work even harder to craft a message that resonates in the first place. Consider this: 57 percent of consumers say less than half of brands produce content they find “authentic.” Nearly all millennial consumers surveyed (90 percent) say they prefer messaging that feels organic and genuine over the polished and perfected. And poor efforts at faking authenticity have consequences, with 30 percent of millennials (along with 16 percent of Gen X’ers and 11 percent of Baby Boomers) having unfollowed brands with content they deem disingenuous.

So what’s a marketer to do? If your target audience intends to shoot the messenger, how can you connect? This is where user-generated content can provide a key that unlocks audience engagement. From images and posts shared on social media to unboxing videos to forum Q&As, UGC helps brands by allowing fans and followers to vouch for the brand to their friends, family, business associates and others.

User-generated content is wildly effective. About three-quarters of consumers say UGC makes content feel more authentic, and the vast majority of buyers (92 percent) say they trust recommendations from people they know more than any other single form of advertising or marketing.

Not only does employing UGC in your content marketing efforts boost engagement (Facebook says user-generated content has nearly seven times the engagement of brand-generated messaging), for cash-strapped companies, UGC could be a critical money-saver, though careful monitoring of UGC campaigns is crucial, and you’ll learn more about that later. While UGC is best considered as an add-on or inspiration for branded content, there’s no doubting its effectiveness.

 

Give Them What They Want: 90 Percent of Consumers Are Influenced By UGC

While the general public has largely lost trust in institutions like businesses, government and media (in the U.S., trust in businesses fell from 58 percent in 2017 to just 48 percent today), the bulk of consumers still trust their friends, families and other consumers. The vast majority of consumers (83 percent in the most recent global survey) trust recommendations from friends or family, with two-thirds finding other consumer opinions also highly trustworthy.

That’s part of the reason why user-generated content is such a powerful tool for reaching consumers and cutting through digital clutter. It allows brands to amplify their messaging and connect with consumers who haven’t been targeted directly and who the brands might never even have known existed.

Think of it like dating. Meeting someone on an app or even at a bar certainly can lead to love, but being introduced through a friend means that not only do you have some things in common, but the friend who is introducing you is vouching for both of you and giving you each a reason to trust. That’s exactly what effective UGC does. Loyal customers and fans of your brand say to their friends, “You’ll like this. Trust me.”

Nine in 10 consumers say user-generated content is the single most important influencer on their purchasing decisions, outpacing both search engine results and promotional emails. The influence of user reviews, photos, ratings, and other commentary about products is even stronger with younger audiences. Ninety-seven percent of those under 30 said UGC was a factor in their shopping decisions.

Why do people like user-generated content so much? Because, like with playing matchmaker, it serves to vouch for a brand. Consumers say UGC makes them feel more confident in purchases (73 percent), creates a more authentic shopping experience (67 percent) and encourages them to engage with brands (61 percent). Again, the impact of user-generated content is even more dramatic in younger consumers: 81 percent of consumers under 30 say UGC enhances the authenticity of their shopping experience.

Not only is UGC effective at building buzz, authenticity and trust around your brand, its scalability means the return on your investment is huge. One reason why content marketing itself is so effective is it helps companies make a human connection to fans, leads and customers in a way no other single method of marketing or advertising does.

If you’ve got an effective content marketing strategy already in place, you no doubt have spent months or even years obsessively planning around your buyer’s journey and sales funnel. You’ve probably had dreams, or nightmares, about it. UGC allows you to step and repeat without redoing all your work. On Instagram alone, users post more than 50 million images per day. The potential to amplify your messaging and grow a fan base is simply too large to ignore.

Not only that, but with the prevalence of ad-blocking software (40 percent of those on laptops and 15 percent of mobile users employ it), your traditional digital advertising messages won’t even be seen by an enormous number of people. So user-generated content isn’t so much something that’s nice to have, but it may well be the price of admission.

 

How to Harness the Voice of the Crowd

User-generated content has a rather broad technical definition in that it’s any form of content created by an ordinary person to discuss their experience with a product, brand or service. But an effective UGC strategy generally includes ratings and reviews, photos and short videos, product-unboxing videos, blog posts and comments, interviews, quizzes, social media posts and comments, feedback, and Q&As and forum posts.

Remember those 50 million-plus Instagram posts made every day? Well, add 300 hours of YouTube videos every minute, 350,000 tweets per minute, 4 million Facebook likes every minute and the general deluge of content on the web. Even if you had the world’s biggest marketing team, there’d be no way to effectively harness all that positive discussion without a well-considered strategy. There’s a great, in-depth game plan here for employing user-generated content.

And while your specific business is unique, user-generated campaign planning should look something like this:

What do we want to get out of this campaign?

This is where you identify the specific actions you want end users to take — whether it’s retweeting a hashtag, posting a photo or commenting on a piece of content — and how you will use the retweets, posts or comments.

Who will you target?

You’ll need to pinpoint what segment or segments of your audience you expect to engage with the campaign. Targeted campaigns are almost always more effective than broad ones, unless you’re Coca-Cola. Not only do you need to think about which of your users you will target, but also consider who they will target. For instance, a staffing agency might need to consider a campaign that will appeal both to your users’ personal network as well as their professional one.

How will you administer the campaign?

Determine what methods you’ll use to promote the campaign, solicit submissions, gather the UGC (and receive permission to use it) and (if applicable) repurpose it in branded campaigns.

What metrics will you use to gauge success?

This will depend entirely on the goals you outlined in Step 1, but figure out how you’ll measure the effectiveness of the campaign. For instance, increased engagement with your Twitter account or a certain number of clicks on calls-to-action.

How can we do it better?

Taking your metrics and knowing exactly how you ran the campaign, use the insights gained to improve your next UGC-driven campaign.

 

What UGC Can Look Like at Every Stage of the Sales Funnel

There are certain content pieces that really shine at only certain steps in the sales funnel or buyer’s journey. And while that can be the case with user-generated content, because UGC can come in almost any form, it really can apply up and down the funnel. Let’s take a closer look at what that could look like.

Awareness, Top of Funnel

At this step in your buyer’s journey, your target audience may not even be aware of your company and/or may not even realize they have a problem you can solve. But keep in mind that if this isn’t your first go-round with UGC, you likely can develop content that would come from a satisfied, repeat customer but that would appeal to someone at the top of the funnel.

  • Hashtagged social posts
  • Blog posts
  • Quizzes

Evaluation, Middle of Funnel

At this point, a prospective buyer is aware of your business but hasn’t yet made a decision about whether to buy. They are likely going to look at competitors and other solutions entirely, but repeated engagement with your content will indicate they are serious leads. While they aren’t yet ready to buy, content at this stage should push them in that direction, so UGC at this point should be more about why they should consider your product over others or not buying at all.

  • Forum posts
  • Ratings and reviews
  • Testimonials

Conversion, Bottom of Funnel

By now, your lead has decided on a product and is ready to make a purchase, so your focus should be making that as easy for them as possible and dissuading them from changing their minds. You want to create a sense of urgency, and this is where the power of user-generated content really comes into play: Remember that UGC boosts the authenticity of your brand by allowing users to “vouch for” your brand to others, meaning leads will become customers because they want to belong and they want to see the benefits their friends are seeing.

  • How-to videos
  • Unboxing videos
  • Case studies

When Keeping It Real Goes Wrong: User-Generated Content Case Studies

The success of any content marketing campaign, whether it includes user-generated content or not, depends entirely on your objectives. And while there sometimes can be an “all press is good press” attitude, UGC can backfire spectacularly if there’s not a strong strategy and effective monitoring in place. Here’s a look at some good, mostly good and downright ugly real-world examples of user-generated content in action.

Good: Aerie

Aimed at boosting body positivity and raising money for eating-disorder awareness, clothing brand Aerie’s ongoing #AerieREAL campaign encourages fans to post unedited photos of themselves wearing Aerie bathing suits, with the hashtag #AerieREAL. The campaign, which began in January 2014, was kicked off by Aerie’s parent company, American Eagle Outfitters, announcing it was going to stop using supermodels and digital imaging retouching in all its campaigns.

Since the campaign began, the company has donated tens of thousands of dollars to fight eating disorders, and the brand has seen sales rise consistently, including 20 percent growth in fiscal year 2015.

In an age of social consciousness and a yearning for authenticity, Aerie struck gold on both accounts.

Mostly good: Lay’s

Perhaps the largest crowdsourcing campaign ever, potato chip maker Lay’s famously started asking fans to “Do Us a Flavor” in 2013. In the original campaign, one lucky winner received a million bucks and all three finalists saw their flavor ideas put into production. The campaign was such a success, helping raise sales by 12 percent from the previous year, that it was extended, with Lay’s producing flavors like wasabi ginger and bacon-wrapped jalapeno popper over the years.

While the company initially saw an uptick in sales, many of the winning flavors don’t have the staying power of original flavors like sour cream & onion or barbecue and are quickly discontinued. In fact, only one of the contest flavors produced so far, biscuits & gravy, remains widely available across the United States. Still, the contests have generated enormous buzz, and for the contest winners, it’s generated life-changing money. Plus, shoppers could be more inclined to try new flavors if they believe there’s a real person behind it.

Bad: About a million big brands

One thing we didn’t tell you that you need to think about as you consider how to use UGC in your content marketing is to think long and hard about how your brand is perceived. For every company like Apple or Nike, brands that have enormous and devoted fan bases despite some potentially unsavory business practices, there’s a U.S. Airways or Comcast, brands that people have a burning desire to complain about.

So it always pays to be honest and objective about the public perception of your brand. Even for a company like McDonald’s, which feeds hundreds of millions of people every year, a hashtag campaign proved disastrous as Twitter users jumped on the opportunity to publicly trash McDonald’s. Other large brands, like JP Morgan Chase and even Entenmenn’s, have had similar issues, and it’s crucial to ensure the UGC you’re soliciting and featuring is inoffensive and positive, or at least constructive.

Think about the hashtags you want people to use, and be sure it’s clear to them exactly what you want them to do, whether that’s retweeting, tagging a photo, or something else.

 

Conclusion

Getting started with user-generated content could be as simple as creating a hashtag and seeing what social media produces. Or it could mean launching a contest and giving away prizes for really great content your fans produce.

Whatever your next steps, keep in mind the questions every UGC-focused campaign must answer, and make sure your plans include thorough and effective monitoring. Companies with existing content marketing automation likely will find it easier to integrate user-generated content, but there are several independent platforms and services that offer integration into existing platforms: Yotpo, TINT, ShortStack and Pixlee are just a few of the biggest players.

Your customers crave user-generated content, so you really have little to lose by giving them what they want. In an age of mistrust of institutions and a general rejection of overt marketing messages, UGC may, in fact, provide the magic words for engaging with your audience.