I’m a sucker for user-generated content (UGC). I absolutely love it. Whether it’s getting some action shots of a product for a client, or tagging a freshly discovered brand in a glowing review (which I do far too regularly), my Twitter and Instagram accounts are an ever-changing billboard for my latest finds - whether it’s a website, coffee haunt, location or clothing retailer.

In my opinion UGC is one of the most exciting and functional tools an organisation has in their marketing swiss army knife. Recent research from leaders of the questionnaire world (Ipsos and Crowdtap) found that it is 50% more trusted than standard marketing wares when it comes to shoppers going ahead and purchasing, and over 20% more influential.. 70% of baby boomers openly admit they are influenced by UGC, while a staggering 84% of millennials (the fastest growing and arguably most important market for future sales), say it encourages them to trust a brand. What’s more (and perhaps most convincing for many) is that it costs relatively nothing and is available in huge abundance so why are so few marketers taking it seriously and capitalising on its potential?

User Generated

With any form of marketing you’re not selling a product, you’re selling the life it gives; how the buyer, as a person or business, will be affected. Apple understood this when launching the iPhone 6 and made full use of their huge pool of loyal buyers with an extremely successful campaign that ran across numerous posters basically everywhere. The push used real-life photos taken by (clearly talented and experienced) iPhone owners with just four words written across each:  “shot on iPhone 6”. The incredibly basic campaign adhered to the simplicity of iPhone’s wider branding and sold, perhaps interestingly, a digital product through traditional, print means. When thinking of the campaign on a personal level, I don’t remember what I saw online. I remember standing on a packed tube platform in the biting-cold, looking at an idyllic shot taken on the phone. And I wanted one for myself.

In this case, the users’ content turned them into real-life brand ambassadors for Apple. They weren’t saying how good a product was, they were showing it. And the iPhone isn’t the only product to take this path. Luxury chain Lowes Hotels ran a similar campaign earlier this year, with the tag #TravelforReal. In it, photos from real-life guests (sourced from social media channels) were used and transformed into promotional posters - a bold move for a high-end brand in a market that prides itself on crisp, professional shots. But one that worked well. If a picture speaks a thousand words, real-life shots of genuine, relaxed visitors are akin to several glowing TripAdvisor reviews, And far easier to read.

As we know, however, in order for a UGC campaign to fly it can’t just work for the benefit of the brand - where’s the fun in a photographer giving the rights to a shot away for free while a brand profits? In the case of Apple and Lowes Hotels, using posts (with the photographers’ permission) has an instantly mutually beneficial nature. The images were sourced from social media channels, by people who had wanted the public to see them. Each billboard and poster, seen by millions, had the social handles of the photographers on, meaning huge exposure that most can only dream of. It’s not so much 15 minutes of fame that shapes social media presence today, as much as 15 new followers.  

There are legal hurdles for brands  -if you don’t consider ownership rights, permissions and verify the actual photographer you can find yourself in deep water. Shoe brand Crocs, for example, posted a photo of a four-year-old girl wearing their product without seeking the permission of her mother (who had posted the picture on Instagram). The resulting publicity wasn’t positive. It’s here where doing your research, or working with external sources who can do it for you, makes all the difference.

User-generated content is an incredible and inspiring side product of modern technology; it’s this generation’s equivalent of telling your neighbour where you got your hair done and encouraging them to visit there too. Providing you have guidelines and best practices in place, the users are going to use and share en masse, Your job is to make sure you’re taking a leaf out of their book and make the most of it. After all, the users just want to be used.