User-Generated Content: 9 Advantages & Challenges

Cheap? Effec­tive? Yep. But user-gen­er­at­ed con­tent can also cre­ate sig­nif­i­cant strug­gles for brands.

Lisa Lacy By Lisa Lacy. Join the discussion » 2 comments

The idea of co-opt­ing con­tent from con­sumers for mar­ket­ing pur­pos­es may ini­tial­ly be appeal­ing to brands in part because it’s a cheap way to source con­tent, par­tic­u­lar­ly when it comes to video. In the­o­ry, it also increas­es brand-con­sumer inter­ac­tion. Plus, every con­sumer with a smart­phone is a con­tent cre­ator now, which means mar­keters have a huge pool of con­tent to fish from. But there’s more to it than that.

Matthew Scott, senior vice pres­i­dent of busi­ness devel­op­ment and strat­e­gy at social influ­ence mar­ket­ing plat­form Crowd­tap, recent­ly cit­ed fig­ures from his firm that demon­strate user-gen­er­at­ed con­tent as a media chan­nel com­pris­es an increas­ing­ly sig­nif­i­cant share of time that con­sumers are spend­ing with con­tent over­all – indi­cat­ing that con­sumers are ever more recep­tive to it.

That’s pret­ty star­tling,” he said. “There are mas­sive media brands out there, but one [out of every] three sec­onds [is spent] on con­tent from friends and family…average every­day peo­ple. That sig­nals a seis­mic shift in terms of where we’re turn­ing for infor­ma­tion and where we see trust.”

But aside from cheap and plen­ti­ful con­tent, what oth­er oppor­tu­ni­ties exist for mar­keters when it comes to har­ness­ing the pow­er of user-gen­er­at­ed con­tent? And what chal­lenges must they con­sid­er? Here’s what Scott and oth­er mar­ket­ing experts had to say dur­ing Social Media Week.

User-Generated Content Opportunities

1. Gain Business Intelligence

User-gen­er­at­ed con­tent cer­tain­ly isn’t lim­it­ed strict­ly to mar­ket­ing pur­pos­es, said Eric Chan­ning Brown, vice pres­i­dent of com­mu­ni­ca­tions at social medi­al ana­lyt­ics firm Klout and social cus­tomer expe­ri­ence man­age­ment soft­ware provider Lithi­um Tech­nolo­gies.

In fact, brands can use var­i­ous types of user-gen­er­at­ed con­tent to derive intel.

We find it can be used for prod­uct ideation and inno­va­tion and to get com­ments back into the com­pa­ny for prod­ucts and ser­vices,” he said.

2. Cost Savings

In addi­tion, user-gen­er­at­ed con­tent can help com­pa­nies reduce ser­vice costs by com­pil­ing answers to com­mon ques­tions with­in online resources, which can help reduce calls to call cen­ters, Brown said.

We’ve found Com­cast has saved mil­lions by using user-gen­er­at­ed con­tent from peo­ple who are techy in the com­mu­ni­ty forum to divert calls to call cen­ters,” Brown said. “Oth­er users have encoun­tered the prob­lem and post­ed a solu­tion. It’s not just about cost-effec­tive­ness, but real cost sav­ings. If they’re sav­ing mil­lions in a call cen­ter, they can put more mon­ey and mar­ket share in sign­ing [con­sumers] up.”

3. Valuable Feedback

Feed­back via user-gen­er­at­ed con­tent also helps brands under­stand what is good and bad about their prod­ucts and ser­vices and, by asso­ci­a­tion, where there might be room for improve­ment, notes David Elkins, senior direc­tor of sales at trav­el review site Tri­pAd­vi­sor.

Reviews on Tri­pAd­vi­sor, for exam­ple, have a “lev­el of con­sis­ten­cy that is sur­pris­ing.” When there is a prob­lem at a spe­cif­ic loca­tion (e.g., the WiFi doesn’t work), it pops up in mul­ti­ple reviews. A com­mu­ni­ty of con­sumers can essen­tial­ly band togeth­er and indi­rect­ly bring about change for good sim­ply by shar­ing their opin­ions.

Or, as Elkins puts it, user-gen­er­at­ed con­tent gives a bet­ter pic­ture of a brand’s actu­al prod­uct or ser­vice, which could also help mar­keters do their jobs bet­ter.

Great jour­nal­ism is great jour­nal­ism, but one crit­ic ver­sus a world full of peo­ple review­ing con­tent [is not the same],” Elkins said. “I’m not say­ing a crit­ic can’t sway [con­sumers], but, over time, when you scale con­tent, you get the idea of the qual­i­ty of a prop­er­ty, restau­rant or hotel.”

Scott also said user-gen­er­at­ed con­tent is a good feed­back loop to brands and mar­keters.

Hote­liers live and die by hotel reviews,” Elkins said. “Mar­keters, brands and com­pa­nies have a great oppor­tu­ni­ty to learn about what makes their busi­ness­es suc­cess­ful or unsuc­cess­ful.”

User-Generated Content Challenges

4. Checking All The Details

Brands choos­ing to incor­po­rate user-gen­er­at­ed con­tent must be incred­i­bly care­ful they get details like sourc­ing right.

Michael Sadi­cario, chief rev­enue offi­cer at social media cura­tion tool Sto­ry­ful, points to a tor­na­do in Brook­lyn a few years ago. A pho­to that made the rounds, even from major news orga­ni­za­tions, was actu­al­ly from years pri­or.

In adver­tis­ing cas­es where peo­ple are using con­tent from oth­er users, [they have to make sure]: Was that per­son who post­ed it the orig­i­nal own­er?” he said.

Even major brands strug­gle with this. Sadi­cario uses the exam­ple of a post from Coca-Cola dur­ing the World Cup in which a trick shot video had about 500,000 views and then sud­den­ly shot up to 25 mil­lion views because P. Diddy’s team scraped it and put it in his pro­file.

In that case, Coke doesn’t care, but anoth­er brand would,” he said.

Per Sadi­cario, at the end of the day, brands using user-gen­er­at­ed con­tent have to also respect prac­tices com­mon­ly found in jour­nal­ism.

You need to make sure when you use it, you know every­thing about that piece of con­tent,” he said. “Using someone’s pho­to just because you tweet at them doesn’t give you legal rights.”

5. Having An Authentic Voice

Scott said brands must also make sure the voice they use with user-gen­er­at­ed con­tent remains authen­tic.

Mar­keters must also be care­ful to not post too many incen­tivized posts, Elkins said. He calls the prac­tice of hir­ing brand ambas­sadors with big social fol­low­ings a “slip­pery slope.”

If done right, it’s accept­able, but, if not, they lose cred­i­bil­i­ty and if you’re pay­ing [some­one] for some­thing when they don’t believe in the prod­uct, it will res­onate and shine through,” Elkins said.

6. Respecting Boundaries

Like any­thing in mar­ket­ing, there’s also a time and a place for brand mes­sages with user-gen­er­at­ed con­tent.

Think about it: the major­i­ty of con­tent [comes from] where peo­ple want brands to inter­ject and par­tic­i­pate, but there are oth­er places where they don’t,” Scott said. “It’s about under­stand­ing bound­aries and where [brands] have con­sumers’ unspo­ken per­mis­sion.”

7. Policing Content

Brands and mar­keters must also con­sid­er the issue of cen­sor­ship when deal­ing with con­tent sub­mit­ted by con­sumers.

Per Brown, it’s a com­pli­cat­ed issue when it comes to strip­ping out hate speech from con­sumer dis­course and so brands and mar­keters need to be care­ful when mon­i­tor­ing con­tent and com­ments.

It’s all about what kind of con­ver­sa­tions do we want to have? Just because a com­menter dis­agrees with you, doesn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly mean it is hate­ful or harass­ing you,” Brown said. “So we have to make smart deci­sions about how we define those terms and what that means.”

Tom O’Brien, nation­al adver­tis­ing direc­tor at blog com­ment host­ing ser­vice Dis­qus, said brands and mar­keters don’t nec­es­sar­i­ly want to sti­fle debate by remov­ing com­ments alto­geth­er.

You want to have an inter­est­ing dia­log and debate, but let that live and breathe and be sure you can mod­er­ate and con­trol, but let peo­ple have a con­ver­sa­tion,” he said.

Gen­er­al­ly speak­ing, com­mu­ni­ties tend to police them­selves any­way.

8. Keeping It Legal

Brands and mar­keters must also ful­ly con­sid­er all legal impli­ca­tions of using con­tent sourced via user-gen­er­at­ed con­tent.

In the case of a Time Out New York con­test that asked users to sub­mit food pho­tos, Michael Kel­ly, senior direc­tor of mar­ket­ing at Time Out North Amer­i­ca, said it was about mak­ing sure the legal lan­guage was clear and the right to use read­er pho­tos was clear­ly com­mu­ni­cat­ed to con­tent cre­ators. How­ev­er, he notes it was still a bit nerve-wreck­ing as the win­ning image was print­ed on the cov­er of the mag­a­zine, which meant once it went to print, there was no going back.

9. Storytelling Via Curation

When sourc­ing con­tent via hash­tag, Sadi­cario notes brands have no con­trol what might be post­ed, but if the brand adds restric­tions to what actu­al­ly appears, the feed is lim­it­ed and could end up just being a bunch of tweets with no pic­tures of videos, which is clear­ly less inter­est­ing.

Try­ing to tell a sto­ry around the brand, that takes human cura­tion, which is a chal­lenge in a real-time sce­nario,” Sadi­cario said. “You have to have peo­ple who are trained about how to tell a sto­ry.”

Kel­ly agreed that there has to be some lev­el of cura­tion as well as an ongo­ing pro­gram that rewards par­tic­i­pants with some kind of cred­i­bil­i­ty or access for their efforts.

Like, for exam­ple, when Time Out is build­ing out its blog­ger net­work, it taps small food and drink blog­gers to help cre­ate con­tent.

We can’t eat and drink our way through the city all the time,” Kel­ly said.

Successful User-Generated Content Campaigns

In the afore­men­tioned Time Out New York con­test, Kel­ly said, “It was a bit of a test about what kind of qual­i­ty we would see, but we were real­ly, real­ly pleased. We had well over 1,000 entries and they were high qual­i­ty. It was a lot of work for the edi­tors to judge.”

The brand also gen­er­at­ed buzz via Insta­gram.

We were proud of that in our evo­lu­tion as a brand. Print is a big part of what we do and to bring it into the fold and bring in dig­i­tal and social was a real­ly nice case study for us,” Kel­ly said. “We see as the next step, bring­ing users in in a curat­ed way and com­bin­ing the plat­forms.” Klout Perk Destiny

Image Cred­it: Klout

For its part, Klout did a pro­gram with immer­sive video game Des­tiny in which it offered a Klout Perk to 20 con­sumers with large reach in the gam­ing indus­try to build buzz pri­or to the launch, which meant send­ing three cans of Red Bull and a copy of the game to those users so they could “get hopped up on caf­feine and see who [they could] kill,” Brown said. The pro­gram end­ed up with 177 mil­lion impres­sions and 18,000 pieces of user-gen­er­at­ed con­tent.

It was not incred­i­bly cre­ative, but had a reach of 3 mil­lion peo­ple,” Brown said. Dove beauty sketches

Image Cred­it: Dove

Final­ly, O’Brien points to Dove’s Real Beau­ty Sketch­es as anoth­er inter­est­ing exam­ple of a suc­cess­ful user-gen­er­at­ed con­tent cam­paign.

While the ini­tial pro­gram end­ed sev­er­al years ago, the con­tent was archived on a microsite – which incor­po­rates a Dis­qus fea­ture – and com­ments are still com­ing through even though the pro­gram hasn’t run in two years, O’Brien said.

It’s an unbe­liev­able cam­paign. Those users are react­ing to the brand. Dove didn’t pay them,” he said. “It’s just tremen­dous earned media for that brand.”

What are some oth­er advan­tages or dis­ad­van­tages of user-gen­er­at­ed con­tent?

Lisa Lacy

Written by Lisa Lacy

Lisa is a senior features writer for Inked. She also previously covered digital marketing for Incisive Media. Her background includes editorial positions at Dow Jones, the Financial Times, the Huffington Post, AOL, Amazon, Hearst, Martha Stewart Living and the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund.

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