A few decades ago, marketing was somewhat of a monolith. The stereotype of “Mad Men,” heavy-drinking, suit-wearing professionals working in offices high above New York City’s Madison Avenue, is based in truth. But, then, advertising was done by specialized professionals. Today, it’s much more democratized.
Even business owners with a zero-dollar marketing budget can effectively advertise on social media. In addition, anyone can create decent-looking marketing materials using free creation tools like Canva.
It’s not only much easier for business owners and marketers to create their advertising collateral than it once was — many businesses’ customers actually create advertising materials for those businesses, whether prompted to or not.
User-generated content (UGC) is simply any piece of content created by a consumer, but featuring a business (or that business’ products, services, etc.).
Examples of User-generated Content
Let’s explore some examples of UGC. Platforms like Yelp and Google reviews are almost entirely composed of UGC. That’s Yelp’s whole value proposition and the reason why the platform has become so important and well-known. Someone visits a business, takes some photos, writes a review, and posts it. The whole review is UGC, made up of those different components.
You may already know that contests are a very effective tool in the modern marketer’s arsenal. They’re also a great way to generate UGC. For example, say you own a salon. You could make a post on Instagram explaining a contest you’re launching. This might go something like: “Post your best photo of the best haircut you’ve gotten at [salon name]. Tag us, share it to your story, and tag three friends. The person whose post gets the most likes gets their next haircut free, on us!”
Your customers will want to take and share these photos because they want a free haircut. Your benefit will be twofold. First, you’re getting visibility for your business — it’s free advertising (save for the cost of the haircut). Second, if you keep all the images, you’re collecting great UGC. People will want to share their best photographs so that they win the free haircut — you’re saving time and money on photography work by collecting those images.
To boil it down, any piece of content created by your customers is UGC. The primary benefit of UGC to you, a businessperson, is free advertising. The secondary benefit, if you choose to activate it, is that UGC can be a pre-made component of your paid advertising.
Usage Rights for User-generated Content
Before we dig into how you can further utilize UGC, we must address the elephant in the room: usage rights. That’s the issue with UGC — since you didn’t create it, you need permission to use it. Some folks might be happy to let you use their content, but others might take legal action if you don’t get the proper consent.
There are a few steps in getting usage rights for UGC. In a contest, it can be as simple as explicitly stating in the original contest information: “Please reply #share[Company] if you’re willing to let us use your photo. This means you have given us your consent to store the data connected to this picture and use your image.”
The key is always to ask! Send a direct message. If they don’t want you to use their content, so be it — other users will likely be happy to let you. Just as important is keeping a record of consent for any pieces of UGC you do end up using. Maintain a spreadsheet or a content management system that contains the content, a record of consent, dates, and how you use the image. Lastly, always give credit where you use the content, whether by using the person’s name, their Instagram handle, or whatever else is most relevant.
Using User-generated Content in Advertising
So you’ve gathered some fantastic UGC, and you’ve secured usage consent — now what? Simple: put it in your ads! Doing billboard advertising? Add a few photos taken by your customers. Running a Cartvertising campaign? Add a user quote from a Yelp review.
It’s really that simple. The simple fact is that using UGC shows the people who see your advertisements that you already have a solid, satisfied group of customers. Therefore, it lends validity to your marketing.
If you have the right content, you can also build a campaign fully optimized around UGC.
A major example recently was Coca-Cola’s “Share a Coke” campaign. They printed thousands of different names on different Coke bottles — it was somewhat of a game for their customers to find a bottle with their name and then post it. This is a little different than the type of UGC described above but shows how creative you can get with the method. They designed product packaging that would inspire people to create UGC, which became free advertising.
For small-to-medium businesses, the best use of UGC is to feature it in your ads to show that you have satisfied customers. Whether in grocery store advertising, social media advertising, or TV commercials, try it out! UGC is simply another tool in your arsenal.