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User Generated Content: Engaging Through Participation

Marketing is all about engagement.

Engage your audience with your message and they will respond.

But engaging doesn’t mean just capturing their attention—you need to get them involved in your marketing.

Because, in the immortal words of David Ogilvy in his famous 1982 ad, How to create advertising that sells, “It pays to involve the customer.”

User Generated Content (UGC) is one of the best ways to involve the customer. Let’s take a closer look at why UGC is such an engaging tool, its many advantages, and how to use its advantages most effectively.

User Generated Content: The Psychology of How It Engages

UCG covers a wide range of things. Basically, any time a customer creates a piece of content for your brand, that’s UGC. It could be a video showcasing your product, or a picture tagged to your social media feeds. Perhaps a blog post extolling your brand’s virtues, or even just a review of your product or company. Each one is created by a user, and thus is the very definition of UGC.

UGC works because it creates a sense of community. There are many factors that build a sense of community, with different systems using varying criteria and ratings. We’re going to focus on a classic theory by David McMillan and David Chavis that cites four criteria needed to form a strong sense of community. It’s compact, simple, and easy to relate to digital marketing. Here are the four things needed:

1. Membership

Quite simply, membership is the feeling of belonging. You users will feel a sense of community with your brand when they are made to feel like they belong. Membership is the feeling your audience experiences when they have invested into your brand by enjoying your content and, more importantly, creating some of their own. Now, users can’t have free reign in their membership. They need to know the boundaries of their relationship with your brand and how much influence they can have over it—which nicely segues into the next criterion: influence!

2. Influence

You hear a lot about influencers nowadays, but influence isn’t just limited to those people who show off new products or trends. Everyone on social media is, to some degree, an influencer. This is what UGC taps into, but more about that later). Influence is a conversation between your brand and your audience. And like all conversations, influence is a bidirectional concept: your brand influences your audience, and your audience influences your brand. Because as McMillan and Chavis point out, “Conformity [that is, being part of a community] is not necessarily synonymous with loss of personal choice…. This emphasizes the need to develop communities that can appreciate individual differences.”

3. Integration and Fulfillment of Needs

Appreciating the individual differences of your audience can reinforce the positive sense of togetherness that epitomizes a sense of community. And to truly feel a part of a group, everyone in it needs to get something in return from that group—to have some need(s) fulfilled. The need to come together, to share. The need to be heard. Again from McMillan and Chavis, “A strong community is able to fit people together so that people meet others’ needs while they meet their own.”

4. Shared Emotional Connection

Shared history builds shared emotional connections. The interesting part (and the one that makes community-building possible for brands) is that it’s not necessary for everyone in the community to have participated in the entire history, so long as they can identify with it. Because by identifying it, they help create new history in their future interactions with the group. These interactions and shared events strengthen the sense of community.

In short, McMillan and Chavis present a formula: contact + high-quality interaction = sense of community. UGC builds a bridge between your brand and your audience, allowing them to create many of these connections themselves through interactions with your brand. And what does your brand get from UGC? Oh, keep reading—and be amazed!

User Generated Content: Brand Benefits

According to a recent statistical survey, 56.8% of the entire world actively use social media. That’s about 2.9 billion people on Facebook, 2.2 billion on YouTube, 1.4 billion on Instagram, and 732 million on TikTok (with lots of assumed overlap). 99% of these users access their social media on mobile phones, meaning they always have access to cameras. Access to a camera is perfect for creating their own content!

One would think, then, that the benefit of UGC would be cost savings. That is, if your audience is making a good chunk of your marketing materials for you (because that’s what UGC is), then you don’t have to pay for it. It’s a valid point—and also true—but isn’t the only reason to support your audience in creating their own content.

One of the biggest benefits for championing your audience’s UGC is trust. It’s not fun to hear as a marketer, but 41% of users aren’t interested in content that brands post, with 36% not trusting the validity of that content (i.e., thinking it’s a lot of clickbait or spam). Shopify reports that 20% of users trust information that comes straight from brands, but that trust jumps up to 54% when that information comes in the form of online reviews and recommendations from peers. UGC increases trust of information by 170%.

Another advantage of UGC is authenticity. Almost all marketers (92%) think we’re creating authentic content, but because of their lack of trust in our information, only 51% of consumers agree. UGC, however, is 2.4X more likely to be deemed authentic by users. It makes sense, if you think about it from the consumer side: marketing folks make content to sell a product—it’s our job. But most UGC is created for the love of the product, as a way to show it off or recommend it to friends and peers. And these reviews have a major impact on our bottom line with 79% saying UGC highly impacts their purchasing decisions (vs. 13% of brand-created content).

One final thing that UGC adds to your marketing is engagement. Yes, it’s engagement inception: getting your users to engage by creating their own content engages other potential customers. It’s like an army of influencers. One study found 50% more engagement if UGC is used in social media campaigns, and a 5X increase in click-through rate if used in ads. Add a UGC gallery, and users will spend 90% more time on your website. UGC also forges a path for a 10% increase in conversions. That’s a lot of stats pointing to the importance of including UGC in your marketing efforts.

There’s one more stat we want to throw your way before moving into how to effectively use UGC to your brand’s advantage. UGC, as we’ve shown, helps users better connect to your brand—to find a sense of community with your brand. Once they have achieved that emotional connection, they have a lifetime value of 306% (signup req.) higher than average customers. In other words, users with a sense of community are going to stay a part of your brand’s community, and your sales will reflect that.

User Generated Content: 5 Tips To Maximize Its Value

After reading all the above, it may seem like there’s no point in creating your own marketing content. But that’s just silly. Your marketing content is the very stuff, the life blood, that infuses and informs any UGC that will be created. So, that’s the first tip:

1. Create killer user generated content

Your marketing content and collateral will be the main source of information for your users to base their own stuff on. You are providing the very foundations for their creations, the pieces they will digest and then reconstitute into unique ways to tell your story.

As you prepare your content, specifically the parts you know will be what your UGC creators latch onto, keep in mind some advice from filmmaker Andrew Stanton (Toy Story, WALL-E). He posits in his TED Talk to provide your audience with all the parts to your story without spelling out your whole story for them. To paraphrase, don’t spoon feed your audience 4, but rather give them 2+2 and let them work it out for themselves. By involving them in the story process like this, you are getting them engaged right from the very start.

2. Have a Plan

The one big thing you don’t do is go into this without a plan. You need to know in advance how and where you want to feature UGC. Use the stats from above to help focus and guide your UGC strategy (i.e., what you’ll use on social media, if a UGC gallery on your website is a viable option, etc.). One thing to note: never have “go viral” appear as part of your plan. Virality is something that happens to your content, not something you can plan for. Most planned viral concepts flop hard. Don’t be a viral flop.

One of the main reasons you need a plan is: your users need guidance. They’re not going to just create things; they need to know in which direction to head. According to one report, over 50% of UGC creators want brands to provide guidance on what type of content to create and share. That same report finds only 16% of brands are actually providing that guidance. You need to make sure your users have the foundation and blueprints to create the content you are looking for.

3. Be Transparent With UGC

You want your users to share their own UGC, but of course you need to make use of it too. Just like it’s part of your plan to guide your users into what content they should be creating, you need to also be clear on how you intend to use that content. If you’re collecting user photos for a gallery on your website, make it clear that’s what’s going to happen. If you want reviews to scroll on your homepage, then that’s what you need to solicit for. And if you plan to use it for multiple things (including unknown future plans), make sure it’s clear to your audience.

Spelling out how you plan to use the UGC is part of the guidance you’re giving your audience. It’s the “why?” asked when you say to your users, for example, “Hey, take a creative picture involving our brand”. This extra transparency creates more trust in your brand.

4. Collect Information

UGC has a secondary purpose which cannot be forgotten: information collection. In our previous discussion about how cookies and tracking methods are changing, we stressed the importance of first-party, opt-in data. Again, done with full transparency, you might be able to collect some valuable first-party information with your UGC.

Or, you might not be able to collect email addresses and seemingly actionable data, but by analyzing the UGC you will gain valuable product and brand insight. How are your customers actually using your product? What words or sentiments do they bestow upon your brand? This sort of market research is invaluable and can inform your future marketing materials.

5. Celebrate Your Users

Saying, “Thank you,” is always an important part of the UGC exchange. Ssince everyone wants to know how their work was received, it embodies the idea “fulfillment of needs”. That is, your audience wants to know their hard work was not just used, but also appreciated.

This is different from any other attention you were going to give the work (i.e., awards if it was a contest). This shows the human side of your brand. It acknowledges the conversation of influence between you and your consumers, is considered high-quality interaction (remember that formula from earlier?), and is a massive component in creating that shared emotional connection. It is the cherry on top of the “sense of community” sundae.

User-generated content is a gift that keeps on giving. It lets you extend your message’s reach, build up the trust between you and your audience, and create a true sense of community around your brand. It also can yield valuable insight into your audience and how they perceive and interact with your product and message. This can be used in creating new messages, campaigns, and products. It takes planning, but a strategic UGC initiative will unite your customers around your brand in an organic, cooperative, and (dare we say) fun way.

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