User-generated contentIt’s the year for user-generated content (UGC). We’ve heard that statement for the past five years, but the sheer number of success stories in 2015 suggest that 2016 could be the year that sees UGC get mainstream integration.

Some might have you believe that this has happened already, but as far as we’re concerned, it’s only being used by the major players, with small businesses still a little unsure of how it could work for them.

It’s an understandable concern. Their social media posts may well be getting only minimal engagement, therefore what is the likelihood of being able to make UGC a useful marketing tool? There are also the conceptual concerns surrounding whether or not UGC will translate into increased website engagement and higher levels of customer satisfaction.

There are other practical apprehensions too, in terms of moderating the content submitted by customers, as it is essentially out of an organisation’s hands what material will be generated by the public. However, while you can’t prevent a customer posting a negative review and nor should you, you do have the power to engage with the upset individuals to try and put right their grievances. It’s also within your control to thoroughly check any content that you’ve requested from customers, as time consuming as that can be.

However, it’s worth the effort, believe us. Some 70% of consumers now place peer recommendations and reviews above professionally written content, according to Reevoo. That stat alone should be enough to convince businesses to concentrate on “creating opportunities for content creation”, says Econsultancy.

We’re not sure the balance should be so heavily weighted in favour of UGC, but as a means of keeping things ticking along and ensuring a steady flow of content, UGC can be as crucial as Econsultancy suggests.

5 reasons why UGC is so important for modest-sized businesses:

  1. It allows you to keep up with the rate at which customers demand new content. Of the 86% of respondents who told the Content Marketing Institute they now use content marketing, 70% are creating more content than they did a year ago. That’s because consumers are demanding more new and original content than ever. UGC can plug the gaps so that your customers are not left wanting.
  2. Your business appears more authentic. Authenticity is everything these days. It enables people to relate to your business and marks you out as a reliable and trustworthy company.
  3. It gives you an insight into your customers. By having your customers generate content for you, it gives you some idea of the content they crave, allowing you to create your own unique content in tune with their tastes and wishes.
  4. Encourages a more personal bond between you and your customers. Asking customers for their input shows that you place them at the core of your organisation, making for a more personal connection. Also, if the Ben Franklin effect, which we touched upon in the penultimate paragraph of this post from last week, once again comes into play, one favour (or piece of UGC) could lead to another.
  5. Millennials love UGC. If stats are to be believed, millennials spend more than five hours a day, or a third of their total media time, with content created by their peers. So, if your target audience is in the 20-35 age range, you’d be wise to make UGC a priority.

How to generate more UGC

I think this is where most marketers hit a brick wall when it comes to UGC: trying to envisage how they will successfully encourage their customers to contribute relevant and suitable content. Especially if your analytics show that your current social media posts are not meeting original expectations in terms of shares and likes.

However, there are ways and means of coercing customers out of their shells that aren’t exclusive to big brands. Here are several tactics to try first:

1. Do your homework

These are the sorts of questions you should asking yourself before you start to ask customers for their input:

  • What type of content are your customers sharing organically?
  • What are the common characteristics of content that incites a conversation?
  • What segment of your target audience is most likely to share content about your brand?
  • When are your customers most likely to share content?
  • What hashtags are currently being used by your target audience?

It’s crucial that you glean a good idea of how and when your consumers consume UGC. Only then can you move on to discussing how exactly you will generate more UGC.

2. Head straight to Instagram

Instagram UGCIf you search the right hashtags, Instagram should prove a mine for high-quality, visually appealing content. If you’re an established brand, you probably need only to search for your brand name to find images of your product, posted by your customers. If you are a small business, however, there might not be many – any even – images to be found displaying your brand name.

That’s not a huge problem, though, as reposting brand-relevant pictures can have a similar effect in engaging your customers. It also gives you a chance to establish an official hashtag for your business – something that might not have existed before, which in itself will act as a platform to encourage customers to post more content.

3. Enable product reviews

Customers no longer need to buy blindly. Generally, regardless of the product, someone, somewhere will have reviewed it, which often acts as the deciding reason whether or not they purchase.

For whatever reason, small businesses have been a bit reluctant to give customers the opportunity to rate and review their products on their website, with only the bigger brands going to the effort of designing their websites with this functionality.

However, when you consider that 90% of customers say buying decisions are influenced by online reviews – according to Dimensional Research – surely it can’t just be big brands who would benefit by allowing customers to post product reviews?

Hootsuite suggests the key is to “let your customers display the product in the best light with photo reviews”. It gives the example of US clothes retailer ModCloth which encourages customers to snap themselves in the item of clothing, allowing other potential buyers to see with their own eyes the fit of the garment.

4. Create a competition

Nothing gets people to participate quite like a competition. Marketers have long used this tactic to generate shares, but there is the potential to take it one step further and ask customers to get creative with the promise of a prize for the best entrant.

As you’ll be asking a bit more from your customers than a simple share, the prize should reflect the extra effort and time they will need to contribute – otherwise they won’t bother to participate in the competition.

Make the competition worth winning, however, and you could find yourself with a bounty of great UFC at your disposal – which could be put to good use now and in the future – not to mention more engaged customers.

An excellent example: Starbucks

Starbucks White Cup ContestPeople can be quick to sneer at Starbucks when they try something new, but with 7.2 million followers on Instagram, they must be doing something right.

Starbucks made use of its huge pool of social media users and launched the ‘White Cup Contest’ back in April 2014. Customers were challenged with doodling on their Starbucks cups and submitting their creative endeavours. The winning entry was promised with having their design act as the template for a new limited edition Starbucks cup – a prize that saw nearly 4,000 customers submit entries in a three week period.

Upon announcing the winner – Brita Lynn Thompson – Starbucks took the time to interview her, detailing her lifetime relationship with art (“I’d doodle on my class work. My teachers would call my parents and I’d get a lecture.”) and quizzed her on what inspired her to come up with the winning design.

In doing so, the contest was elevated somewhat to more than just a competition – it became a story, with Thompson at the heart of it (making use of another content marketing trend, right there). Starbucks duly recognised this – in fact, it was likely their intention all along – and followed it up a year later with another interview with Thompson about how the competition had changed her life.

She said: “Even though it has been a year since I won the contest, it still all seems too good to be true. It almost seems like one day, I’m going to wake up and be back in my life before all of this happened – back to being just a normal girl who loves to create. But now that normal girl inspires people around the world. I can’t say thank you enough.”

Starbucks chose not to repeat the contest last year, but if it decides to resurrect it in 2016, we’d expect to see the number of entrants swell well beyond the 4,000 mark.

Conclusion

In the interests of keeping this post at a reasonable length, we’ve only elaborated on a handful of ideas for getting more content. Other ideas include leveraging the popularity of influencers – getting well-respected individuals to incite brand relevant content. Also, simply adding signage in your physical store(s) – comprising your social handles next to your official hashtag – can act as the nudge for users to submit content. It’s all about aligning all the customer touch points, of course.

As we see it, the key is to make customers feel like they have something to gain from submitting their content, even if those gains are not tangible per se. For example, if you send out a request for a brand-relevant image – with the best reposted – while they don’t get anything physical in return, they will get a bit of personal publicity; something social media users are rarely averse to.

Don’t make customers feel like they are doing you a favour, even if they are. If you manage to get this right, you can expect to see an increased social sentiment for your business, i.e. the emotion behind a social media mention.

Your customers will (hopefully) see the added time spent with them as a mark of your authenticity, which is what content marketing and UGC campaigns are all about: establishing a more personal bond with your customers – one which has mutual benefits. Your audience will have a greater sense of customer satisfaction, while you will yield the benefits of having customers that are more invested in your business.

As enticing as these benefits are, however, it’s important to remember that UGC doesn’t – or at least shouldn’t – replace your own thought leadership. See it instead as a way of overcoming your biggest hurdle: keeping up with the insatiable demand for content. The other obvious solution is to outsource all or some of your content marketing, but some are hesitant to do so through fear their brand message and voice will be diluted.

That’s why, here at M2 Bespoke, every client is assigned a dedicated editor – to ensure every article hits the brief. If that’s an approach that appeals to you, please get in touch on bespoke@m2.com or 01225 720 099.

Ben Hollom

January 13, 2016