A No-BS Guide To User-Generated Content: Lessons Learned From 9 eCom Brands Killing It With UGC
1. What’s the secret behind the stellar reputation of brands like GoPro and Lush?
2. What marketing method do 60% of consumers view as the most authentic way to advertise?
3. What’s the one marketing channel you can see returns from, day after day, without endless micro-management of ad creative, budget and reach?
The answer is simple:
And just in case we’re not quite on the same page here, let’s start with a quick definition.
User-generated content (or user-created content) is defined as any form of content, such as pictures, videos, text or audio that’s been posted by users of online platforms, such as social media sites.
In a marketing context, this definition gets slightly narrower. User-generated content (UGC) promoting or sharing a product must come from non-brand accounts. This makes it different to traditional advertising campaigns because the creators of UGC are not paid for their work.
That’s the textbook definition - but what does UGC look like in the real world? Think any of the following:
- “Like, Comment and Share” competitions that require a user to expose the brand to their network in order to be in with a chance to win.
- eCommerce sites offering affiliate and referral links to regular customers that encourage customer-driven growth (“link in bio!”).
- Viral challenges, “tags” and trends on Twitter, Youtube and TikTok that revolve around the use of a specific product. A classic example of this is the “Share a Coke” campaign from the early 2010s, which saw customers rushing out to buy a bottle with their name on the label.
- Customer reviews - whether they’re photos, unboxing videos or written testimonials, reviews are an asset every business can benefit from.
UGC is a hot topic nowadays because it’s such a powerful marketing tool. Websites like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Youtube, and most recently TikTok are perfect platforms for businesses to encourage the creation of UGC that promotes their product. In many ways, it’s become more mainstream than conventional advertising.
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What’s Wrong With Traditional Advertising?
In contrast to marketing through UGC, traditional advertising uses “mass media to distribute commercial messages to consumers.”
Again, that’s a pretty clinical definition. So let’s talk about some concrete examples.
Business cards, billboards, fliers, and radio ads are examples of traditional advertising. Traditional advertising on the Internet is almost as simple: sponsored posts on social media, banner ads, and Youtube pre-rolls are the most common forms, but influencer sponsorships are included in this bracket too.
Now, on the surface, you might think these traditional advertising methods sound pretty good. Any marketing agency you get in touch with will likely want you to buy into one of these forms of advertising. They’re “traditional” for a reason. They’re the standard way to market a product. Doesn’t that mean they’re reliable?
They were... once.
But the digital landscape is always changing, and the old staples of digital advertising have lost the power they once held. There are a few reasons for this.
- People Trust People, Not Brands: This has always been true, even for offline marketing. Word-of-mouth is probably the strongest form of marketing a business can get. But this effect is multiplied 10x on social media. On user-driven sites like TikTok and Twitter, users are looking to read and listen to other users’ views on matters. Real people, with faces and names and identities. Not a faceless, logo-marked brand account looking to make a quick buck.
Most users skip ads without giving them a second thought. In 2017, a study by comScore showed that most social media users only focused on an ad for 5-6 seconds before moving on. How much shorter do you think that window’s gotten since then?
- You’re Just a Drop in the Ocean: People spend a lot of time on social media. They always have -and that’s not going to change any time soon. The average Instagram user is scrolling through dozens, hundreds, maybe thousands of posts a day, the vast majority of which they want to see. Imagine how incredible an ad would have to be to stand out in that sea of content, especially when you’re already fighting against the hurdle of that little ‘sponsored’ tag. Winning anyone’s attention in those circumstances is tough.
- Huh? What Was I Looking at Again…?: People’s attention spans on social media platforms are far lower than they were in the past. We’ve gone full circle: from the short videos of the early Internet to the long videos of the 2010s, we’ve looped back around to clips and images being the centerpiece of social media. Speed is of the essence - the reason users have moved away from platforms like Facebook and towards platforms like TikTok and Twitter is the increased speed of content. Traditional ads have failed to adapt to this change in consumption habits.
- We Are Social Animals: This is less about why traditional marketing doesn’t work and more about why UGC-led marketing does. The theory of social proof says that people will conform in order to be liked, similar to, or accepted by an influencing presence. We want to belong. But the urge to “fit in” with an account whose only physical presence is a logo is much weaker than the urge to fit in with your best friend or a hot young model. We assume that the people we like have good taste because we want to be like them.
Those are the common sense reasons why UGC is king in the marketing domain, but it’s not very actionable. So, with that in mind, let’s discuss a simple five-part framework you can adopt to encourage consumers to create great UGC for your brand.
The Anatomy of Great UGC
It all starts with learning the anatomy of great UGC, and our framework for guiding its creation.
For every brand that does good UGC, there are ten that do it poorly. And even though brands aren’t technically the ones creating UGC, they’re still responsible for it. The way the market talks about your product influences how people perceive you. Your success with UGC depends on how well you can influence & direct your followers to create quality content for your offerings.
This is an idea that, like all marketing, appears simple on the surface, and many are too lazy to think beyond a shallow approach to the topic.
But if you want to use UGC to its fullest - to increase sales - you’re going to need to think outside the box a little.
Long gone are the days where a lazy giveaway with the tags “like and share!” will attract anyone’s attention. Like everything on the Internet, consumers have seen so much of this that they’ve learned to tune it out.
And although monetary incentives (“leave a review for a chance to win $100!”) seem like they work, the return of UGC on campaigns like that are quite low, and rarely (if ever) yield the results a business wants.
Again, the idea’s just been oversaturated. Consumers get bored of seeing the same thing over and over again, and every “chance” they fail to win only makes that fatigue worse.
There’s no denying that monetary incentives like “leave a review for $10 off your next purchase!” work well as part of an overall customer engagement strategy. That’s why Loox lets you seamlessly offer your customers discount codes in exchange for reviews. However, for a UGC campaign to really go viral, it needs to be built on more than just the promise of financial gain.
In the case of competitions - the idea’s just been oversaturated. Consumers get bored of seeing the same thing over and over again, and every “chance” they fail to win only makes that fatigue worse.
If you want to do UGC right, you’ve got to be willing to dig a little deeper than most. But you won’t have to do it alone.
To start you off, here’s a proven 5-step framework for getting great UGC from your customers.
In each of the following sections, we’re going to show you exactly how to put each part of this framework to work for your brand. And if you’d like a little help getting started, you can download our free UGC Campaign Checklist by <email-form-alt-link>clicking here.<email-form-alt-link>
The market you’re in doesn’t matter. Your annual revenue doesn’t matter. Whatever the size of your business, the next five points are going to be of use to you… so read carefully!
1. Make Sure It’s Credible
UGC’s strength lies in how strongly peer pressure affects us. It succeeds where traditional advertising fails because it doesn’t always feel like advertising.
At its best, UGC feels like a recommendation from a good friend, someone we know and trust to tell us the truth. The authenticity of UGC is a vital part of its success. The importance of brand authenticity is well-established, and that’s doubly true when it comes to UGC.
Whatever plan to promote UGC you come up with, avoid making it too prescriptive or limiting for the user generating the content. You want it to seem as individual - and honest - as possible. Don’t suggest overly staged or set-up images or videos.
Just give your users a nudge in the right direction and leave them to do the rest. Otherwise, you’ll end up with a bunch of users posting the same kind of content… which is exactly the cookie-cutter feel that has turned consumers away from traditional advertising.
Credible UGC is authentic UGC. As the business owner, you have to be brave enough to let users generate the content that promotes you. You can’t control every part of that process.
And, as a matter of fact, it’s imperative to the success of your UGC that you don’t! Just as consumers have stopped following brands because of inauthentic content, they’re also starting to turn away from influencer marketing for the same reasons. This is because companies try to use influencers as a sort of manufactured UGC - thus killing the authenticity that sells UGC in the first place.
One brand that does a great job at getting credible UGC from its customers is BlendJet.
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BlendJet is an American D2C health & wellness brand that has served over half a million customers since launching in 2017. They’re a business we’ve worked closely with in the past: you can see a case study of our work with BlendJet here.
Coming up with UGC ideas for a blender business isn’t the easiest thing in the world… but BlendJet have embraced the tastes of their market and gone for an approach that’s responsible for some of the most genuinely credible content around.
While BlendJet’s IG feed is mostly homegrown content, they harness UGC through the reposting of Instagram stories instead - every day, they repost a few users’ Instagram stories that they’re tagged in.
This is a great way to show their followers that real people, genuine Instagram users, are enjoying BlendJet products and benefit from having the business in their lives.
And in a way, the subtlety of Blendjet’s resharing of customer Instagram stories makes their UGC seem even more credible. Remember: the less involved a brand is in the creation of UGC, the more authentic (and effective) it will be.
2. Make Sure It’s Engaging
This one’s a no-brainer.
Whatever the type of UGC you’re hoping to get, do your best to encourage users to be creative.
One of the biggest downfalls of the “Share a Coke” campaign was that it left little room for users to reimagine the concept of sharing their unique bottle - there are only so many ways you can take a picture of a Coca-Cola label.
By the time the scheme turned out to be a success, and users all over the world jumped on the trend, it had reached critical saturation and become stale. By then, nobody was looking anymore. It had gotten predictable, and predictability is boring.
So what can be done to avoid this happening to your campaign, without being too prescriptive in your approach? This is critical: consumers can tell the difference between brand-generated content and user-generated content more often than not, so there’s no point trying to game the process.
For starters, it helps to come up with a more interesting concept than “take a picture of the product.”
That worked for Coca-Cola back in the 2010s because it was still a novel concept, and, well… it’s Coca-Cola.
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But that kind of thinking won’t cut it today.
A common fallback companies use for UGC is “take a picture of the product… in an interesting place!” This is fine as an element of a UGC scheme, but (as the widespread lockdowns of 2020 and 2021 showed us), it’s not the most reliable fallback.
Instead, consider asking users to share their most novel uses of your item instead... or even ask for drawings or ideas that redesign/tweak it slightly to better suit their own tastes.
This one is useful because it serves the dual function of being market research too. Seeing all the different ways that real customers engage with your products can give you major insight into where you should take your brand next.
Don’t forget that customers like UGC. It shouldn’t be a struggle to figure out how to make it interesting for them. By and large, consumers prefer consumer-created content to the kind of ads marketing directors come up with, so pretty much anything that doesn’t actively damage your brand’s reputation is going to help.
One brand that does engaging UGC right is Fancy Sprinkles.
Fancy Sprinkles is a company who sells high-end sprinkles, edible glitter, dragees & many more decorative food items to help your baked creations look as good as they taste!
Fancy Sprinkles have cornered the market on engaging UGC through their resharing of the expert, Instagram-worthy bakes that people decorate using their products. Every few days, Fancy Sprinkles grab a picture of a bake they’ve been tagged in and repost it to their main feed, crediting the original baker.
As mentioned above, engaging UGC is any kind that gives incentive for customers to participate while at the same time appealing to their core motivations for following the business. Customers who shop at Fancy Sprinkles probably care quite a lot about the appearance of their bakes - meaning that they’re also probably the type of Instagram users to post images of their finished products! Tagging the company is an easy chance for people to receive validation for their hard work, especially if you win a spot as a repost on their page.
It’s not the most novel way to market decorative baking ingredients. But it still fosters engagement and incentivizes shoppers to produce UGC for them. Any brand looking to promote the creation of engaging UGC for their business can learn from this.
3. Make Sure It’s Replicable
This is hugely important if you want to inspire good UGC - in fact, it’s probably the most important one of all.
Since we’re all familiar with it, let’s return again to the “Share a Coke” example. One of the things that made that campaign pop off is how simple it was.
- Buy a bottle.
- Take a picture.
- Share a picture.
Good UGC should be as replicable and intuitive as possible because, at heart, humans are lazy creatures. We don’t want to do anything too challenging, even for social proof - the more friction a task creates in our lives, the less likely we are to do it.
This is partly why photos are such a big part of UGC nowadays. Taking a photo on a smartphone is easy (two button presses total). Recording a video is a little more work, but still doable. Writing a comment, strangely enough, is where a lot of people lose the will to participate.
Just look at the engagement on Youtube videos or Instagram posts, where likes far outweigh written comments. Without strong incentive (such as discount codes for future purchases), most customers are not going to take the time to leave a review.
And that’s a problem because UGC is only strong when it spreads. It takes 5-7 impressions before customers will even begin to recognise your brand, so getting in front of your audience repeatedly is crucial. Because of that, replicability is vital to UGC.
Now, just so we’re clear - you don’t need customers to love your brand so much that they get your logo tattooed on their bodies. Very few, if any, are going to do it for you… and the ones that do are probably going to be more trouble than they’re worth. So take a leaf out of Chipotle’s book and nip this in the bud before it’s too late:
Remember: great UGC should harness your customers’ imaginations and networks to do the marketing legwork for you. It shouldn’t be a chore, and it shouldn’t be boring. They should want to participate.
To help identify what makes replicable, inspiring UGC, think about the last internet trend you were inspired to take part in. For some of us, it’ll be the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, an excellent example of UGC harnessed to widen the reach of an ALS fundraiser. For others, it’ll be something like the Mannequin Challenge, or the Harlem Shake.
Think about these (or some other examples of effective UGC/viral trends that come to mind) and write down what made them effective.
Maybe they looked like fun.
Maybe they seemed easy to do.
Maybe you were introduced to the idea by someone you admired.
Identify the common traits shared between these examples and figure out how you can incorporate those things into your own advertising campaign.
One brand that has nailed replicable UGC is Wild Earth.
Wild Earth is a plant-based dog food startup that first rose to fame after being featured on Shark Tank.
The UGC they share on their page is pretty obvious: they repost images of their customers’ pets with the Wild Earth dog food beside them. Simple, straightforward - but it works.
While not the most novel or engaging way to encourage UGC, Wild Earth has nailed the replicability aspect of their campaign. Wild Earth knows three things:
- Their customers love their pets - why else would they buy them special dog food?
- People who love their pets love sharing photos of them.
- People who love their pets want other people to acknowledge how cute their pets are.
100% of Wild Earth’s market are pet owners. 100% of Wild Earth’s market love their pets enough to buy them special, fancy dog food. Because of this, sharing an image of their pet with said food is highly replicable and engaging for their desired market.
Just like how Qwertee customers naturally become Qwertee t-shirt owners, Wild Earth shoppers naturally become people who own Wild Earth dog food. And that makes sharing a photo of it super easy.
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4. Make Sure It’s Aspirational
Good UGC should be aspirational… in both senses of the word:
- Good UGC should not only be replicable, but make you want to replicate it. You should aspire to participate in it.
- Good UGC should stoke the desire for social proof and make a consumer desire to mimic it as a means of improving their self-image.
Most of the first reason was covered in the previous section, so we won’t hammer it too hard again here. But the second is new, so let’s dive deeper.
Like we said earlier, we’re driven by the urge for social proof. Humans do things in order to conform, to be liked and to attract potential mates. As social animals, it’s how we survived back in our Stone Age days, and it’s how we continue to network and form connections nowadays.
“Aspirational marketing” plays on this human urge by tying the concepts and uses of a product or service to the idea of who we want to/should be. This can be done by tying a product to the idea of physical attractiveness (health products often do this with youthful, fit, energetic models) or quality of character. Think of all the happy people you’ve seen eating salad in commercials and in photos, like this one:
This is how advertising works. And for the most part, there’s no problem with this. If you’re selling a product you think will make your customer’s life better, there’s nothing wrong with trying to make them think that.
We all want to better ourselves, and we’ve all fallen for this trap in the past where we buy a product because our peers think it’s cool, or because that celebrity we love is promoting it. Some of these purchases, we’ll go on to regret. Others, we won’t.
The easiest form of aspirational UGC is influencer marketing. While this has become less popular and effective in recent years, it’s still superior to traditional advertising in a number of demographics (the younger the crowd, the stronger the influence).
The trick to effective influencer marketing lies in tying your product to the desirable qualities of the promoter - you want the consumer’s lizard brain to think “if I use the product, I’ll look (and be) just like them!”.
This is why fitness influencers rep an endless array of supplements and pre-workout solutions. They probably only use one or two on a daily basis. But the brands sponsoring them want you to link their strong, athletic physique to their product so you’ll spend your money on chasing that association .
Another way to use aspirational marketing is to tie the UGC itself to the concept of aspiration. Having your customers share photos of your product in beautiful, aesthetic, or inspiring locations is a great way to tie ideas like creativity and sophistication to the public image of your brand.
For an example of how effective this can be, consider our client, Volant, who went from $0 to $2M in just one year by harnessing the power of social proof.
Volant Aroma sell essential oils and diffusers to customers online, making the wonders of aromatherapy available to everyone.
Oil diffusers aren’t the most visually exciting products. Especially nowadays, (most) oil diffusers just look like knock-off Alexas. It takes work to make them seem appealing. But Volant have turned the boring reputation of their product on its head through their brand-led marketing and the aesthetic unity of the UGC they repost.
In keeping with their brand aim to “help others enhance their lives through aromatherapy”, Volant strategically repost images that evoke a certain sense of calm, order, and minimalist bliss… images that possess the same tranquil quality a diffused oil does.
This puts the spotlight on the immense comfort and peace of mind their product can bring: a comfort many potential customers are looking for.
If you’d like to read more about Volant’s ethos and how they steered their business through the period of immense growth they experienced during 2020, you can read our case study on the business here.
5. Make Sure It’s Novel
Like with most methods of advertising, most consumers’ social media feeds are oversaturated with UGC already.
It’s such a good tool that most brands, from the biggest down to the smallest, have already caught on to its power and begun to harness it for their own products. That’s partly why influencer marketing has begun to stagnate. People have seen too much of it.
But like anything else, how well UGC-led marketing will work for you comes down to how well you execute it. There are good ways to use it - you just need to make sure there’s a distinction between your brand and the companies who do it more boringly.
It’s not enough to do the “post a picture of you with our product and we’ll share it!” bit anymore. Honestly, it’s not even enough to do the “post a picture of our product in an interesting location” thing anymore, even though we discussed it in the point above.
While it’s still a solid example of how aspirational marketing works, as soon as companies like GoPro got on that trend by reposting user-submitted images… it was dead in the water for smaller companies. It’s oversaturated now.
Ultimately, nobody can tell you how to come up with a novel UGC concept. It needs to be at least mostly unique to your brand, and as original as you can make it. Because of that, it’ll ideally come from either you or your team.
But if you’re really struggling to get going with this, if all you can come up with are the same stale concepts you see all the time on your feeds… give the following tips a try.
- Over a period of several days or weeks, make a list of 20 UGC concepts. You’ll probably get between 6 and 10 without much trouble, but you’ll have to dig deeper for the rest. Don’t stress if it takes a while, and don’t feel like you have to do it all at once. Ideas can either flow or trickle. The longer it takes one to come, the more likely it is to be unlike anything you’ve seen before. And that’s exactly the kind of novelty you’re searching for.
- Start taking notes of the UGC you see. What do you linger on/pay more attention to? What do you skip over? What traits are common between the duds and the successes, and what traits separate them?
- Start looking closely for UGC opportunities in the marketing of brands you follow. That could be comment-led competitions, requests for artwork or images, or even account takeovers between influencers. What examples resonate most with you, and what ones turn you off?
- Take a break from your work to do nothing for a while. And by “nothing”, we mean nothing. Not the kind of nothing where you scroll mindlessly through social media or binge something on Netflix. Turn your computer off, take off your headphones, and sit and stare into space for a bit. Let your mind wander. Oftentimes, our best ideas come from moments of stillness.
When it comes to creativity, different things work for different people. Sometimes “inspiration” is something we have to hunt for. Other times, it’s something we need to sit and wait for with an open mind.
Even in a business context, that random nature of creativity remains the same. That’s why it’s so important that you stay patient and consistent with your brainstorming and research. Eventually, an idea will come. You just have to be ready when it does.
There are lots of brands and marketers who do novel advertising well: chances are you’ve thought of a few already. Novel advertisements are the ones that stick best in our minds, after all.
But one company that’s killing the competition in terms of novelty is Finn and Emma.
Finn and Emma are an organic toy and babywear company. Every one of their products is handmade in Peru before being sold to customers who really love their children.
They’re not the first shop catering to a baby’s needs on the online market - but the unique breadth of their product range makes for an interesting Instagram feed, even without unique gimmicks to their posts.
Although Finn and Emma are just reposting customer images of their products (in this case, images of babies using the company’s baby toys or wearing the company’s baby clothes), this UGC becomes novel by proxy of the company’s own unique selling point… that the products are organic, handmade, and originate in Peru.
Posting images of their clothes being worn and toys being used by the children of actual customers is novel simply because it’s not typical.
Most companies would just skip the middleman and hire models to do that for them, robbing themselves of the chance to gain the credible, replicable, engaging, aspirational, and novel UGC Finn and Emma have!
If there’s something different about your offering, don’t be afraid to let it shine through in your UGC. When everything else is equal, novelty can be the one thing that separates you from the competition.
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Encouraging your market to create great UGC for your brand is easier said than done. But if you can keep our five-part framework in mind when designing your campaigns, you’ll stand a real chance at building a movement around your business.
With traditional advertising methods growing less effective, digital marketing becoming oversaturated and consumers burning out on “authentic” influencer shoutouts, UGC is the final frontier.
When we cut through the noise, the fact is that people trust people more than they trust brands. That’s why you have to:
- Empower your people.
- Let them advocate for you.
- Guide their efforts so that their work has maximum impact.
That’s how you’ll win the marketing game in the 2020’s and beyond.
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