What do a Euro 2012 mascot, a photograph of emperor penguins, a recipe for Italian meatballs and the film Slumdog Millionaire have in common? The answer is a three-letter acronym that barely registered on the marketing dashboard a decade ago, but which has been a cornerstone of magazine publishing for centuries: UGC, or user-generated content.
All of the items in the last paragraph were contributed by readers to consumer magazines published by Immediate Media in the last year. Match of the Day magazine asked its pre-teen readers to design a Euro 2012 mascot; BBC Wildlife magazine founded the world’s largest wildlife photography competition; foodie title Olive publishes reader recipes; and Radio Times invited its readers to complete Barry Norman’s list of the 50 best ever British films.
And these examples are the tip of a content iceberg. Open almost any magazine on a high-street newsstand (or the virtual Apple or Kindle equivalents) and you will find a mass of reader input – letters, photos, real-life stories, competition entries, craft ideas, reader reviews and vox pops.
Look at those magazines’ websites and Facebook pages, and you will see the party continue online, in forum discussions, uploads and tweets. What marketers call UGC is the stuff of life to magazine editors, a vital part of a title’s DNA; the glue that connects the brand to its customers.
Better still, this content is innately social and often fabulously viral. It’s free or low-cost, it’s easy to generate, it’s PR-friendly and hugely attractive to the audience. So why, in 2013, is UGC still thought of as a novel concept in content marketing?
Are you telling or conversing?
Partly, it’s to do with the perceived role of a brand. Many consumer brands (whether soft drink, arts institution or financial services product) are still adapting from a traditional top-down communication model, to the more open exchange demanded by the social web. Where once they broadcast, now they must embrace.
By contrast, media brands are generally about the exchange of ideas; providing a forum for many voices. But why shouldn’t brands be forums too, places where consumers cluster around a shared interest, swapping ideas and inspiration with each other, and with the company that facilitates their meeting? (For those of a certain bent, it remains a lifetime’s ambition to have a letter published by The Times. What brand wouldn’t dream of attracting such devotion?)
Become a forum
A few brands are starting to latch onto these possibilities. Some ideas are simple: the magazine we are launching for garden centre group Notcutts features reviews of new products by real customers. It’s a little touch which adds a note of credibility, makes brand advocates of the reviewers, and forges a sense of kinship among readers.
Other executions are more involved. Last year we developed a Facebook app for our client Cineworld (over 300,000 Facebook fans and counting) to promote the launch of superhero movie Marvel’s Avengers Assemble. The app invited users to form virtual regional teams, and then post photos and comments to win prizes. Twenty thousand film fans took part, creating over 2 million page impressions, and helping Cineworld to the biggest slice of box-office revenue for the film’s opening weekend. Another client, the Royal Opera House (ROH), uses social media aggregator Storify to collect tweets and photos from audience members at opera premieres, and recycles them into a first night ‘Your reaction’ blog on their website. The result is a rich piece of content, curated by the brand but in the unmistakable, trustworthy voices of real customers.
Why trustworthy? Because they’re not necessarily positive. The ROH’s first night blog of Eugene Onegin in February drew 43 comments, many of them critical (“In one word: disaster!” was one typically dramatic post). But having built a soapbox for users, the ROH has rightly resisted the temptation to restrict comment or even quietly delete the thread. My impression is of an organisation which respects its customers and doesn’t suggest it knows better – a bravemove that others could emulate.
The appeal of authenticity
But UGC goes well beyond reader votes and comments. Highly engaged users can create whole new tiers of marketing content. Last year Ikea launched Ikeafamilylive.com, a website enabling customers to upload photos of their homes and comment on their styles. Alongside Ikea’s own roomsets, you can now browse shelving arrangements created by Monika in Poland or Eline in Belgium on a Pinterest-style mood board.
UGC works as well for fashion brands as for interiors. Asos.com has a ‘Fashion Finder’ tool, enabling fashionistas to show off their style to the world (and visitors to ‘shop the look’), while Burberry’s Art of the Trench website showcases hundreds of real-life trenchcoat wearers’ photos.
And the same trend is at work in the travel industry, with tour operators using customers’ photos and experiences to sell holidays rather than relying on a slideshow of brochure images.
“All our customers go to TripAdvisor to look at real photos of our hotels,” Alistair Daly of tour operator On the Beach told last year’s ABTA Convention. “We are trying to sell a dream but people are going off to see if what we are telling them is the truth. They need to see it for real.”
In all these cases, users are uploading content they’re proud of (their living room, vintage dress or holiday snaps from Mauritius, for example) back to the originating brand, adding depth and realism to those websites while seeding social interactions. A traditional marketing watchword – ‘aspirational’ – is being replaced by the more compelling ‘authentic’.
Switching the focus
UGC is a broad label, encompassing everything from a professionally crafted video to a tweet, and copyright issues need to be considered in many cases. But as brands adjust to a world in which we are all content creators, there will be a place for UGC in most marketing plans.
The rewards for brands that adopt it intelligently will be similar to the newsstand magazines that have long made reader content their stock in trade: loyalty, connectivity, PR and a reservoir of low-cost content. For content marketers, it is time to ask a new question: not what can we create for our customers, but what can they create for us?
Immediate Media publishes over 60 newsstand magazines from Top Gear to Homes & Antiques, with a combined brand reach of over 11 million UK consumers. The Branded Content team produces award-winning print and digital content which truly engages readers – see www.immediatecontent.com.
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