The role of user-generated content (UGC) is becoming more prominent as brands look for an authentic way of communicating with consumers, increasingly jaded by traditional pushy marketing.
“Being able to show real experiences is very compelling,” says Rachel Hawkes, group head of social at travel business TUI, who believes UGC now “has a massive role to play”.
Indeed, a recent study by content marketing agency Headstream finds that 66% of people would prefer ‘regular people’ to tell a brand’s story rather than a celebrity ambassador (19%), its employees (19%) or the company’s CEO (10%).
“It puts things closer in reach for consumers as it is more authentic and therefore more trusted,” adds Hawkes. “People can imagine themselves in that situation far more easily than a beautiful picturesque magazine photoshoot. It’s a form of peer-to-peer recommendation, in a way, as people don’t tend to share photos of things they’re not happy with.”
Although UGC represents only a small percentage of TUI’s content marketing at present, she says it is “certainly going to increase over the next six to 12 months”, particularly as the brand has anecdotal evidence that UGC creates as high if not higher engagement across its social channels compared with other types of content.
UGC goes beyond social
UGC should not live purely within social media though, Hawkes stresses, so the business is looking for ways to integrate it across its website, digital advertising, retail stores and resorts (see Q&A, below). The group’s German market has run a UGC pilot at a number of Greek resorts, for example, which the business is looking to roll out across 50 resorts for the UK, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany over next year’s summer season.
As part of the pilot, TUI put up flyers with a call to action and a hashtag for each resort. Next, it enlisted a famous German Instagrammer to show customers how to create better content and find good locations for pictures and videos. “We then curated that content and displayed it on big screens within prominent areas of the resorts,” says Hawkes. “We had that at 11 resorts across Greece and saw a significant peak in mentions for the brand for a sustained period and higher engagement rates after.”
Indeed, the travel firm saw an average monthly increase of 45% in resort-specific social media conversations during the pilot. Ahead of the roll-out next year, the business is looking at how it can combine UGC with some of its own messages.
“If the screen shows 40 images and videos from our customers, we may also choose to display three of our own messages, which could be a call to action about a scuba-diving excursion leaving soon, a note from guest relations, or we could encourage people to download our app to enhance their experience,” says Hawkes.
“It’s partly to see if we can increase monetisation on ancillaries such as excursions and to really further enhance the customer experience in-resort,” she adds.
Travel is a popular topic for UGC, because as Hawkes says, “people love to share their holiday experiences”. But it is not just travel firms that are taking advantage of the opportunity.
Computer company Lenovo enlisted a vlogger to travel around Marrakech, documenting his journey on its latest tablet. Meanwhile, Vodafone worked with The Guardian to create Alternative Europe, a sponsored, crowdsourced guide to Turin, Lyon, Gothenburg, Ghent and Leipzig for its online travel section.
The campaign, which was created by the publisher’s content marketing arm Guardian Labs and is designed to promote Vodafone’s EuroTraveller service, asked readers to contribute their tips and photos through the GuardianWitness UGC website and Instagram, and enlisted local Instagrammers to capture their alternative perspective of the destination. So far, the campaign has attracted 200,000 unique users and 2,500 Instagram uploads, with 25,000 shares via social channels.
“It’s the tips that aren’t in the traditional tour guides that are often best and the success of this campaign has been as a result of the authenticity of its content,” says Simon McPhillips, head of brand at Vodafone UK.
Extending brand reach
While authenticity is key, the use of UGC also enables brands to extend their reach and provide a more comprehensive service – one of the main reasons The Weather Channel plans to increase its use, according to Chris Herbert, senior vice-president of growth products. “We’ve found over time and through a lot of experimenting that people are interested in a lot more about the weather than just an expert opinion on the forecast,” he says.
“They’re fascinated with the natural world, outer space and science, so there’s lots of categories we’ve been expanding into, but that said, we think UGC about the weather is actually the best content. We can’t be where all the weather is breaking, so we comb the social networks constantly to try and find great weather footage. Switching to that strategy has doubled our completion rates for our video.”
In the near future, he reckons users will be able to upload content directly and give the business their permission to use it. The Weather Channel also sees further scope for its ‘check-in’ feature, which allows users to confirm or reject live weather reports.
“We’re not always right,” admits Herbert. “Weather forecasting is hard and sometimes the app will say it’s sunny when it’s actually raining, so we give users the chance to say it’s wrong and take a picture of the sky, almost as a proof point.” The service will be particularly useful in parts of the world where the infrastructure for weather reporting isn’t as comprehensive.
“If we aren’t improving our forecast and storytelling based on what users give us, we’re not going to be relevant in two or three years time. It’s that important for us,” adds Herbert.
Clare Hill, managing director of the Content Marketing Association, agrees UGC is becoming an increasingly significant part of the overall marketing mix.
“It’s a continuation of how content marketing originated in the first place, which is really to ensure there is [scope for] direct conversations with the end consumer. I think UGC allows businesses to continue that one-to-one dialogue and create a loyal audience that is actually participating in the brand,” she says.
In addition to building credibility through authentic interactions, Hill says it enables brands to get closer to their customers and tap into real-time insight.
“It allows brands to respond in a very quick fashion to any challenges or crises that might be arising and can help to galvanise a particular business strategy or give insight into
what customers want before they start investing millions in research and development.”
UGC is becoming part of R&D
It is this aspect of UGC that sandwich chain Pret A Manger has found particularly beneficial, according to head of social and PR Julia Monro.
“We get around 2,000 comments on Twitter and Facebook in a typical week and the hardest part, once you’ve responded to people, is looking through all that content and working out what is a useful business insight,” she says.
By doing so, however, the brand has been able to introduce new products, bring back old ranges and adapt existing items by replacing particular ingredients.
“We’ve been able to change recipes to make them vegan, for example, after customers posted saying, ‘If only you changed the honey, we’d be able to eat it too,’” she says.
“They are very subtle changes, but we don’t have all of the answers all of the time. By making these changes, it means a product or range becomes available to a whole new set of customers.”
Rob Newlan, regional director EMEA, Facebook & Instagram Creative Shop, agrees that, done in the right way, “UGC can provide brands with a great vehicle to tell a story in an authentic, creative and relatable way, while still getting their own brand message across”.
He believes it works best when content is an extension of people’s natural behaviour or because it taps into something consumers care about.
To celebrate children’s creativity, toy brand Lego invited kids to build a ‘Kronkiwongi’ – which it defines as anything you can imagine – with its bricks and share it on Facebook. As part of the campaign, developed with Creative Shop, Lego then created a series of documentary-style videos.
“Lego was able to reach thousands of parents, delivering relevant content which successfully cut through and prompted people all over the world to make and submit their own creations,” says Newlan. “That’s when you know you’ve created something with real resonance and impact.”
How do you encourage people to generate content?
We’re fortunate being in the travel industry that people want to take photos of their holidays, so it doesn’t require much encouragement. We are focusing more on how we filter content. We’re planning to get a lot more sophisticated with that when we find the right long-term tool for us – that’s a process we’re just starting at the moment.
We’re looking at ways we can use UGC in-resort to enhance the experience and also potentially in our retail stores across Europe. We’re hoping to filter that through to our display advertising as well, so the use case is far and broad across the business and there are multiple stakeholders outside of social that have their attention on UGC and how it can affect their individual areas.
How do you measure the success of UGC?
As part of the RFP [request for proposal] process to find a tool, we’re gathering requirements from all around the business as we’re planning on having UGC across multiple touch points, so we need to make sure whatever tool we choose is able to help us succeed in our vision.
Part of that is about finding out what reporting and analysis [a tool] can provide, so we can start to learn when a certain type of UGC on our website, for example, is more or less successful than others. We can also then look to marry it up with our website analytics to see if it’s impacting on conversion.
Lenovo: using UGC to put its Yoga Tablet 2 in the spotlight
In order to raise awareness and consideration of Lenovo among tech trendsetters and travel enthusiasts, the computer brand enlisted vlogger Oli White to document an 18-hour journey through Marrakech using the Lenovo Yoga Tablet 2.
As part of the ‘Travel Your Way’ campaign White asked his fans to suggest things he should do in the city, which enabled him to promote the device’s key features such as its 18-hour battery life, 13-inch screen and high resolution rear camera.
Mike Etherington, Lenovo’s UK & Ireland marketing director, says: “By partnering with a vlogger like Oli, we were able to create a two-way conversation between him and his audience, while making sure that the Lenovo device had its place in the spotlight.”
Allowing White to own and lead the content meant it was more “authentic and credible”, adds Etherington, who believes the audience was more receptive to the Lenovo brand as a result, since it was “positioned as the facilitator of an amazing experience and beautiful content”.
The campaign generated 17 million impressions and 550,000 engagements, including 350,000 video views and an overall social reach of 2.5 million, through which Lenovo was able to grow its social community by 110%.