Studies show that consumers trust user-generated content. How can marketers make UGC work for their brand?
On her weekly box of ugly fruit and vegetables from Imperfect Produce, Rachael Samuels noticed a hashtag. It appeared next to a writeup asking customers to take a picture of their produce and post it to social media under the hashtag #cookingugly. Samuels’s initial reaction was not to post, but she kept reading. For every photo posted, Imperfect Produce donates five pounds of food to people in need. It sounded like a big impact for such little effort, so she took a picture and posted it online.
“Not only do I know how my [user-generated content] is going to be used, I also know that it’s going toward something good,” Samuels says. “It’s not just self-serving for more people to buy their products.”
User-generated content (UGC) is content created and posted by users online. Samuels, manager of social media at Sprout Social, often works with UGC, sharing what customers have said about Sprout products, as well as tips, tricks and tidbits from the social media management company’s events. Samuels says that she wants Sprout’s UGC to show that the company stands for open communication, that being real and empathetic are the best ways to connect with an audience.
Sprout Social and Imperfect Produce aren’t alone in using UGC, and it’s proved to be effective in engaging audiences. Nielsen found that two-thirds of consumers trust the opinions other consumers post online. And although influencer marketing campaigns have been ascendant for the past few years, a report from Stackla finds that consumers deciding on a purchase find UGC 9.8 times more useful than influencers. Additionally, Salesforce finds that ads featuring UGC get five times more click-throughs than ads without UGC.
To run a UGC campaign—or better yet, have a UGC mindset—brands first need a story.
1. Find Your Story Theme
Telling a story unifies the unique consumer voices with the brand voice, Samuels says.
Sprout Social’s story is about open communication and empathy, but a brand’s story can be about anything. Consider Imperfect Produce’s story—it’s a subscription box company that wants to quell food waste, so its story frames consumers as role players in reducing food waste. Brands such as REI and Patagonia (both outdoor gear retailers) have stories involving being outside in nature and protecting nature’s resources.
These stories all relate to the brand, but also start consumer conversations. Their stories aren’t arcs, plots or endings—they’re themes. These story themes can be invaluable in guiding what kind of UGC fits with the brand and the tone of its posts online.
Along with a centralized story theme, Samuels says that it’s a good idea for the brand to have a hashtag that centralizes UGC.
“If everything’s aggregated underneath the hashtag or a location tag, that makes it so much easier to find,” she says. “It also makes content so much more discoverable and more likely to catch on.”
2. Know Where the Emotion Originates
Good UGC often expresses a feeling. In a 2019 paper published in the Journal of Marketing Research, Shiri Melumad, J. Jeffrey Inman and Michel Tuan Pham found that consumers who create UGC on smartphones create more emotional content than those who create content on PCs. The physically constrained nature of smartphone screens drives consumers to create shorter bursts of content that focus on their overall experience and how it made them feel, the researchers found.
“To the extent that firms are invested in learning about their customers’ genuine emotional reactions to their product or service, our findings suggest that it would behoove them to focus more on content generated by customers on their smartphones,” says Melumad, an assistant professor of marketing at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.
Content created on smartphones is more emotional and more positive. Researchers found that consumers’ writing when creating UGC on smartphones was 10 times more positive than negative. “It’s kind of surprising,” says Inman, a professor of marketing and business administration, as well as dean for research and faculty, at the University of Pittsburgh.
To take advantage of this increased emotion, Inman suggests that brands use social listening programs to find what consumers are posting about the brand, as well as what device they’re using to post. Then, brands should consider giving more weight to the content posted through smartphones. People pay more attention to more emotional content online, Inman says, and tend to be better persuaded. Melumad says that consumers writing on smartphones are limited by the space, but so are smartphone readers, what Inman calls a “double-whammy.”
3. Ask Before Sharing
Samuels says that companies should ask permission before using UGC from consumers. Asking permission can prevent any hiccups or anger from people who didn’t want their comments shared widely. Asking also gives companies a chance to connect with people who create UGC about them.
“You should be asking about their experience and about their story and getting some details to provide more color and context as you share,” Samuels says. “I also think that not outlining expectations up front—asking for something with no incentive or no context into how their content is going to be used in return—can really suck.”
4. Cross-Promote and Share Adjacent Content
Cross-promoting with clients, consumers and others can be a great part of a UGC campaign, says Bernard May, founder and CEO of internet marketing company National Positions.
“Work by the philosophy of doing well by doing good,” he says. “At the onset of your cross-promotion collaboration, it’s a good idea to outline the order of operations and expectations. For example, [say], ‘We will write this article, share it on this site and link it to this page by this date.’ Strive for the same written commitment from the other party. This will help you find out from the beginning if this is a worthwhile collaboration. Remember: Your time is valuable.”
In addition, Samuels says that sharing brand-adjacent content can be a good way to engage consumers. Like UGC shared by the brand, this adjacent content—articles, videos, infographics and case studies by outsiders—should fit the brand’s story. She cites REI as an example; the company will frequently share articles on nature written by other people as part of its #OptOutside campaign.
5. Avoid Influencers
Influencers, while trendy, won’t lend the same credibility to a UGC campaign, Samuels says. Social media managers who find good UGC should always ensure it’s not coming from an influencer. They can come across as less authentic because readers may assume that they have been paid for their words.
To figure out who may be an influencer, Samuels says that she looks for the “#ad” hashtag on the person’s social media timeline. She also looks to see what else that person regularly posts about. If someone regularly features products in their posts, such as different kinds of soaps or scrubs, Samuels says that she worries they may be an influencer and will appear less genuine.
6. How to Start a UGC Campaign
Unlike marketing campaigns that can take a metric-based, studied approach, May says that you never know what may inspire discussion from your audience. A well-guided UGC approach, therefore, will take some experimentation.
“So, start talking,” May says. “Not every topic or question will resonate and not everybody will agree, but just getting the conversation started is a huge success.”
May suggests testing your UGC by posting a question to each social media platform to see how the audience reacts.
“You may have just found the best platform to gain UGC for that particular topic.”