Clarifying the vague rules of using user-generated content

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There's a growing debate on who owns UGC, who controls it and how to use it in word-of-mouth marketing

Statistics show that user-generated content (UGC) works because readers trust recommendations from the people who they know. In fact, a 2015 Nielsen study reported that 83% of more than 30,000 respondents across the globe said they completely or somewhat trust the recommendations of friends and family. And according to that study, trust isn't confined to only those in an inner circle; 66% said they trust consumer opinions posted online.

"Since user-generated content is produced by the customer rather than the marketing team, it rings truer and feels more personal than traditional marketing messages," says Cynthia Price, vice president of marketing at email marketing platform Emma. Price says that UGC in email messaging drives genuine interactions. "It's all about authenticity. A consumer is much more likely to trust a friend's Instagram photo of your hotel than the glossy, Photoshopped images they'd find in a brochure. Your audience is constantly being marketed to, and they can sniff out traditional advertising from a mile away. People crave authentic brand interactions and experiences."

A growing debate surrounding user-generated content, however, has reignited discussion about who owns the content, who controls it, and acceptable use of it for marketing purposes.

Who owns UGC?
Jeff Soriano, senior director of demand generation at UGC marketing platform Offerpop, says that, ultimately, the creator of the content owns the content. So, brands need to get owners' permission before using media that consumers post online and on social media. "No matter what form the content comes in, if a brand is looking to reuse or highlight any type of user-generated content for marketing purposes, every item needs confirmation of user permission," Soriano says. "Every company should consult with its legal team to determine the best way to secure customers' consent. However, many companies find success with tactics like guiding campaign participants."

Who controls UGC?
Once consumers have granted permission to brands to use their content, companies can leverage it to enhance brand stories and enter into natural conversations online and on social. Marketers need to simply let consumers knows how their content will be used. That can be done with simple reply to a post or tweet, Price says.

"Be clear about how you plan to use the content. For example, you can say, ‘We'll be featuring our favorites on our company's blog'," she explains. "It's a simple step, and more often than not, they'll be thrilled about the recognition and happy they gave permission."

Even so, weaving consumer-created content into brand-created marketing messages and campaigns remains a precarious strategy for wary marketers. "For brands that have never dipped their foot into the word-of-mouth marketing pool, consumer-generated content can seem scary because it takes all message control away from the brand," says Joe Rohrlich, SVP of global client success at Bazaarvoice, a UGC marketing platform that uses reviews, analytics, and targeted content to drive customer interactions.

"There is an inherent fear that the inevitable one-star reviews will negatively impact purchase behavior, but that's not the case at all," Rohrlich continues. "In reality, consumers who see brands respond to negative reviews in an effort to solve an issue are actually 186% more likely to purchase. In fact, 41% of consumers believe this is a sign that the brand really cares about its customers, showing that negative reviews are not something to fear, but to embrace."

How to ensure proper use of UGC
Marketers can take proactive steps to ensure that they've got support from consumers who create content and to guarantee that their company is following best practices industry within their perspective industries. Offerpop's Soriano says those steps can include creating a forum where users submit content, such as reviews, photos, and videos, and then accept company rules. It can also include soliciting the help of a third-party vendor to collect and manage UGC, and using a hashtag that social media followers can use to share their content and grant permission. He adds that companies can even comment on customers' online posts and ask them to respond with permission to use the posted media or comments.

Emma's Price says marketers should use specific trigger words to gain permission from consumers who are content creators to use their content in campaigns. "We like to use terms such as ‘highlight' or ‘feature' in regards to consumer content because it tells them that we are gaining permission, and just as important, we're selectively choosing their pictures or quotes from the sea of other content out there," she says. "We also make it clear that they'll be credited for the content."

UGC put to the test
Bazaarvoice's Rohrlich cites Cover FX as an example of a company taking a considered approach to user-generated content. The Canadian cosmetics retailer worked with Bazaarvoice to provide consumers with more effective ways to choose the right foundation shade for their skin tones while online.

"Cover FX collected thousands of customer images through an email and social media campaign entitled, ‘Make Your Own Beautiful' and encouraged their consumers to post selfies with #showusyourshade," Rohrlich explains."Thousands of images received were tagged to specific products and placed in galleries on each of the product pages as well as the site's Shade Finder page to help shoppers get a better idea of what specific shades look like on real people—not models — who have similar features."

The results, he says, speak for themselves: "Conversion doubles when consumers visit the Cover FX page and use the Shade Finder tool — and more than triples for those who click through to visit the site from email."

Emma's Price, however, gives this warning about implementing UGC strategies: "Almost anything that's put out publicly in the digital space could be considered content—but it's not necessarily all useful content," she says. "Putting your marketing in the hands of your fans means running the risk of those individuals producing low-quality content or, worse, content that puts out a negative image of your brand. So you have to be a smart curator of the user-generated content you use."

Gearing up for UGC
Bazaarvoice's Rohrlich says there are some things that marketers should consider before infusing UGC into bigger marketing plans. "Consumer-generated content is a fantastic tool to have in your marketer's toolkit, if done correctly," he says. "Before a brand ever tries to implement a UGC program, it's important to ensure that you have the right systems in place to not only help collect the content, but also to moderate it and do so in real time." Those tools include technology that can help marketers identify consumer-created content, sort through that content, gain permission to use that content, and then leverage it.

Ultimately, Rohrlich says, the best way to use user-generated content is to drive action across multiple channels for maximum results. "Think through and connect your user-generated strategy at all [interaction points], both in-store and online. That content should be placed to help impact the consumer's shopping experience," he says. "It's critical that all brands involved in the collection, moderation, and display of consumer-generated content do everything in their power to ensure its authenticity and create a great experience."

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