It’s easy to think of user-generated content (UGC) as a fairly recent trend. However, while the term has only been around for the past 10 years or so, there’s nothing new about consumers sharing their views about brands, products or services in one form or another. The good old ‘letter to the editor’ is just one example of what could be categorised as UGC.

One the simplest ways to define UGC is as “media content created by users to share information and/or opinions with other users”*. When we consider UGC in this way, it becomes clear that there are numerous options for creating and disseminating this kind of material.

It’s easy to think of user-generated content (UGC) as a fairly recent trend

The reason UGC has exploded into our collective consciousness over the past few years is down to the increasing proliferation of tools and channels for producing and sharing this content. As a marketer, it’s important to be aware of the varied ways in which people are now able to communicate brand-related judgements and feelings to the world.

This blog is designed to make that task a little easier, by outlining some of the most popular UGC formats as we enter 2017.

Social posts

Even if you’re not the kind of person to rant or rave about a brand experience online it’s likely that you know plenty of people who do. In fact, the humble social post is one of the simplest and most widespread types of consumer commentary, but is often overlooked as a form of UGC.

While not as creative or eye-catching as some of the other formats on this list, social posts have the power to affect how other consumers feel about a certain issue or organisation. For that reason, they should never be overlooked by marketers seeking to manage or enhance their brand’s awareness and reputation.

Forum posts

Discussion boards and forums are a concentrated form of social media, where people with similar interests gather to share information and opinions on a certain topic. Brand-related comments made in these environments have the potential to do even greater harm or good than in a general online setting, as they are likely to resonate more strongly with such a focused audience.

Discussion boards and forums are a concentrated form of social media

Blogs and microblogs

It sometimes feels as though every person and their dog is a blogger these days. It’s hard to gauge exactly how many people post regularly, but Statista data suggests that in October 2016 there were over 300 million Tumblr blogs alone. In the face of this outpouring of opinion and commentary, you could be forgiven for wondering how much of it holds any value.

Proportionally, only a relatively a small number of bloggers will ever build an audience worth talking about, but research suggests that those who do will exert great influence over their readers. One study found that 84% of consumers make purchases after reading about a product or service on a blog. This tells us is that blogs are a very powerful form of UGC, which is why so many marketers include blogger outreach as a key part of their marketing communications strategy.

Proportionally, only a relatively a small number of bloggers will ever build an audience worth talking about

Reviews and ratings

Customer reviews are ubiquitous these days. Some sites, like TripAdvisor and Amazon, have built their business model on this kind of feedback, which has the power to make or break a business. I, for one, will rarely buy something without checking to see if it has been reviewed by someone else. While I maintain a healthy dose of scepticism as to the origin and veracity of individual comments, I do think it’s possible to gain a fair impression by looking at trends and aggregated scores.

I’m not alone in using reviews and rating to gauge whether something is worth my time and money. Research by eConsultancy suggests that customer reviews are 12 times more trusted than similar information provided by manufacturers, while a study by Reevo showed that reviews produce an average 18% uplift in sales.

I’m not alone in using reviews and rating to gauge whether something is worth my time and money

Of course, we’re not just talking about text-based reviews; many consumers choose to share their thoughts through videos uploaded to the likes of YouTube. These include everything from traditional reviews to product unboxings and ‘how tos’ and can take the form of short snippets or fairly lengthy ‘programmes’, and everything in between.

Because it appeals to both sight and sound, video is a particularly powerful medium that can capture and hold people’s attention more effectively than mere words. My own research, conducted for my MSc dissertation earlier this year, showed that video-based UGC has a noticeable effect on brand image, brand attitude and purchase intention, with negative comments having a stronger effect than positive.

Parodies

The spoof advertisement, or parody, is up there as one of the most sophisticated and creative forms of UGC, and tends to be reserved for the world’s most loved or hated brands. Traditionally produced by professional media entities, such as Saturday Night Live and Adbusters, the rise of social media and increased access to desktop publishing tools have allowed consumers to get involved in the fun.

McDonald’s and Starbucks are just two examples of companies that have been at the sharp end of consumers’ wit over the years, as people vent their frustration and antipathy through humour. At the other end of the spectrum, the much-loved Cadbury gorilla advert generated numerous spoofs that led to the original version being named as the UK’s favourite advert in 2007, helping to promote the brand even further.

Product suggestions

Some people choose to make a distinction between content that is created organically by consumers and that which is actively encouraged by the brand. While I don’t personally agree that UGC is a term that can only be applied to brand-stimulated consumer content, it is important to remember that companies do not have to be passive by-standers in this process. In fact, some of the most successful brands are going to great lengths to foster this kind of engagement.

It is important to remember that companies do not have to be passive by-standers

For a great example of this kind of activity, look no further than crisp brand Walkers ‘Do Us a Flavour’ campaign. Launched in 2006, the initiative has been rebooted several times, generating millions of suggestions and driving the brand to commercial success.

Images – photographs, memes, animated GIFs

If you keep even one eye on social media then you’ll know that visual content – such as photographs, memes and GIFs – is on the rise. InfoTrends predicts that consumers will take 1.2 trillion photos in 2017 alone. Around three quarters of those will be shared online, with many being brand-related in one way or another.

Socially savvy companies, like Brompton Bikes, are taking advantage of this trend by creating reasons and opportunities for consumers to share images that present brands in a positive light. That could be through competitions and giveaways, or simply by giving people an opportunity to have their work featured on a high profile public forum.

The tip of the iceberg

These are just some of the most widely used UGC formats around today, but this list is by no means exhaustive. In reality, there is almost no media format that hasn’t been appropriated by consumers to share brand-related views. From podcasts and listicles, to video game modifications and fan fiction, the options are continually changing and expanding as technology and channels evolve.

If this sounds a little daunting from a marketing perspective then the best advice is to think of this as you would any communications activity. Consider which type of UGC is strategically best suited to your business and concentrate on that particular area. For B2B businesses that could be blogs, whereas lifestyle companies may benefit more from image-based content. Whatever you choose, the key is to know your audience and focus on stimulating the kind of user-generated material that is most likely to influence the way they think about your brand.

Consider which type of UGC is strategically best suited to your business and concentrate on that particular area

*Tang, T., Fang, E. and Wang, F., 2014. Is neutral really neutral? The effects of neutral user generated content on product sales. Journal of Marketing, 78(4), pp.41-58.

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