Lebo Madiba
Lebo Madiba

The magic in user-generated content

by Lebo Madiba. How can marketers leverage off UGC – and manage reputational risk?

by Lebo Madiba. We all know it, but it bears saying just the same: today’s consumers, many of whom have grown up in the digital age, are a super-savvy bunch. They know a marketing pitch when they see one – and telling them what’s great about your brand just isn’t enough. Consumers who navigate their relationships with brands through social media want to be able to engage actively with those brands – and they want them to be both authentic and relevant.

To paraphrase Einstein at his most insightful and irreverent, this is where the spooky magic of user-generated content (UGC) comes in. It’s the intangible component that enables consumers to become part of the story a brand is telling. But how can marketers leverage off UGC in a seamless way – and how do we manage reputational risk? These aren’t easy questions to answer.

Lessons from the social media streets

Alcohol brands are known for doing social media engagement particularly well, which can result in great interactions and vast, very loyal communities. On the other hand, it has occasionally found them on the receiving end of some rather unexpected and unprecedented consumer love. A case in point is Savanna Premium Cider, a brand whose early campaigns designed to stimulate the creation and sharing of UGC worked spectacularly well, making it the drink of choice for millennial party-goers.

More recently, though, Savanna found itself at the centre of a rather bizarre social media storm, which originated among fans and not with the brand itself. Over the festive season, fans started posting pics tagged #SavannaChallenge, which showed them posing with Savanna bottles on their heads. Cool. It wasn’t so cool when the Savanna bottle started to appear in more, well, suggestive images. UGC, it turns out, can be a double-edged sword. Especially with consumer brands, there’s pretty much no way around this, except that brands need to be hyper-alert to what’s happening on social media and need to respond to unforeseen developments timeously and appropriately. Above all, they have to demonstrate that they have a finger on the pulse.

UGC is a moving target and the only way to benefit from it and to manage potentially damaging developments is to be agile. It’s easy to say that, of course, but what does it mean in practice? We need to begin by acknowledging that UGC is created organically in social media and that, on occasion, the dialogue it generates isn’t initiated by or under the control of the brand. The content may or may not be aligned to the brand’s strategy or positioning, but it does create a high level of engagement on digital platforms. In the long run, if hiccoughs along the way are well managed, this level of engagement is a gift that keeps on giving. The storm will pass, fans will remain fans, and new, like-minded fans will find the brand if it’s perceived to be fundamentally authentic.

Improving sales performance

As importantly, when supported with other marketing interventions, UGC can dramatically improve sales performance. A study conducted by Comscore in 2012 found that professionally produced video content, when used in combination with or as a counterpoint to UGC, significantly improves sales effectiveness, lifting share of choice by 35% for the featured product, and by 28% for the product line as a whole.

On an emotional level, consumers who actively contribute to a brand’s narrative feel more involved with and connected to it, not only in the short term, but in the long term as well. Responding to consumers’ desire to be heard, creates a platform for an ongoing and important conversation. It also optimises ROI. As participants are producing the content themselves and engaging in a conversation of their own accord, marketing spend and effort – quite simply – goes further.

The real cherry on the cake is that this is a consumer experience that can’t be recreated by competing brands, which serves to neutralise the effects of copy-cat product development and marketing. As Peter Cassidy, the co-founder of Stackla, has said in a feature in Marketing Land, “Marketers (now have the power to) usher in a new era of customer-centric marketing (through which) consumers drive the brand’s message.”

Using the right tools for the job

Circling briefly back to the Savanna example, when managing UGC that isn’t aligned to a brand’s strategy and positioning, less is more. In the case of the #SavannaChallenge, the brand simply issued a formal statement saying it did not generate and wasn’t associated with the campaign. It also specifically stated that, as a responsible brand, it supported responsible drinking. Then it moved on, drawing attention away from the challenge with other band-aligned messaging.

Harnessing the power of UGC is evidently no easy task. Long-term results depend on brand agility and the ability to manage the brand’s reputation in a fluid and unpredictable environment. Today’s marketers therefore have to ask themselves some very hard questions. How far do we allow consumers to go in driving the brand’s message? Is UGC right for every brand? What happens if it all goes wrong? And their responses need to be as agile as the environment in which the brand exists.

Naturally, success depends on impeccable online strategy and equally impeccable creative work. But for clients whose brand equity and market share depends on keeping up with changing social trends, the reward of braving the unknown can be immense.


Main image credit: Image by Pixabay.



Lebo Madiba is Managing Director of PR Powerhouse, a brand builder, a content maven, and a technology enthusiast.




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