Invasive advertising just doesn’t cut it anymore. Advertisers pushed the envelope too far, too quickly, too many times, and now ad blockers and content curators are quickly gaining popularity to filter out all of the noise that fills so much online media.
Inboxes filter out more marketing emails than ever before. Banner ad click rates are so infinitesimally small it’s almost comical. Services like Netflix and YouTube Red are obliterating pre-roll video ads and mid-stream commercials.
From WOMM to UGC
The answer, for anyone who has asked a friend where he bought that new shirt, should be obvious. What really grabs consumer attention today are other consumers.
Word of Mouth Marketing (WOMM) is seeing a bit of a sudden comeback in the digital space, in the form of User Generated Content (UGC).
And the fact is, UGC works. It works really well.
According to AdWeek, 85 percent of consumers found UGC to be more influential than branded content. UGC is personal, honest and trustworthy — three things traditional advertising doesn’t often bring to the table.
It’s not blocked out by filters, and it doesn’t cost you a fortune.
Snickers Wins With UGC
Today, almost every major brand in the consumer space is working UGC into its strategies in some capacity, but here are a few examples that truly stand out.
Snickers stumbled onto marketing gold with their ongoing “You’re not you when you’re hungry” campaign. It used a simple premise, fast sight gags and globally recognized celebrities to create a ubiquitous slogan on par with Budweiser’s 1999 hit, “Wassup.”
But the magic really happened when ownership of the slogan moved from the brand to the consumers. Parodies and references started popping up across the web, cementing the slogan’s place in pop culture.
Share a Coke
Contrary to Snickers’ almost accidental success, Coca-Cola made advertising headlines with a deliberate UGC push in 2011.
The Share a Coke campaign featured personalized cans and bottles, challenging consumers to buy their friends sodas featuring their names. The campaign later expanded to feature more generic terms like Friend, Lover, Dad and Beautiful.
Launching alongside the meteoric rise of Instagram, Coke selfies were absolutely unavoidable. Those photos gave Coca-Cola content for social media posts and TV commercials for years to come.
And Then, Snapchat
For a final, truly unique, example, look at controversial social newcomer Snapchat.
Snap Inc. broke new ground in experiential marketing, by making content creation as simple as tapping a button. Stripping away the pretense and effort of Instagram and the wordiness of Facebook, Snapchat took over younger generations, creating a new world of consumers experiencing brands vicariously.
It should come as no surprise that Snap Inc. used their own UGC machine to promote its latest product, Spectacles.
The video-recording glasses are only available through colorful pop-up vending machines in major cities. The machines are hard to find and uniquely designed, which encourages early adopters to Snap their hunt for spectacles.
As an added level of brilliance, Snaps recorded using Spectacles stand out in user feeds, as a constant reminder that you’re missing out.
Think Experiences, Not Products
But you’re not Coca-Cola, and you probably don’t own your own content distribution network.
So what can every other brand learn from these successes? For starters, UGC requires a brand to think in terms of experiences, not products. If you aren’t creating something that people will be passionate about, they aren’t going to bother creating content about it.
It doesn’t need to be sexy or flashy (Pinterest is full of users constantly uploading photos of local lampposts), but it needs to feel important to them.
Think about what makes the experience you’re selling amazing, and your core consumers will believe you and share that passion.
Provide Tools to Share Your Content
Consumers report only 16 percent of brands provide the resources they need to create reviews and other user-generated content.
So give users the tools they need to share your message. In the case of Coca-Cola, the company wanted users to say, “Coke is a beverage I share with the people I love.” And so, it designed a can that gave consumers the ability to share that message.
That strategy might mean rethinking your packaging, or it might mean handing consumers a slogan or a motto that speaks to them.
Be Realistic – and Brace for Negativity
Be prepared to fail, and be prepared to accept negativity.
Not every consumer is going to respond to your brand positively. Not everyone will leave a five-star review. You could be a Domino’s, taking that negative feedback and using it to stage one of the biggest brand comebacks in history.
Or, you could be an Amy’s Baking Company — shutting out the negativity and closing down public opinion until you become a laughing stock. The choice, as always, is yours.
Set some realistic goals, and watch for users mentioning your brand in blogs or social posts, or tagging the brand in photos and videos online. Check popular conversations around major relevant cultural events and keep an eye out for penetration.
If you currently sell to 100,000 consumers, don’t expect 50,000 of them to create content around your brand unsolicited.
Your strategy, then, becomes pretty simple. Design an experience or a passionate narrative around your product. Give your consumers the tools to express their passion.
Take in the feedback and respond to it positively. Watch what your consumers create, and tweak your strategy until your message resonates.
UGC is not an overnight success for most brands – it’s a long road with a distant payoff — but it’s organic and powerful. The further consumers go to retreat from invasive digital advertising, the more important UGC is going to become. You may as well get started now.
Tim Howell is a writer and digital strategist focused on developing integrated marketing strategies with R2integrated in New York City. Tim has been published on or featured in articles for the Direct Marketing Association of Washington and AdWeek.