The golden rules of user generated content

Alan Kittle, Creative Director at Mason Zimbler and Strange & Dawson, recently took time out with Shane Casey, Head of Digital and archetypal creative technologist, to discuss the rise and rise of user generated content (UGC) campaigns.

Their strengths and weaknesses; the brands that get it right and those who just don’t; whether lines between user generated and user centred campaigns are being blurred by the arrival of social platforms like Pinterest, Vine and Instagram; to try and craft some rules for themselves when considering whether to recommend one to their clients.

Alan: Two more UGC campaigns announced recently, Shane – French Connection and Rekorderlig. Their popularity doesn’t seem like it’s going to wane any time soon. You know, whenever I hear a brand’s going to use UGC I tend to think of Charlie Brooker’s rant about the trend – I thought I’d dig it out to quote from…

“Hail the rise of “loser-generated content”; commercials assembled from footage shot by members of the public coaxed into participating with the promise of TV glory. The advantages to the advertiser are obvious: it saves cash and makes your advert feel like part of some warm, communal celebration rather than the 30-second helping of underlit YouTube dog piss it is.” Harsh?

Shane: Pretty harsh I guess, but then that’s what Brooker does best. There is truth in it though. Your audience has limited time and a limited attention span, do you really want to spend that on some user generated content that is probably only tangentially attached to your brand message and is probably not very good?

Alan: Well, yes, I’d like to think that a creative agency who have perfected their tradecraft over time would be able to more successfully answer a client’s brief – I genuinely can’t think of a user generated campaign that’s as memorable as anything Guinness, Honda or Nike has ran year after year. There’s a reason that we’re called an industry after all. The NHS wouldn’t let “DIY enthusiasts” design and build them a new hospital. I have the feeling it’s all well intentioned – a genuine attempt to connect brands and target audiences – but generally it’s well considered and well executed advertising that gets talked about “down the pub”. But that is, of course, “traditional” advertising which will always have a place – it’s just that there are so many options available to marketers these days that probably seem “cooler”.

Shane: Threadless, Doritos and Innocent have all run pretty successfully campaigns that essentially turned their users into marketeers with the promise of fame and riches. There’s no clearer example of Brooker’s point than that… hire an agency and they outsource the creative to the punters. Doritos even got some pretty funny ads out of it for their Super Bowl slots but I’m sceptical that it’s the best use of the most expensive thirty seconds money can buy. But maybe smart brands are the ones that know the PR and social engagement in the weeks either side of that spot are what you’re really paying for.

Alan: You’re right – the value for Doritos is in the accumulative interest they’ve built up by using the technique over a period of time. People were anticipating their spot long before the game itself. They’ve stuck to the strategy and I suppose they’re to be congratulated for it. UGC is clearly a modern phenomenon borne out of the ability to engage with users like never before – but just because you can, it doesn’t automatically mean you should. Take Mountain Dew’s idea to let users name their new product. The campaign was hijacked by “anti-establishment types” 4chan and the winning name was “Hitler Did Nothing Wrong” and runners-up included “Diabeetus” and “Gushing Grannies” – obviously the moderation of user generated content needs to be carefully considered!

Shane: Absolutely. It’s so easy to underestimate the effort – and cost! – of moderation for UGC activity. If your brand is associated with that content, you’ll be perceived as responsible.

I guess it comes down to what you’re asking your “users” to “generate” though, as to whether UGC is the right thing for your campaign. If you’re asking them to work for you, UGC can quickly turn into “advertising homework”. The way I see it, your audience have countless other possible ways to spend their time, so you better make the experience fun. They deserve that at least. If the effort required is too much or not actually enjoyable, there’s a risk of ending up with few to no submissions – or even worse creating bad will with the people you’re trying to engage!

Alan: I agree – the best UGC campaigns are those that feel natural for an audience to get involved with. Burberry’s Art of the Trench is a lauded effort because the brand knew that their customers loved showing off their purchases and went about creating the ultimate product placement platform – sharing images of themselves, wearing their coats, on what the brand called “a living document of the trench coat and the people who wear it.” It’s hard to argue against seven million unique site visits and the media it earned on top.

And that leads me to one of the other topics we planned to discuss; the arrival of more “visual” social networks like Instagram, Pinterest and now Vine. On the whole, the genuine quality content is being created by users not brands. Sure, there are some very strong case studies of brands attributing impressive sales figures through Pinterest – Sony Electronics for instance – but do you think the lines are blurring between brand generated and user generated content on these platforms and is that a good thing or not?

Shane: The lines are certainly blurring. Where these new social networks are flourishing is by making it easier to create content, as with Instagram and Vine, or to curate content with the likes of Pinterest and Tumblr. The former floods our streams with user generated content, the latter helps deal with the overload by allowing our contacts to process and curate that for us.

The brands that are using these new mediums most effectively are the ones understanding the users’ intentions and molding themselves to the culture, rather than trying to force their message. Sony’s Pinterest presence, for example, works so well because even though they pin their own products, the majority of their pins are things they’ve seen elsewhere that they think are cool – just like other Pinterest users.

Users of any social network have a personal affinity for the network they call “home”. It’s where they interact with their friends so maybe it’s more of a clubhouse. If you want to visit their space and tell your story, you have to join the club.

Alan: So with all that in mind, could we come up with some golden rules of UGC? Maybe things to consider before launching a UGC campaign for one of our client brands …

Shane: Okay, here goes …

Rule One: Ask yourself “why?”

Because the user definitely will. Don’t assume they’ll be interested – if they can’t see what’s in it for them they’ll vote with their (virtual) feet.

Rule Two: Failing to plan is …

Well, you know the rest. Consider the worst possible outcome of UGC and eliminate the risk with a measured moderation policy.

Rule Three: Do as the Romans do.

What’s most natural for your audience and what’s more likely to elicit the desired response from them? Don’t force yourself into someone else’s conversation – that’s just #rude.

Alan: Love them. Completely agree. And three’s the magic number – just ask De La Soul!

Alan Kittle is Creative Director of Harte-Hanks’ agencies Mason Zimbler and Strange & Dawson.

Shane Casey is Mason Zimbler’s Head of Digital.

  • Samkim32

    love the de la soul reference