How Can User-Generated Content Fit in Your Marketing Mix?

Every brand would love to see users create content for them of their own free will, spontaneously firing off endorsements and love notes to the social stratosphere and carrying the promotional torch to a new generation of rabid fans. It’s part of that oh-so-lucrative “earned media”.

As a Canadian, it’s inevitable that a few times a year I’ll participate in the sacred ritual of my people – attending a hockey game. One of the little highlights is the opportunity to tweet using a hashtag and then see my tweet broadcast up on the Jumbotron where thousands of others can gaze upon my wit and intellect:

“The Canucks? More like the CanSUCKS! ROFCOPTER! #FlamesNHL – @JoelKlettKe


And just like that, I’ve provided my team with some top-quality user-generated content.

Insignificant as that tiny interaction might seem, user-generated content remains among the most coveted types of content for marketers.

After all, every brand would love to see users create content for them of their own free will, spontaneously firing off endorsements and love notes to the social stratosphere and carrying the promotional torch to a new generation of rabid fans. It’s part of that oh-so-lucrative “earned media”.

In this piece, we’re going to answer the question:

How does UGC fit into An effective content marketing strategy?

First, let’s get a few things straight:

1. User-generated content is not “Free”,

Don’t let anyone try to convince you that it is. While it’s true that there are times a hardcore brand advocate will offer up a bit of free promo – say, for example, a beer-drinker who tweets out his pint of Heineken to the web at large, for the most part, UGC only has the appearance of being free after the systems have been put in place to foster it. There are processes and people in place that cost cash to keep it all going.

In most cases, trying to embrace UGC as a part of your strategy requires:

a) Management/Quality Assurance: You can’t control the feedback you get (though you can give it parameters and hope for the best). Inevitably, it’s going to be someone’s job to analyze, collect and evaluate user-generated content. For example, even my innocuous tweet about the Canucks was subject to analysis before it made it to the big screen.

b) Response: Different from collection and policing, user-generated content is only half of a conversation. Along with the creation comes an expectation that your brand (or your community) is going to recognize, respond to and reward that effort. This takes time and expertise (also known as $$$).

c) Incentives: As much as you may want to believe that your customers sit around doodling your brand name into their notebooks with a pink pen, the reality is that getting your community to create content requires usually requires them to feel like there is something they’re getting back in return.

Whether it’s fame, money, or some other prize (like a dream vacation or an iPad), people often need a push. And that’s because…

2. only about 1% of your market will actively contribute.

Forrester’s 2010 Global Social Technographics found that online behavior surrounding social interaction (which we can apply to user-generated content, because the two are joined at the hip) is different than one might expect: 90% will lurk, 9% will do something requiring a little effort, and just 1% will do something that takes time (as content creation does).

I believe it’s possible to change those numbers when you’re actively and heavily promoting an incredible incentive (like a dream job package worth $100,000 – something with an enormous universal appeal), but otherwise, it’s safe to assume people aren’t going to leap at the opportunity to snap photos of their messy bedrooms in hopes of winning a new vacuum.

But that doesn’t mean it’s hopeless. eMarketer predicts that nearly 155 million U.S. internet users consume some form of user-created content (though that does NOT mean create) – up from nearly 116 million in 2008. The company also estimated the number of user-generated creators will grew to 114.5 million in 2013, up nearly 50% from 2008.

The takeaway is that you should approach UGC with caution and temper your expectations: UGC can’t BE your content marketing strategy; but it can certainly play some important roles.

Why do people create content?

To get what that role is, it’s important to understand the motivations behind the people who are creating the user-generated content. There are a few fundamental reasons someone might be willing to invest their time and energy into putting together content about or for your brand:

Self Expression (Frustration/Elation)

Sometimes, a customer is driven to share or create content because your brand has evoked an emotion – either frustration (negative feedback), elation (you’ve really made their day) or alignment with a value or priority they hold.

It may be done to express a viewpoint on a product or experience (like a review, for example), or reflect an attitude they carry themselves (the guy tweeting photos of his Lexus).


Humans are a social bunch – we like to discuss with peers and chat things up. Sometimes, users are driven to create content because they’re fielding the feedback of others (your brand included). This kind of content takes the form of forums, discussion boards or unprompted chatter on company Facebook walls between fans and advocates.


As I mentioned before, user-generated content is most often prompted by some kind of incentive – be it fame, recognition or monetary gain. If you’re going to ask people to invest time and effort into creating something, they’re going to want something in return.

So with all that in mind…

How can you use user-generated content to your advantage?

As pointed out by the minds over at Econsultancy, one of the toughest things about getting user-generated content right is that it has to provide value to more than those who actively participate. Keep in mind that the majority of the market isn’t going to participate – but they’ll lurk or spectate. You’ve got to keep it worthwhile for the lurkers, turning UGC into persuasive, entertaining or positioning content.

Some thoughts surrounding the many uses of UGC while creating this value in the process:


UGC is a means of getting your audience to promote you to their peers in a way that won’t raise eyebrows – so long as it comes across as authentic. Contests and sweepstakes often include a promotional component (for example, a contest like the Casting Call run by The Gap), which then puts an incentive in front of the audience to share their created content with others.

Doritos handled this in a unique way: They incentivized their audience to actually create their advertisements for them (to the tune of $1 million) – not only attracting reams of content, but loads of promo in the process as users scrambled to get votes.

Social Proof

UGC is ideal because it’s authentic feedback; the kind of recommendations and insights that other consumers are less likely to tune out. Collected UGC like reviews, testimonials and even photos/videos of them using the product can be used at strategic points in the conversion funnel to reaffirm purchase decisions and alleviate feelings of risk.

Example: Rent the Runway, an online store where women can rent dresses, gowns and all kinds of designer fashions for a limited time period (Like, say, a wedding or prom). The company realized is that women were already creating user-generated content that they weren’t tapping into: Photos of the event they attended.


RtR made a serious push to get women to share their photos (complete with measurements and a written review), and turned it into a huge selling point for the site: Women can see other women with similar body shapes wearing the clothes they’re considering in real situations. It’s a HUGE bit of social proof that takes risk out of the purchasing equation: Members who view these photos were 200% more likely to make a purchase.

Another example is Warby Parker’s ingenious “Home Try On” program: The company ships buyers five sets of frames they’re keen on, encouraging them to snap a few photos and share them with their social networks to get some feedback on which ones look best. It’s brilliant because it capitalizes on something the market already wants to do and makes it easy to accomplish without an ounce of coercion.


The right user-generated content can be an integral part of the conversion process, with a unique ability to show customers that people just like them love your product/service and eliminate risks/pain points.

Community Building 

This is a bit of a fish eating it’s own tail: You need a community to make UGC work, but UGC can also be a hugely important part of building and sustaining a community.

A couple of examples so you can see exactly how:

1. QuiBids: Penny auction site QuiBids could be a case study in effective user-generated content. Penny auctions are complicated to understand, and there’s a difficulty in keeping long-term customers as people tend to show up for one great deal and then vanish. The solution? Keep ’em around with content -and QuiBids nails it in a few ways:

  • Content creation is incentivized in a way that’s meaningful to them: Vouchers and free bids. In a stroke of brilliance, QuiBids offers their community the chance for free bids in exchange for posting photos of their past wins, writing up reviews for the products they’ve won, creating video testimonials – and MORE bids for sharing all of that content to their social network and community pages.This has created a community of sharing and mutual celebration; people are excited to see who else is winning (which also builds enormous credibility in the process, especially given how ethically complex penny auctions are)
  • Community members are doubly-incentivized with “Fame”. QuiBids takes this content that’s created and turns it into community-recognition. They have winners of the week. They have a Pinterest board where users can see their photos shared with the community at large. The community is excited about their moment to shine in front of their peers.

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By recognizing community leaders and contributors, QuiBids creates suspense and tension – the chance to be like these people and a community eager and incentivized to share their activity (which then creates social proof and brings in new community members).

2. YouMoz: It’s the holy grail of online marketing publishing – if you manage to get your blog post published by Moz, you’ve made it. You’ve created something truly worthwhile in the eyes of the community, and now, you can revel in the approval of thousands of your peers. You’ve got that recognition, and a juicy link (if you still believe in that sort of thing). You might even get some business out of it.

And – oh yeah – you just stocked Moz with content that brings people onto their site, will rank organically, and will inspire conversations between members of their community (and so it repeats).

The critical component of community building with UGC is that it has to go both ways: You have to reward involvement in ways meaningful to your market. You can’t just push play and hope the content will come flooding in.

Market Research & Persona Refinement

Here’s one that so many companies miss because they’re caught revelling in the fact that people are actually creating content: Who are they, really? 


User-generated content is a rare moment of pure insight into who your real customers are and what they actually care about – though it might be subtle. If you’re running a successful UGC campaign and getting responses, this is a moment to try and snag some real-world data. Are these people who you expect? What else are they talking about? Who else is in their photos? What other brands are they rockin’?

You can take the information you’ve been given (like social profiles, e-mails, etc.) and start mining data to find demographics, psychographics, outside interests – even ways your product is being used that you might not have expected. Careful analysis of the incoming content might lead to surprising discoveries and important improvements to your understanding.


One of the great things about UGC is that it can be re-used to create other content pieces and feed into your content calendar. For example, if you’ve run a contest asking people to submit photos of them using your product, you can turn around and use these same images on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and in blog post round-ups. If you’ve got a bunch of client reviews, you could round up the funniest and showcase your community’s sense of humour (and in doing so, incentivize more reviews). You can follow up on testimonials and turn them into full-blows case studies.

The beauty of UGC is its versatility; with a little ingenuity, you can stretch it out over time and reuse it in other compelling formats.

this is not a silver bullet.

UGC can be powerful, and it’s got multiple applications – but like any tactic or content format, putting too much stake into it is a recipe for disaster.

If you’re looking to integrate some UGC into your strategy, start small, with a modest but serious testing of the waters. Some quick tips for those looking to give it a go:

  • Look for the things your audience already does. Like Rent the Runway, spend some time looking at how your customer base already talks about or shares your product. Is it a visual product? Is it something that’s easy to review? Identify the behaviors your audience is most likely to comply with, because they already come naturally.
  • Keep the barrier to entry low. Requiring a lot of registration, sign up and time investment is a sure-fire way to scare off the majority of would-be participants. If this is your first rodeo, try something with a low barrier to entry that requires at most two actions (E.g. Snap a photo, post to Instagram vs. Snap a photo, create an account, post the photo, seek out votes, etc.)
  • Look for a content format you can re-purpose to get the most bang for your buck. Because your first attempts are likely to yield fewer results, make them valuable ones. Can you glean images to share across multiple networks? Can you spark community involvement by featuring a community member’s story – and then creating a case study out of it?
  • Target existing customers first. Instead of approaching strangers, why not go to your small group of hardcore advocates and earn content there first? This content will likely be the most positive, and that market the most willing to participate. A broad contest to win an iPad might have mass appeal, but you’re reaching a new customer who may not have any loyalty and little in the way of a compelling story to tap into.

And above all, don’t give up. UGC is a tricky beast, your first attempts will probably fail – but learn from them and keep on truckin’!

responses to “How Can User-Generated Content Fit in Your Marketing Mix?”

  1. […] For example, Cadbury created a community called Cakes & Baking – The Cadbury Kitchen to facilitate conversations about cooking, desserts and recipes for their audience. This community is extremely relevant to the interests of the Cadbury customer and is an excellent way to drive more conversations about the brand and encourage the sharing of user-generated content. […]

  2. […] driving a majority of the conversations around the content they’re posting. A steady amount of user-generated content in your Google+ community is a sign that your community is thriving. Your business needs only to […]

  3. […] driving a majority of the conversations around the content they’re posting. A steady amount of user-generated content in your Google+ community is a sign that your community is thriving. Your business needs only to […]

  4. Scott Taft says:

    Great advice at the end of this piece, Joel.

    It makes so much sense that you wouldn’t want to change up the way your customers already interact with your brand. Too many companies try to complicate things with overzealous contests and such. Make it as easy as possible for people, especially when you’re just starting out with UGC.

  5. […] a recent post on iAcquire, Joel Klettke nailed a few good points about how to get started with UGC. It got me thinking about what makes user-generated content effective and so, I present to you […]

  6. […] a blog, publication or business, generating content on a regular basis is critical to engaging your audience with helpful information that matches […]