Sound like I'm picking a fight with your brand? I'm not, but you can rest assured someone will once you invite consumers to submit their ideas, words, videos, and images via a User-Generated Content (UGC) marketing program.
UGC programs have been the rage for a couple of years now, and some marketers are questioning if they've run their course. My opinion is that UGC is a fine way to involve consumers in the brand, provided you know your audience, define your goals, and craft the appropriate program.
But first it is vital to evaluate if UGC is appropriate for your brand, because not every brand is suited for a consumer-generated media program. Some important questions marketers should consider before proceeding with a UGC effort include:
- Is my brand in a low- or high-engagement category? Not every brand category can inspire consumers to dedicate time to creating an ad, a testimonial, a video, or other content.
Some categories are so high-engagement and brands so beloved that people will write tributes on their blogs and shoot video love poems to the brand, even without a formal UGC program promising a chance for fame and fortune. Search for Disney on YouTube and you'll find (in addition to pirated content) videos that Disney fans were inspired to create, such as a music video of Disney love scenes set to Avril Lavigne's "Keep Holding On," artfully-edited scenes of special Disney moments set to the lovely "When You Wish Upon a Star," consumer-captured video of Disneyland's Main Street Electric Parade, and a guest's POV movie of the Magic Kingdom's Splash Mountain attraction.
Low-engagement categories that involve infrequent purchases, small dollar amounts, or utility functionality are difficult--but not impossible--from which to launch a UGC campaign. If your brand is in a low-engagement category, UGC programs focused on the brand may encourage little interest (and there is nothing better than a low-activity UGC campaign to make evident how little love your brand engenders). Instead, a strategy that overcomes the low engagement is to focus not on the brand but on the benefits of the entire category; for instance, a tire manufacturer may encourage consumers to create videos expressing the value of the people whose lives are riding on those tires or how tires saved their lives in emergency situations.
- Do consumers understand my brand? If you haven't crafted a strong brand position with consumers, UGC programs can be a disaster.
The more consumers understand what your brand is about, its world view, its target audience, and its personality, the better and more appropriate you can expect User-Generated Content to be. If you have a strong brand, have fun with your UGC campaign!
If you don't, then leaving it to consumers to interpret the brand will likely be painful. Not only will the content submitted by consumers miss the mark, but the wild breadth of brand views will only make it evident that the brand stands for little in the minds of consumers. If research indicates consumer perceptions don't match the brand's, then promotion strategies other than UGC programs are recommended.
- Am I willing to give up control of my brand? You need not set your brand free to go wherever consumers care to take it--there are ways to put guardrails around a UGC effort--but any time you invite consumers to reinterpret your brand or share their perceptions of your product, you have to expect they'll go in strange and unexpected directions.
McDonald's recently sponsored a Big Mac jingle contest on MySpace and may have gotten much more than they anticipated when a former felon made the list of five finalists, and that's not the worst of it--according to TechCrunch, he served 12 years in prison for holding up a McDonald's! The finalists were chosen by judges, so either McDonald's failed to vet the finalists or chose Tamien Bain's entry as a publicity stunt. (Or maybe they just figured he'd served his time, repaid his debt to society, and deserved a second chance.)
- Am I really willing to let consumers plagiarize, repurpose, and alter my carefully-protected brand assets? Brands typically spend a great deal of time and effort protecting their intellectual property (IP) by threatening anyone who repurposes logos and other trademarks. Is your brand ready to do the exact opposite and encourage people to tinker with your IP?
Nick Haley, an 18-year-old student, took copyrighted Apple iPhone videos and remixed his own television ad. Apple lawyers might've fallen on him like a ton of bricks; instead, Apple polished Nick's ad and used it on broadcast television. Apple not only got a rocking commercial from their collaboration with Nick, but they benefited from positive press for accepting Nick's well-intentioned piracy of Apple's IP.
- Am I willing to spend to support the effort? If a UGC campaign falls in a forest and no one hears it, does it make it sound? Yes it does--the sound of failure is resounding!
One of the dangers of UGC programs is that marketers perceive them as inexpensive. The logic goes something like this: "Rather than produce a $200,000 TV ad and spend $1 million on media, let's offer $25,000 for the best consumer-produced ad and let them post it to YouTube. We'll save seven figures!"
But it's not nearly that simple. Just look at one of the most well-known examples of UGC to date: Dorito's challenged consumers to produce their own ads, with the winner debuting on the Super Bowl. According to a New York Times article entitled, "The High Price of Free Ads," the brand spent $1.3 million in October to promote the campaign, awarded $50,000 to winners, invested another $8 million in advertising in February to show the winning ads, and dedicated untold hours and costs to strategy, planning, PR, monitoring, and selecting the winners out of the 1,020 submissions.
For UGC campaigns, the award money is a fraction of the total budget needed. Failure to promote and support the program can result in poor participation, embarrassing content, and very disappointing results.
- Can my brand take criticism? Perhaps no question is more important than this one. Every brand has detractors, and UGC campaigns tend to bring them out of the woodwork. It's important for marketers to carefully define the rules for consumer-generated content programs and to be sure consumers--and the brand--live with them.
There's danger in putting too many rules in place; doing so can make your brand seem unconfident, paranoid, and secretive, which likely aren't the sorts of attributes you want to promote with your UGC program. And if you try to aggressively control the program by deleting content critical of your brand, the repression of consumer submissions can spark consumer criticism, bad PR, and still fail when rejected content appears on file-sharing sites and blogs. In the age of social media, you cannot prevent consumers from saying what they want, so if you're unwilling to live with consumers' praise and criticism, it may be that UGC isn't right for your brand.
But, if your brand is willing to let the dissenting voices be heard, it can appear strong and confident in the face of minority disapproval. Chevy sponsored a user-generated video campaign for its SUV, the Tahoe. Some consumers took the opportunity to submit videos critical of the product and its impact on the environment. GM allowed the content, didn't remove the critical videos, and instead engaged consumers on their blog in an effort to promote the Tahoe's fuel efficiency.
I'm sure Chevy didn't win over any of their critics with the blog response, but neither did the brand give them fuel for the fire by deleting the videos and trying to stifle the criticism. Some observers criticized GM for not setting stricter rules or being slow to react, but others have noted Chevy's confident and transparent response to the criticism resulted in the Tahoe selling more and the brand generating more "street cred."