“You didn’t hear it from us – you heard it from people like you.” The power of user-generated content in content marketing is that customers become the voice of the brand, and the co-creators and stars in its ongoing narrative.
While it may seem like a new phenomenon, companies have been leveraging user-generated content (UGC) for years. Centuries even – you can trace it all the way back to 1665, when reader submissions were collated in the world’s first science journal, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. A mode of communication that operates peer-to-peer rather than company-to-consumer or movie star-to-fan, a good definition is any type of content that has been created and made available for brand promotion by unpaid contributors. Customers, in other words, become the voice of a brand, infusing authenticity into the brand message for the customer base as a whole.
There is no question that the culture in which UGC is embedded has changed vastly with the era of new media. For starters, ‘fans’ is a more appropriate term nowadays over ‘contributors’. And in today’s shifting, porous digital landscape, UGC can take on many forms. Though pictures and testimonials are popular, brands can also repurpose user-created videos, tweets, blog posts and everything in between. As new technology evolves and brands rethink traditional roles of content creation, there is no question either that alternate forms of UGC will proliferate in tandem.
The argument for travel content marketing to make the most of user-generated content has significant heft, and it’s only getting stronger. In an increasingly cynical world, UGC feels sincere. As the digital landscape moves towards a more equitable share of power, UGC facilitates consumer agency. Finally, UGC creates a sense of community so that audiences can better understand each other and themselves through the prism of your brand. Destabilising and revising the relationship, UGC comes out strong as an efficient way for brands to empower their audiences, harness their energies, and co-create relatable, real-life stories that emerge from the intersections they share.
1. Audiences respond better to peers than to brands
In the digital age (and the social media epoch especially) everyone is a publisher. For marketers, this has meant the authority of brands to declare what’s good and what isn’t carries less weight. Instead, people are more likely to take heed of what their friends and family recommend. To put it more bluntly, when a company proclaims, “We are great,” that doesn’t go far. “This is great” – coming from a known, trusted source – goes a lot further on credibility.
There are countless studies to shore this up as a fact. We know, for instance, that 76% of consumers believe the content people share is more honest than advertising from brands. Millennials are particularly receptive to user-generated content over traditional marketing, with 86% of them saying UGC is a good indicator of the quality of a brand, and 68% of social media users between the ages of 18 and 24 taking into account information shared on social media when making a purchasing decision.
Put together, it’s easy to see why UGC is so powerful.
Case study: Sydney’s Ovolo Hotel
Three years after Instagram launched, Sydney’s own Ovolo found a rather surreal unique selling position in becoming the world’s first ‘Instagrammable hotel’. Following restoration, the Pyrmont boutique lodge (converted from a historic wool shed) essentially built and styled itself around the image-sharing phenomenon, with other locations opening in the city’s Southside and Woolloomooloo. It has a gilt-framed ‘selfie space’, in-room media hubs and perfect lighting in every space and corner. As CNN writes, “after a full day of Instagramming, guests can connect smartphones to in-room media hubs to review images on a 40-inch LED TV, before uploading their snaps via the hotel’s Wi-Fi.”
Ovolo pandered as well – however problematically – to the rising influencer cohort, allowing guests with over 10,000 Instagram followers to stay for one day free (never mind that these are probably people most capable of not thinking twice about ordering room service). Those who took the most creative selfie shot of the month with the hotel’s hashtag could also receive the same offer, though the promotion has since been discontinued. Today, it has a Instagram following of almost 6k (thousands more than Melbourne’s Marriott Hotel or Sydney’s Hyatt Regency), and has retained its tagline as ‘Australia’s most Instagram hotel’.
2. It empowers audiences as co-creators
Through the participatory culture of UGC, customers can take part in the marketplace in ways they never could before. When something they have made is recognised by a brand, integrated into their story and elevated before a wide audience, it can produce a positively heady experience the whole community can get behind.
It’s human nature to share, after all, and human nature to crave attention. Enabling users to take an active part in the branding experience means that they’re not just being parcelled into predesignated roles or reciting a script. They’re stars in a narrative they have a key lead in shaping.
Why it works: House-sit a reef. Look after a tropical island. Feed the fish. Get paid. Sounds better than a desk job, right? Tourism Queensland figured as much, and from that safe assumption launched the ‘Best Job in the World’ campaign, which invited people from all over the globe to apply for the platinum position openings via video-taped resumes. With the story covered by TV anchors everywhere, hundreds of hours worth of film were sent into the marketing team, showing individuals from China to America to the Vatican performing at their best in the competition to win. The campaign became viral, with the successful applicant’s weekly blog jacking up engagement rates too. Most importantly, it consolidated Queensland’s image of a paradisiacal and unique destination – with a sense of humour to boot.
3. It promotes authentic storytelling
Authenticity is perhaps the most overused word in media and marketing. But there’s a reason: it’s the thing consumers care about more than anything else. We’ve seen this in the research time and time again. According to a 2014 study, 63% of consumers said they’d rather buy from a company they consider to be authentic over a competitor. In 2015, a Pardot research report found that 80% say authenticity of content is the most important factor in following a brand.
UGC is a way for marketers to present to their audiences a window into the real, natural and unstaged outcomes of buying their product or brand. And they’re incredibly willing to share as well. “The exponential growth of social sharing has presented marketers with an unprecedented opportunity: access to a giant footprint of compelling, visual customer stories which brands can use to make their marketing more genuine, personal and relatable,” affirms Peter Cassidy, co-founder of Stackla, a company built around providing technology solutions to companies to optimise UGC strategies. “Marketers can now usher in a new era of customer-centric marketing where consumers drive the brand’s message.”
Case study: Qantas’ ‘Out of Office’ Travelogue
Just as the Christmas holiday season was rounding in last year, Qantas Australia came up with a ruse to transform the standard ‘out of office’ email autoreply into a user-generated travel marketing tease. Partnering with creative agency The Monkeys, Qantas customers can opt to link their Office 365 and Gmail emails with their Instagram accounts, whether they’re under public or private settings. When someone tries to reach them, they’ll be hit with snaps of their contact living it up in some far-off destination – a world away from the office and all its desk-based stresses and routines. Importantly, only images that travellers post under the hashtag #qantasoutofoffice are linked to these auto-reply ‘travel diary’ shares. Things could get a little awkward otherwise – everything a professional shares on their private Instagram account may not, after all, be suitable for showcasing to partners, colleagues and clients.
“The traditional out-of-office message can be both generic and impersonal in nature and from our research, 60 per cent of employees say they appreciate receiving something more creative,” said Qantas Group executive brand, marketing and corporate affairs, Olivia Wirth in a statement.
“We know that tips from friends and colleagues are the highest driver for people when choosing their next holiday destination, so we saw an opportunity to encourage travel through the millions of out of office emails being sent every day.”
]Sure, the campaign seems to be one capitalising mostly on envy. The Travelogue nonetheless scores high on imagination, flipping something as dull yet widespread as an autoreply into a unique, user-driven travel marketing opportunity.
4. It’s cheaper, too
Yes, user-generated content can sometimes save a few bucks on the production line. But that’s far from the main point here really, and should always be part of an integrated marketing and promotions strategy anyway. A user-generated strategy doesn’t look like a cost-cutting sweatshop or a chance for you to sit back and say to you audience: “Okay folks. Show me what you got.” It’s at the intersection of free will and good will. Done right, it’s user-centricity at its best.