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What is user-generated content, and why should it be a focus for your SME?

5 minute read

Rachel Ramsay

Like any kind of online content, user-generated content comes in many different forms. But what is it, and why does your small business need to know about it? In this article, I’ll be exploring the different ways user-generated content marketing can help grow your business.

What is user-generated content?

User-generated content (UGC) is any kind of content – social media posts, videos, images, blog posts and so on – that’s been created by people who haven’t been paid to produce it.

For your business, this will usually mean customers who’ve enjoyed their experience of your business enough to talk about you online. In other words, your fans!

There are lots of ways this content might be created and shared. They might write a review, post images from their visit to your store, write a blog post about your products or just give you a shoutout on their social media channels.

The important thing about user-generated content, though, is that it’s organic, and not paid for, sponsored or subject to any formal arrangements between you and the user. That’s influencer marketing, which is something different.

Take a look at the #ShareaCoke hashtag on Instagram and you’ll see a prime example of UGC at work with Coca-Cola’s personalised bottle campaign. There are over 660,000 posts on this hashtag – and that’s just on Instagram – which encouraged Coke drinkers to post photographs of themselves with bottles bearing their name.

The more people saw others posting their photographs of their name bottles, the more they wanted to do the same.

#shareacoke social campaign

The campaign’s success goes to show the power of user-generated content marketing. In Coca-Cola’s own words, it achieved impressive figures, including:

  • 998 million impressions on Twitter
  • 235,000 tweets from 111,000 fans using the #ShareaCoke hashtag
  • More than 150 million personalised bottles sold
  • Over 730,000 glass bottles personalised via the e-commerce store
  • 17,000 virtual name bottles shared online across Europe

Of course, you don’t have to be a brand as gigantic as Coca-Cola to benefit from UGC. Whatever the size of your business, the potential benefits of adding UGC into your content marketing strategy are the same…

How can UGC help your small business?

The Share a Coke campaign is a great illustration of the power of user-generated content, but the idea works on a much smaller scale for local and independent small businesses. The main benefits of UGC for small businesses include:

  • It’s free marketing – the fantastic thing about UGC is that your customers are doing the hard work of promoting your business for you. We all know the power of word of mouth recommendations, but UGC effectively takes this concept online, with users voluntarily becoming ‘brand advocates’ who can sway others to buy from your business without you having to expend any marketing budget for the privilege.
  • It’s more authentic – prospective customers are more likely to trust third party views of your business, because they’re not being paid to express their opinions. Indeed, people are nearly two and a half times more likely to view UGC as authentic compared with content created by brands. In other words, having happy customers shouting about you is far better than shouting about yourself.
  • People read reviews before buying 95% of people aged 18-34 read reviews before buying from a business, so UGC helps customers buy from you with confidence.
  • It’s good feedback for your business – you can use user-generated content as a sort of barometer, as it shows you what you’re doing that customers do like (and occasionally what they don’t) and how they’re using your products. This gives you valuable feedback that you can use to improve your business.
  • It builds community – something magical happens when there’s a buzz around your business or products: it creates a community of fans who may even end up talking to each other about your business and getting a real movement going – such as the ‘Post-Milk Generation’ fans of the oat milk brand Oatly, which sparks lots of UGC on social media (take a look at the Oatly hashtag on Instagram, for example).
  • It can be a great source of ideas – your user base is the perfect place to seek ideas, for example if you’re trying to think of a new product name. An amusing example of this was Manchester City Council’s plea for name suggestions for its gritter lorries, which resulted in a huge volume of UGC on Twitter and even widespread interest from news outlets.

How to encourage user-generated content

So, having been persuaded of the benefits of user-generated content, how can your small business get in on the act? Here are a few suggestions for encouraging your customers to generate their own content about your business.

1. Encourage reviews

Did you know that eighty-five percent of consumers trust online reviews as much as personal recommendations? That makes reviews an incredibly valuable type of UGC, and as discussed here, there are a few ways of encouraging your customers to leave a review.

You can ask for them, add the facility to leave reviews on each product page, follow up with an email after online sales, asking happy customers nicely on social media and even offering an incentive to leave a review (such as a small discount off their next order).

To make the most of reviews generated either directly on your website or on third party sites such as Google, Facebook or TripAdvisor, you could copy some of the best ones onto different parts of your website (with permission) to act as testimonials, which will help to instil trust in prospective customers.

You’ll find lots more advice on all things to do with reviews in this Ultimate Guide to Online Reviews.

2. Create a hashtag for social media

The easiest source of user-generated content is social media, and you can encourage people to talk about your brand by creating a hashtag for them to use when they post images of your products.

Boden does this with its #bodenbyme hashtag, choosing the best to go onto a gallery on its homepage (make sure you ask users’ permission before sharing their content on your website). This is a great way of making the most of UGC, as all you have to do is keep an eye on the hashtag and choose the images you like best to repost.

Boden By Me user-generated content example

3. Set a challenge

Remember the Ice Bucket Challenge? It was a few years ago, but the chances are you probably do, and either participated in it yourself or knew plenty of people who did. It was phenomenally successful at raising money for charities dealing with motor neurone disease, raising $41.8 million simply by people filming themselves dumping buckets of icy water over themselves and uploading the videos to social media.

As the Ice Bucket Challenge showed, a competition or challenge is a great way to get people creating content to do with your business.

It could be something as simple as a photo competition: a prize for the best photograph submitted on a particular theme to do with your business or one of your products, for example. Here’s an example from outdoor sports brand Farlows.

Farlows user-generated content example

Top tips for UGC

Let’s end with some best practice tips for getting the most out of user-generated content in a way that’s fair for everyone.

  • Ask: While it’s fine to retweet and share social media posts, always ask the user’s permission before putting their content on your own website. If in doubt, drop them a direct message to check they’re happy for you to repost their content.
  • Credit: If you’re sharing someone’s content, make sure you acknowledge them, linking to their user name as in this example from the official Royal Mail Instagram account.
  • Engage: Take the time to like and comment on content about your brand, so the creator feels appreciated. If someone’s left a review, good or bad, then respond to it.
  • Reward: Whether you offer regular prizes for the best contribution or you simply use your platform to help your fans increase their own following by reposting their efforts, it’s good to acknowledge the effort people have gone to on your behalf.
  • Monitor: Don’t just keep an eye on the hashtag you created or posts you’re tagged in – do regular searches for your business and products, as people may be talking about them without using the ‘official’ hashtag.

As we’ve seen today, user-generated content is a fantastic opportunity for your business to utilise goodwill towards your brand. While it’s probably not going to replace your content marketing efforts entirely, it can be a powerful string to your bow that you can use alongside other ways to grow your business.

Rachel Ramsay is a freelance copywriter with a background in digital marketing. She's written copy for clients ranging from the United Nations World Food Programme to The North Face, and particularly enjoys working with lifestyle and travel brands. In her spare time, she volunteers for Guide Dogs and flies light aircraft and helicopters.

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