How Marketing Leaders Can Embrace User-Generated Visual Content

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Featured image: The first winning submission to the Starbucks #WhiteCupContest by Brita Lynn Thompson. Modified image. Source.

CMOs, you now live at a time where consumers would just as soon trust a brand recommended by a 25-year-old YouTuber  as a star athlete. Where a 10 second customer-recorded mobile video can deliver more business than a high-production TV spot. Welcome to a new era of user-generated visual storytelling.

Marketers are no strangers to the idea of piggybacking off the success of digital user-generated content (UGC), often in the forms of blogs or, occasionally, podcasts. But as the YouSnapVine generation comes of age, high-profile brands are partnering with consumers in ways that are easy on the eyes and fulfill our inherent love for stories. For example:

  • Last summer, the detergent brand all ran a slide digital marketing recruiter “Summer Play” campaign inviting moms to share videos of their kids being playfully messy via mobile device. The UGC campaign made use of the video capturing and editing app Magisto, allowing participants to easily add themes (think Instagram image filters) and music. The three-phased campaign, which ran for about a month and a half in the heart of summer, created 646,894 all-branded “Summer Play” movies and earned 4,289,306 movie views.
  • Nissan relied on user-generated Vines to support the launch of the Nissan Versa. Before the release of the new model, Nissan created a contest in which users could create Vines using a paper cutout of the car. Consumers created a wide range of Vines incorporating races, road trips, and cats. Nissan used the winning entries in the first national TV spot to use fan-made Vines.

video from Jeff O’Keefe

  • On its own site, personal property rental marketplace Airbnb hosts images, videos, and written stories from Airbnb members to give visitors a sense of the lodging experiences available to those interested in using the popular peer-to-peer service. The content is a powerful way to attach human personalities and experiences to a broad, scattered brand.

All and Nissan exemplify the ways brands are taking advantage of a new generation of channels and hardware to launch nimble campaigns that crowdsource visually compelling content. Airbnb exquisitely demonstrates how you can incorporate user-generated narrative on your own site.

So what’s changed that’s made all this user-generated visual content possible versus the days of text blogs and podcasts?

Flexible, User-Friendly Tools

The unrivaled king of user-generated video at the ripe old age of 10, YouTube has already created an environment that spawned a cottage industry of self-made celebrities. But a wave of new apps and tech has emerged to fuel another wave of story-driven visual UGC .

Apps such as Instagram and Vine make it easier than ever for amateurs to generate professional-looking content and easily make basic edits. Snapchat practically turns visual content creation into an unconscious act. Magisto makes it easy for users to upload videos and enrich them with a selection of music and visual themes.

Each platform has upped the level of competition in the space, pushing the others to improve. When the launch of Vine gave users the ability to create six-second videos, Instagram introduced video. Instagram also gave its users a bigger palette of image filters and editing tools in response to the launch of photo-editing apps like PhotoToaster and Snapseed. And recently Instagram launched Hyperlapse, an app for creating tracking shots and time-lapsed videos.

The Rise of the Internet Celebrity

We’ve seen the rise of media-savvy content creators who have used the flexible, easily digestible formats of new channels to turn themselves into Internet celebrities. These individuals gain tremendous influence on an organic following interested in their unique content and often quirky web personalities.

Josh Ostrovsky, for example, created an Instagram persona through which he uploads silly memes and images that reflect his peculiar perspective on the world– launching a himself to comedy stardom in the process.

Ostrovsky has since appeared at the MTV Video Music Awards (wearing nothing but underwear and a robe), and he’s negotiating with brands that are willing to pay for product placements on his Instagram account. He partnered with Stella Artois to promote the beer on his Instagram account at the Cannes Film Festival, and claims brands such as Burger King and Virgin Mobile are collaborating with him, too.snapchat digital marketing recruiters

Shaun McBride has emerged as a so-called “Snapchat star,” applying his visual storytelling skills to gain millions of enthusiastic followers. McBride specializes in creating wacky doodles over his Snapchat photos; his work has led to commercial collaborations with Disney, Major League Soccer, and Taco Bell.

For brands, working with the likes of Ostrovsky and McBride amounts more to co-branding than crowdsourcing. Brands cede more control to a single person, but they get a premade audience and a kind of personality loyalty companies rarely see.

In fact, content creators hold such commercial promise that Vine and Snapchat star Jerome Jarre, along with Gary and Al Vaynerchuk, co-founded a marketing agency, GrapeStory, specially focused for mobile microcontent-based campaigns. The agency maintains a roster of self-made Vine, Snapchat, and Instagram celebrities to act as content partners with brands such as Aquafina, GE, and Virgin Mobile. For example, GrapeStory recently paired several Vine stars with Milk-Bone to produce a series of Vines that have increased awareness and engagement for the dog treat company.

The existence of emerging agencies with digital marketing consultants dedicated just to this kind of influencer-based marketing, paired with the growth of media platforms, suggests the next phase of growth for consumer stars of the Internet: a self-sustaining industry.

Trendsetters and Trailblazers

Finally, companies such as Applebee’s and the aforementioned All, Nissan, and Airbnb are setting an example for other brands to follow. In July 2014, Applebee’s announced that for an entire year, the restaurant chain would rely exclusively on user-generated content for their Instagram account. Consumers who tag their photo posts #Applebees or the campaign’s #Fantographer hashtags are eligible to have their images hosted on the Applebee’s Instagram page. The company adds branded borders to each posted photo. Within just a few months after launch, the UGC strategy earned Applebee’s 4,500 new followers– a 32% increase– and a 25% increase in engagement.

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How Marketing Leaders Can Get Started

When it comes to effectively leveraging crowdsourced stories, CMOs no longer have the excuse of saying, “We’re in the early days…” The technology is here, and so are shining examples of success to emulate. But they need to approach visual UGC the right way.

  • Understand what your audience really wants: Yes, humanity is uploading 1.8 billion images a day and 300 hours of video each minute on YouTube, and you should be able to make use of some of it. But to launch a visually oriented UGC campaign, first you need to do your homework on your audience behaviors and whether your brand lends itself to UGC. Does your audience favor Vine or Instagram–or another channel entirely? Is yours the kind of brand that people will comfortably rely on to create stories and visual testimonials? What would you need to offer to incentivize that kind of contribution?
  • Stress-test your ideas: UGC starts with an inventive idea and cohesive theme, not a photo or a video. Successful brands have launched campaigns that are inherently appealing. They require thoughtful, creative strategizing just as any other marketing undertaking. If you lack the resources in-house to conceive of an idea, partner with a firm with experience in the field or bring in innovative new perspectives and know-how with a digital marketing consultant.
  • Build a tolerance for risk, and take steps to mitigate it: When you take the UGC route, you put your brand in the hands of people you have little control over like Applebee’s did. That’s scary for marketing executives who prefer to have a firm grip. Working with a viral star is closer to co-branding, where you can mitigate your risk by carefully choosing a personality who fits the attributes of your brand. But even so, the many variables with the web pose a risk. For instance, teenage Vine star Nash Grier, who signed a deal with Awesomeness TV, put himself in hot water when he posted a homophobic slur. And he’s not the only self-made star who has garnered negative attention for himself (and the brands associated with him). When taking advantage of the visual content your audience is making, it’s wise to have a contingency plan in place should something go wrong so you can immediately put out any fires.

Embracing user-generated content also requires more tech savvy and a comfort level with the constantly changing world of apps. That means your marketing needs to be full of digital natives that understand how to effectively harness these stories creatively, strategically and technically. Fortunately, content creation platforms are increasingly easy to use and designed to integrate smoothly with your digital infrastructure.

Fast-moving CMOs that are willing to learn and have put the right talent pieces in place have the advantage.

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