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Word-of-mouth was considered one of the most effective forms of marketing; now, there is user-generated content. As consumer insights continue to show, overly branded content gets lost in the never-ending stream of marketing that consumers face daily. There is a sense of redundancy in marketing and advertising now that makes it easier to tune out. Finding ways to grab the consumers attention is shifting to finding ways to grab their hearts.

The average consumer wants to feel connected to a brand before taking the next step. They want to relate to your marketing. They want to know the product, service, or experience aligns with their lifestyle and doesn’t just say it does. What better way to get that real sense of a brand than through voluntarily produced content by fellow consumers i.e., user-generated content?

What is User Generated Content?

Any text, videos, images, reviews, etc.—created by people, rather than brands is user-generated content (UGC). These people are motivated to share because they had a good experience, not because they were paid. Have you noticed the hotel tagged in your Facebook friend’s photos from their vacation to Mexico? That’s UGC. Did you include a hashtag from the music festival when you recapped on Twitter? If so, that’s UGC. Or, maybe you were tagged in a photo on Instagram only to find out that it was for a contest promoted by one of your favorite bloggers. That’s also UGC. There are numerous types of user-generated content and ways to use them in your marketing strategy. For example, creating a hashtag for your brand makes it easy for your customers to engage with you and makes it easy for you to find the UGC you may want to use in the future.

More than 64 percent of social media users seek out UGC before making big purchase decisions. This statistic is less surprising when you consider how easily consumers can browse through digital news feeds on mobile devices to research new products. Let’s pretend you are planning a trip to Maine. A simple search on social media for “Maine bed & breakfast” would reveal photographs and videos from users on the platform. Your customers are already participating by sharing their own UGC or using UGC to inform their purchasing decisions. And, your competitors are already using UGC to increase their customer engagement. According to SEMrush, 86% of businesses have tried user-generated content. The key is to create a strategy behind it. After all, it is technically free marketing floating on the internet for you to use.

How to leverage user-generated content:

1. Build a content library:

Many small businesses struggle with having enough content for effectively building their online presence. Their budget may not have room for hiring a photographer and their calendar may not allow time for them to do it themselves. Often, small businesses don’t know what content is best to share either. User-generated content can solve all of these problems. Save time and money in the creation process by aggregating hashtags, comments, photos, and video on social media. Chances are you’ll find high-quality content that you did not even know existed.

2. Create trust & authenticity:

Brands build trust by ensuring their product, service, or experience stands up to what it is advertised as. However, that way of building trust is more of reinforcement as it requires the purchase first. Having other customers verify your brand’s trustworthiness helps to inspire before purchasing. Consumers are 2.4 times more likely to view user-generated content as authentic compared to content created by brands. Talk about a credibility boost! You can detail on your website how comfortable the new mattresses are in your boutique hotel but seeing video of guests lounging in the hotel beds on your social feed is more authentic. For travel and lifestyle brands, it’s especially powerful to showcase your destination through a visitor’s lens. A personal connection heavily influences purchase decisions in these industries.

3. Build community by showcasing & inspiring loyalty:

Sharing the content that your happy customers have posted makes them feel appreciated and essential to the brand. Fashion brands, in particular, capitalize on UGC by sharing photos of how their customers style their clothing on social media. Professional camera brands share customer content to show how their cameras operate in the wild—from surfing to filming dolphins to capturing precious family moments. Your customers are critical to your business, so treat them well. Share their photos and videos to make them feel good while getting in a bit of free marketing yourself.

4. Drive bookings or purchases:

Remember how you booked your landscaping company after hearing rave reviews from your neighbor? User-generated content is word of mouth online. Consumer psychology informs us that not only does it build trust based off of the word of people you already trust, but it is also a form of peer pressure. A mutual connection recently bought a new pair of shoes and cannot stop talking about them online. Why shouldn’t you also have that fantastic pair of shoes? By encouraging customers to talk about your brand online, you are indirectly marketing and driving sales.

User generated content best practices:

1. Set goals:

As with any marketing strategy, to be effective, you need to set goals. Decide on what type of user-generated content you want to share, where you want to share, and how often you wish to share? Maybe, you start by creating your brand a hashtag and deciding to share customer photos every Friday on your Facebook feed. You can use the search feature on Facebook to search your hashtag and see what user-generated content comes up every Friday.

2. Set guidelines for the content you want:

You’re looking for content that you can use to market your brand effectively. Why not tell your audience how you want to receive that content? Be clear and specific about what types of content you’re looking for and the values your brand represents. Your loyal customers are great advocates and even better with the right guidance. If there is a specific hashtag you want your guests to use, make sure it is visible on your website and social media platforms. If you want them to tag you, make sure you state that. Running a Valentine’s Day special soon? Ask your followers to tag you in photos of them celebrating at your establishment.

3. Always ask for permission:

Remember, this is an opportunity to market your brand. You want to make sure you do it in the right way. That means asking for permission before using customer content. Do not assume that you have the freedom to use their content just because your brand was tagged or mentioned. Go the extra step and comment or send a personal message asking to use their content on your account. Creating this touchpoint reminds them about your brand and reinforces their trust in your brand. More often than not, your customers will gladly allow you to repost their content. After receiving permission, make sure to credit the source in your post.

Competing for customer’s attention online is no easy task. Breaking through the noise of big brand companies on multiple marketing channels requires a true understanding of your brand and its customers. User-generated content helps small businesses build their online identity regardless of large competitors because it relies on the customers understanding of the brand – it’s authenticity. This type of content typically sparks personal engagement versus generic marketing that feels one-size-fits-all. And if done correctly, will drive potential consumers down the marketing funnel.