User-generated content (UGC) is an umbrella term for any content – images, videos, audio, text – posted on social media by users themselves. Usually, it's a product review or recommendation, but it's distinctly different from influencer content or paid branded content. Instead, UGC is created without a prompt from the brand itself – so it's thought to be more credible and reliable than influencer marketing. 

UGC allows you to tap into smaller, and more niche, audiences, which are often more engaged than accounts that have huge numbers of followers. And once you've sparked a bit of a conversation on social media, you'll hopefully see a network effect take place – in other words, users will perceive your product to be more valuable because multiple people in their circles and on their feeds are talking about it. 

Why it's important 

This type of content has existed organically on TikTok and Instagram for a long time, but brands are now trying to exert some control over the content that's being produced. That obviously blurs the boundary between paid influencer marketing and authentic, organic UGC, which raises an ethical question. 

In fact, a number of TikTokers are turning to making UGC as a full-time career, as brands have a growing appetite to pay for it. There has even been a surge in talent agencies working solely with creators who make UGC – some creators aren't even posting UGC on their own pages any more, instead posting entirely on brand pages. 

UGC isn't highly stylized or staged, as a lot of influencer content can be, so it feels more like a recommendation from a friend or genuine customer, which makes it more likely to resonate with new prospective customers. That said, because a brand doesn't always have control over the sorts of content that users are posting, it can go one of two ways. And it isn't the easiest to track, either: because the content doesn't belong to the brand, it's difficult to gain access to data on how successfully it has resonated with audiences. 

Things to note 

This is all part of the post-purchase experience. This is a part of the customer's journey that is often forgotten by brands, but definitely shouldn't be – especially because 92% of people actively seek out comments about brands and products before committing to a purchase. UGC is a way to keep following up with your customers and determine how they're feeling about a certain product, who they're recommending it to and whether they would buy it again. 

You don't have much control. One of the key differences between influencer content and UGC is that the latter is made entirely by the creator, on their own terms. So, you won't have much control over how your product or brand is presented, nor will you necessarily be able to drive users to the right landing pages. 

…But you can nudge in the right direction. The spontaneity of UGC is what makes it work well, but it's also what makes it extremely hard to track and measure its success. That said, you can encourage your customers to create UGC straight after their purchase – for example, by adding QR codes and hashtags that they can use in their posts. 

Keep it authentic. The content that resonates the most is often unscripted, filmed in someone's house or bedroom, presenting a very honest review or recommendation. Try to stick to and encourage that authenticity as much as possible. This will appeal not only to prospective new customers, but also to others posting this kind of content on social media, as they see the brands that they use and champion as an extension of themselves.

Don't shy away from tracking entirely. It helps to know what sort of content you'd like to encourage your customers to create, and how you'd like to measure success. For example, is it just more brand awareness and searches for your product, or would you like people to actively be clicking through to your website? How can you drive certain types of UGC with your goal in mind? If you have a registered shop on Facebook or Instagram, you can set up a commerce manager that tracks UGC about your brand, such as tags and posts.

How to define your user-generated content strategy 

1. Decide if this is definitely the right strategy for you. Remember that UGC is organic, authentic and determined by the creators themselves. In that way, it's notably different from paid-for influencer content. There are now tools that allow brands to license some UGC, such as Bounty but, for the purposes of this guide, we'll stick to organic UGC. For more on influencer marketing that includes some form of compensation to the creator, check out our guide

2. Tap into existing conversations. Start by looking up what's being said about your brand on social media already, if anything at all. Run frequent searches across all social channels, noting that the conversation might be different on different platforms. Are people raving about your product or are they not talking about it at all? How many people have posted about it and what exactly are they saying? What sorts of content are they posting, and are they using hashtags or tagging your brand? Social listening tools, such as Pulsar and Hootsuite, are a great way to start tracking conversations and mentions of your brand. 

3. Define your marketing goals. Your research will likely reveal existing sentiments around your product and brand, which may or may not align with how you'd like your brand to be perceived out in the world. This is a good time to set some goals for what sorts of content you'd like to see on social media: do you want to change the way people are speaking about your products? Do you want to raise brand awareness on a particular platform? 

4. Think about how UGC fits into those goals. If more brand awareness is your overarching marketing goal, then just a higher volume of UGC is a great place to start. However, you might also want people to take action after seeing or interacting with UGC: for instance, you may want them to click through to your brand's social media profiles, or directly through to your website and product pages. 

5. Encourage customers to make content. You can nudge customers to make content that helps you with your marketing goals as well. For example, when you send a customer a product, you could include a small note with informal directions for how to post on social media, using a certain hashtag and tagging your accounts. You could also send an email a few weeks after a customer has made a purchase to encourage them to create content. Challenges are also a great way to increase engagement and organic UGC: check out Mexican restaurant chain Chipotle's dance challenge hashtag on TikTok, which drew in 250,000 video submissions.

6. Don't leave the content hanging. One of the biggest mistakes that brands can make when it comes to UGC is ignoring it altogether. Participate in the conversation that your customers are starting online, whether it's positive or negative. Repost their content so that they feel heard, important and part of your brand's community. It's a virtuous cycle: if you repost one creator's content about your brand, it might encourage other creators to tap into the conversation as well. Razor brand Estrid does a great job of this, as does rental platform Hurr

7. Check in on your goals. This can be done after a few weeks or months of monitoring the conversation online. Your goal could have been to increase brand awareness, raise your social following or increase the number of purchases made on your website. If your goal isn't quite being reached, think about how you can adjust the post-purchase experience for your customers so that they're more encouraged or incentivized to create content. 

8. Keep evolving the conversation. Social media moves extremely quickly, so the same type of content can get boring very swiftly. Think about what other types of conversation you can encourage your customers to have beyond just product reviews, and remember that UGC doesn't have to be serious or sales-focused. For instance, if you're a food brand, you could encourage your customers to film a recipe in which they use your product. Check out UNDERDAYS, a women's underwear brand that reposts lots of content of users modeling their uber-comfortable briefs. Content like this also helps build a community around your business. 

Key takeaways 

• The beauty of UGC is that it's entirely driven by the users – aim to keep it that way, tapping into the conversation in a non-invasive way. 

• Try to create a post-purchase experience that not only encourages customers to post about your brand online, but also to tag its profiles and use relevant hashtags so you can expand your reach. 

• Actively monitor the impact of UGC. Some key performance indicators to keep an eye on are: hashtag use, profile visits, follower counts and click-through rates to your website and shop pages. 

Level up

Perspective. With some UGC creators receiving payment for their work, it's starting to slip into influencer marketing territory. Read this piece on the importance of staying transparent when creating content – whether it's paid-for or organic. 

Example. YETI, a brand focused on outdoor gear, reposted lots of UGC that showed its products withstanding the harshest of conditions. It's not only interesting to watch, but also shows off the functionality of the products themselves – which can drive sales.  

Tool. Yotpo helps brands to gather content that social media users and customers have posted online, and use it to drive further engagement and increase sales on companies' websites.

A version of this article was published in the Courier Workshop newsletter. For more deep dives into essential business concepts, sign up here.

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