Getting there isn't as easy as you might think. A marketing strategy that gives your customers a core spot in your digital presence, however, can be powerful enough to do the trick.
Let’s explore why user-generated content (UGC) isn’t just for big businesses anymore, plus the ways it can help small businesses and start-ups nab those customers that don’t know or aren’t hooked on their brand...at least not yet.
Setting The Stage...
Picture this: it’s a lazy Saturday morning.
You’re serving up breakfast with a mug of hot coffee and a healthy dose of online shopping (...or maybe browsing is a better word. In any case, you’re perusing for something).
As you’re doing your online searching, you come across the other side of the online shopping equation: brands. Brands you know well, brands that seem familiar, and brands you’re seeing for the first time.
Out of all those brands, what makes you ultimately decide between them? Maybe it’s...
In some cases, a comprehensive, engaging, well-executed branding strategy can go a long way.
When your decision is between a tried and true brand and one that’s new to you, old faithful can be the most comfortable option.
Something else entirely
Enter the third party in this equation: the influencer.
Influencer Marketing vs. UGC
Now, I know what you’re thinking. The “influencer” has become its own very particular entity over the past few years. But let’s hit rewind and get back to the basics.
An influencer (devoid of today’s implications) is simply an entity that sways the thoughts or actions of another entity. They don’t necessarily need 10k followers on Instagram or a continuous stream of PR packages flooding their door. They just need to make a difference: the difference between bouncing (leaving your content without taking action) and converting (taking the action you’re pushing them towards).
Those influencers (i.e. anyone willing to create content that positively features your brand) are the secret to a user-generated content strategy.
This is a secret the team at Ooni Pizza Ovens knows well. Just take a look at their Instagram. At least once in every three feed posts, the company (which specializes in quick-cooking, backyard-compatible pizza ovens) publishes a photo originally shared by one of their customers.
Though I don’t recognize ANY of these users, what I do recognize is telling:
- The users featured are the happy customers of Ooni, so pleased with the product that they’re willing to share their Ooni-made creations with the world.
- The customer-made pizzas look just as delicious as those in Ooni’s own photography, so their ovens must be effective and super easy to use.
- Ooni clearly has plenty of happy customers to pull content from, considering how frequently they share UGC.
What this really says is that typically, the internet status level of the people you’re sharing content from is the least of your audience’s worries. You don’t need to dive into the exponentially growing, usually expensive, occasionally overwhelming world of influencer marketing to run an effective UGC campaign.
Regardless of whether a user is a first class influencer or just your average joe, all can be used to prove one important thing to your target audience: real people just like them are buying, using, and enjoying what you have to offer.
What A UGC Strategy Can Accomplish
Now that we’ve gotten that distinction out of the way, here’s what else a UGC strategy can do—especially for new or small businesses.
UGC can vouch for your reputation in the eyes of new customers.
Let’s go back to our Saturday morning online shopping scenario. You’ve found a brand that you’re interested in, but have never heard of before. Vital questions are probably floating around in your mind, like “Is this company legit?”, “Are their products high-quality?”, or “If their products are worth the buy, why haven’t I heard of them before?”
You know who can provide some answers to these important inquiries? Customers out in the world that have converted—and liked it.
When I discovered Ooni, I had never heard of them. But after seeing all of the yummy-looking, customer-made pizzas on their feed and the willingness with which customers share their photos with Ooni’s branded hashtag (#oonified), I’d probably turn to them if I were ever in the market for my own pizza oven.
Getting your audience to share UGC takes the pressure off your team to share quality content round the clock.
Maintaining a consistent posting schedule on your blog or social media profiles is incredibly important to building an audience. But that can be easier said than done, especially for small businesses that don’t have the same marketing resources as large corporations.
However, users that are willing to share content that features your brand can double as engaged audience members and your content-creation assistants.
For example: say you’ve published all of the photos from a new product photoshoot you just completed. Now what?
Well, if your branded hashtag (like #oonified) is up and running, it’s simple: search it on Instagram or Twitter, find your favorite piece of UGC, and (with the user’s permission; more on that later) add it to your content schedule. This can be a great strategy for filling up your calendar when you’re in a pinch.
Building a rapport with your community of loyal customers can be made easy with UGC.
Not everyone who tags a business Instagram or high-profile user expects a response. Some will do it anyway hoping that the account admins will see it. Imagine how they might feel when the company they tag actually responds to their post...or even asks to feature it on their page.
Although leveraging a UGC strategy requires you to ask for re-post permission from your audience, this simple back-and-forth can actually help make your customers feel noticed. They’ll know that when they tag your business, their posts are actually reaching someone on the other side.
This can be attractive to new customers as well: when they see your brand’s interactions with your customers, the knowledge that they could be part of an active and friendly online community could encourage them to see your brand (or product) as one worth taking the time to explore further… and, ideally, encourage them to convert.
7 Ways Small Businesses Can Join The UGC Party
Here’s the thing: when you’re a small business with limited resources (or a new brand struggling to generate awareness), a UGC strategy may not seem possible.
UGC how-to articles that frequently reference already-successful household names like Starbucks and Marc Jacobs aren’t too encouraging either.
In the name of startups, small businesses, and new brands everywhere, we compiled a list of UGC tips and tricks that are actually doable for businesses of all sizes—and that’s coming from the marketing team at a 20-person agency in New Hampshire.
Make sure your brand is findable.
An important first step in any content strategy: take the proper precautions to ensure your content is actually available to the public.
On social media, this means nailing down identifiable handles and profile names. Your Instagram and Twitter handles should echo your brand name and be easy to spell and read. Pair it up with an accurate profile name that clues users into what kind of business you are.
Ooni, for example, uses the handle @oonihq and profile name Ooni Pizza Ovens on their IG.
Their profile will have a chance of popping up when users enter “ooni” or “pizza ovens” into the search bar. Using their product title in the profile name also indicates to new users that Ooni is a pizza oven manufacturer.
You should also have a means of linking your website to your social profiles and vice versa. Add links to your website header or footer to each of your profiles, ensuring they stay updated in the event that your username changes. Most social platforms will have a spot for you to add your website, so all you have to do is make sure those sections don’t go unfilled.
Always ask permission for re-posting content from your social audience.
When you re-post content without a user’s permission or without giving proper credit, you’ll create an enemy out of your customer at best. At worst, that now unhappy customer could try to take legal action against you.
Let’s note the difference between “re-posting” and “sharing” here—because the two are very different when it comes to giving credit where credit is due.
Sharing happens when you use a feature built into the social platform, like when you “Share” a Facebook post, “Retweet” a tweet, or hit “Share to Stories” on an Instagram feed post. When you publish content to a social platform, all users are clear to share your post using these methods without giving credit in the caption or post copy—mostly because your “shared” posts will automatically link to the original content anyway!
Re-posting is not the same. This is the act of taking a photo and/or caption from someone else’s content and using it to create a brand new post. Unlike with shared posts, re-posted content does not automatically link back to the original post, so the issue of giving credit gets a little trickier here. Because of this, not every content creator is okay with other users taking and re-posting their content, even with credit.
Still, some users are totally okay with having their content re-posted—with proper credit of course. So before you start re-posting UGC left and right, determine your process for requesting re-post permission from your customers.
When you’re first starting out, you could try asking individual users as needed. Those brief interactions could be a great opportunity for starting positive interactions with your existing customer-base and future customers.
All the user in question needs to do is respond with the branded hashtag. It’s a fitting strategy for businesses that would like to reach out to many users simultaneously, and one used by bigger businesses (Hi Airbnb!) to make sure they are not entangled in any legal shenanigans.
Get your hashtags out in the real world
When big businesses use UGC, many of them do so using a branded hashtag. But small businesses can use this strategy too!
For Storiarts, a literature-inspired clothing and accessories brand with humble beginnings on Etsy, that extra push came in the form of a free branded bookmark with every store purchase. The bookmark contains CTAs inviting customers to like them on Facebook, follow them on Instagram, and share their content with the hashtag #CommitToLit. With the help of this strategy, Storiarts has transformed from a popular Etsy shop into a full-fledged ecommerce brand with nearly 60k Instagram followers.
If your business sells products online or in-stores, try slipping in a branded package insert with each purchase. Other versatile strategies include printing a branded hashtag on posters, business cards, or anywhere else new or existing customers might come into contact with your brand.
Turn positive reviews into content
Even if you’re just starting out and no one is using your branded hashtag, there’s another place you can mine for UGC as your brand is gaining traction: your reviews.
If you find some good ones, try incorporating them into a post caption or graphic, like this cute hotel on the Italian coast. Villa Valentine Cinque Terre will every so often share a simple graphic with a (usually anonymous) review of their property. It’s a great way to show interested viewers that they can trust the hotel to deliver on expectations, and one that does not detract from the look and feel of their Instagram profile. The peach-colored background and typewriter-inspired print stands out, but still coordinates well with the pastel hues found throughout the rest of their feed.
Don’t forget to reach out to the reviewer before you share the review on your profile!
Incentivize content sharing
Sometimes, an offer to re-post a photo with credit to the original poster can be incentive enough for users to tag a business in their content. Your customers, enticed by the opportunity of being featured on your page in front of your followers, will be excited to share content that tags and features your brand.
Thin Lizzy Beauty takes full advantage of this on their Instagram. The New Zealand based cosmetics company frequently promotes their #tlsquad and fills their feed with UGC. But their customers have more to look forward to than just being re-posted when they assert themselves as part of Thin Lizzy’s beauty squad.
Thin Lizzy also invites customers to “takeover” their Instagram for a day, where that customer will have the opportunity to use the brand’s products and share beauty tips on Instagram stories.
The lucky beauty enthusiasts will also earn a spot on Thin Lizzy’s “Takeovers” highlight on their profile, front and center for their nearly 88k following to see.
For small businesses with a follower count that’s still a work in progress, however, that offer can be harder to promote.
Instead, try holding a contest among your social media following. Raffle off something good (a free product, gift card, etc.) and make tagging your brand or including your branded hashtag a requirement for participation. You’ll give your audience something to work for and get your online presence off the ground in the process.
Take what you can from the high-profile pros...
Big businesses and household names are working with an entirely different arsenal of marketing resources than smaller businesses...but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t keep an eye on them and take inspiration where you can.
I know I said I wouldn’t mention Starbucks but...here I am mentioning Starbucks. Because their #WhiteCupContest from 2015 is a UGC campaign marketers still talk about today. The coffee giant requested that customers draw on their white coffee cups and submit their design on Instagram using the branded hashtag; the winning design was turned into a limited-edition tumbler.
The premise was fun and engaging, not to mention a great excuse to get the Starbucks logo across many Instagram feeds throughout the duration of the contest. A smaller company could easily replicate this contest, asking their users to customize one of their products and submit the results for a prize.
Just know that your campaign doesn’t need to create the same national buzz as Starbucks to be effective. Scale the ideas, but scale your expectations too.
...but try to find small businesses to use as inspiration.
Don’t focus solely on big businesses. If you can identify businesses similar in size to yours to help you brainstorm new strategies, those organizations could help you set more realistic expectations (and data benchmarks) for your own efforts.
For example, the legendary Boston pastry shop Mike’s Pastry might consider taking cues from a business like the West Coast’s Parakeet Cafe to use UGC to boost their following. Their comparable followings and kindred subject matter would make gathering insights an effective strategy for Mike’s—and they could see whether or not a similar strategy could help them reach their goals.
Do some social searching and follow businesses you want to keep tabs on, keeping in mind their industry and social following. See if you can find businesses with audience numbers similar to yours and see what they do to engage their audiences.
Ready to Play?
Get out there, engage your audience, share their posts—and don’t be discouraged by the big names out there that are already doing it. I hope this shows that you don’t need to have an influencer marketing strategy, spend millions of dollars, or be Starbucks to incorporate users into your content strategy.
- Megan O'Keefe
- Social Media & Content Specalist