4 tips to put user generated content to work for your business

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As an entrepreneur, you’ve probably had some kind of internal monologue that went a bit like this:

“I know we need great content – but it takes time and money to create. Wouldn’t it be awesome if I could get my users to create that content for me? And what if, possibly, they did it for free? I know: USER-GENERATED CONTENT!”

That’s the big, shiny appeal of user-generated content: It has the potential to be a steady supply of good content you can get for free from adoring fans that will net you even more adoring fans.

User-generated content can be useful for engaging and building communities, promoting your brand, and scooping up critical social proof that could convince people you’re the real deal and worth their hard-earned cash.

But while UGC is a wonderful tool to have in the kit, it’s also not easy to generate – and it’s certainly not free. Entrepreneurs can wind up dumping a ton of cash into UGC incentives and see almost nothing back in return.

A few important realities to consider:

To have user-generated content, you need users.

As a start-up or small business, you may not already have a community of users – or that community may be very small. If you want UGC to be a big part of your strategy, but don’t have many users in the pipeline, recognize that the promotional effort you throw behind getting your UGC efforts out there will have to be considerable.

You can start with a very small group of core, devoted followers – in fact, your “super users” may be the most likely to create content for you! But it does mean tapering your expectations; the smaller your community, the less content you’re likely to receive, and the more you need to diversify instead of leaning on just one tactic.

User-generated content requires a time investment.

Even though you’re not the one producing the content, you’re still going to need to facilitate collection, promotion, evaluation, and quality assurance. You’ll need to engage with the content creators and make sure the content you’re bringing in is usable (and sending the right message).

You’ll also want to learn from your UGC, especially if it’s feedback-based; these can be important moments for learning about your market and what they like/dislike about your product or service.

User-generated content is anything but free.

UGC costs money. You may need to spend cash on collection/monitoring tools, promotion, and advertising or even the incentives to get people to contribute (rewards and prizes).

You can generate a large volume of content all at once and make back the cost – but know that there is a cost, and without investment, you’re not going to get a whole lot back.

User-generated content can be fleeting.

Everyone loves a contest to win a free iPad – but if they participate, will they stick around after the contest is over? Your user-generated content campaigns and promotions need to do more than just get random people to create things about your brand – that content needs to be meaningful, usable, and have some kind of hook to bring people back. You need to be conscious about what you’re asking from people and what you’re getting in return in order to avoid an expensive investment that does very little for your bottom line.

Does all that mean UGC isn’t for entrepreneurs?

Absolutely not – it just means that budget-conscious businesses need to think a bit differently about their approach.

1. Focus on generating content you can repurpose and re-use.
Likes, shares, and comments are all nice metrics – but they’re not particularly long-term. Because you’re investing time and money into your UGC campaigns, you want to focus on generating content you can repurpose and get a ton of use out of. Some ideas surrounding this:

  • Photo content is great because it can be posted in blogs, tweeted, pinned to Pinterest, shared on Facebook, mashed up, and so on. Photos can also be a form of social proof – for example, shots of customers using your product or advocating for your service can be used in conjunction with testimonials to help boost conversion rates and convince new customers to become a part of your community. 
  • Customer testimonials, as I just mentioned, are multi-purpose as well. You can share customer stories in your blog, turn them into case studies, feature them on your home page, or conversion page choke-points (places a customer might feel risk or have a worry that needs alleviating).
  • Video testimonials are also fantastic content to go after – though they do require a more significant time investment from a would-be contributor (and will need to be rewarded accordingly). Like written testimonials, you can get a ton of leverage from these.
  • Customer reviews can be used like testimonials – but they also give you critical insight into how you’re performing. Encouraged unbiased testimonials – going so far as to share and promote insights from people who have given you tips on how you might improve. You’ll be showing that you care about your users/community while learning in the process.

Asking your users for content like blog posts is a dangerous game. While this can certainly help with the long-tail or in generating interest, the work itself may be horrible – and there’s always the danger of people remembering the blog post, but not the company behind it.

2. Engage your core audience with a low barrier to entry.
If you’re relatively unknown or have just a few users, go to them first with a campaign that takes little effort to contribute to. Don’t ask for videos, blog posts, or intensive sign-up processes (the minute you add a “register” step to the UGC funnel, you’ll lose a ton of people).

3. Don’t skimp on incentives.
You know your market – what do they like? What can you give them that would be worth sitting down to write a review, film a video, or snap a photo for? Be creative – and don’t forget that people like to be thrown in the limelight. Celebrate your users: showcase their contributions, and engage with the ones who take the time to submit. Recognition itself can be a part of the reward – but it shouldn’t be the whole thing unless you’ve got considerable amplification that someone would be really, REALLY excited to get.

4. Bake UGC into your processes/culture/website.
We’ve talked an awful lot about UGC “campaigns” – but there are also ways to bake UGC into the way people interact with your brand:

  • Product pages that prompt for reviews/showcase them as an integral part of the content
     
  • Email newsletters/drip campaigns that promote incentives and offer reminders for testimonials
     
  • Weekly/monthly blog posts/features that share user stories and submissions
     
  • Product pages that feature customer photos (e.g. clothing sites with customers wearing the clothes)
     
  • Coupon codes or discounts offered for reviews

You can get really creative with this and tailor it to whatever your offering or web setup, as well as the areas you’re active on social.

Entrepreneurs can cash in on UGC, but…

As we’ve seen, entrepreneurs and small businesses can cash in on the benefits of UGC, but should be cautious about putting too much stock into it too early on. Early content efforts should focus on building up a community, showcasing users, and establishing social proof.

Before you go wild running promotions and contests, think carefully about how that user-generated content will benefit you (and think beyond SEO), have a budget, set aside some time – and don’t give up!

Even if your first efforts fail, treat them as a chance to learn, evaluate where you fell short, and give it another go.

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