Despite the fact that we have never met them, and usually have no clue as to their qualifications, consumers put increasingly greater stock in the word of their fellow consumer.
"[User generated content] is just something that has evolved, but in many ways we have always had it," said Kaci Bower, author of the MarketingSherpa Inbound Marketing Handbook citing mass reviews and word of mouth.
"Now, with the advent of social media, it is just exploding. Now consumers and brands actually have a place to share their opinions, thoughts and ideas," said Bower. "It actually provides a platform for user-generated content to not only be created, but also shared quite easily."
The puzzle is in learning how to harness its power.
Social media provides a more intimate cyber setting than any other format, and because of that fosters feedback that is more conversational and for better or worse, people don't hold back. It gives marketers insight into what their consumers are really concerned about, or happy with.
Tip #1. Use consumers to create content and drive SEO
"Just getting insight into customer language is perfect, and that ties in with SEO…it is going to capture those long-tail keyword variations because it is the words that people would use to describe the product and describe the features of the product."
Marketers, Bower said, find content the most difficult thing to create, but also the most effective. User-generated content is a way to make your site more dynamic.
"E-commerce sites are probably the best example of that. A really good, world class e-commerce site, the majority of the content seems to come from reviews and ratings."
Companies need to have a balance between traditional content and user-generated content. If the balance is too heavily skewed toward user-generated content, you can lose control of your marketing message.
A goal should be established when cultivating user-generated content, and figure out where it belongs in your overall communication strategy.
Provide different outlets depending on your consumers
"Provide a lot of different outlets for people to get feedback…we are all different. Some of us like to write. Other people are probably going to be more drawn into doing something with pictures, whether it's photographs or videos," said Bower.
Bower advises that many of these tactics can work well in B2B, but if you prefer to start out slow, LinkedIn group discussion forums can "very easily lend themselves to that type of back and forth conversation."
Tip #2. Figure out where it fits into your overall communication strategy
A goal in common with the rest of your communication strategies should be established when cultivating user-generated content. The platform chosen should also fit in with where your customers are most likely to interact.
Bower cites three of the easiest platforms:
Blogs are one of the easiest ways to get started, according to Bower, by building an active comments section. They also "usually are more effective, in terms of using blogging as a lead conversion strategy or a lead generation strategy."
If you have a blog already but aren't getting the response or comments you'd like, Bower suggests, "adding those provocative questions or those texts of strong engagement questions to encourage comments."
Contests can be a great way to not only provide an outlet for creative and dynamic user-generated content, because you can direct and put parameters around the message.
Many companies in the past have taken advantage of the easy access many customers have to video-capturing services with video contests, which adds a face-to-face value to the endorsement.
It has also surprised many marketers in its effectiveness. Recent comScore data reports an all-time high of 188 million U.S. consumers (87.3% of the U.S. Internet audience) watching an estimated 38 billion Web videos in August.
A MarketingSherpa how-to featuring Orabrush, and its YouTube video campaign, illustrates the customer video review journey they took. The reviews started accidentally, but they now have a dedicated section for them with over 100 videos highlighted at the top of their YouTube page.
Tip #3. Respond to feedback, good or bad
From blog post comments to a contest, someone should always be monitoring and responding. Whether it is a compliment or a complaint, simply knowing that a company cares enough to respond is often enough.
For instance, I was once so frustrated while watching a show on Hulu that I tweeted out a complaint about my issue – Generation Y's version of kicking the television set or fiddling with the rabbit ears.
Within five minutes I had a response from the official Hulu Twitter account offering to help me with my problem. I was so pleasantly surprised I completely forgot about my complaint and moved on. Hulu's quick and friendly response to my sullen Twitter grumblings made quite an impression on me as a product user.
Responding to this kind of feedback is a way to direct the conversation, said Bower, and to provide more content for people to benefit from.
"If there is a negative review, don't shy away from it. At the very least when we see a negative review, we should also see that the company addressed it or acknowledged it. That says a lot."
Tip #4. Be aware of any potential issues
I do not have a law degree, and you probably don't either. If that is the case, before pulling any user content into a marketing campaign, check with your legal department about possible copyright problems.
Another potential issue can crop up where user-generated content meets SEO.
"You want to balance your user-generated content with your quality-optimized content – so much user-generated content could potentially hurt your SEO because it is not optimized. It can dilute the effectiveness of your site or your SEO strategies," said Bower.
Tip #5. Don't create fake user content
This one might seem like it would be obvious.
Consumers are looking less to marketers for information on a product, and increasingly relying on each other. Since the genesis of Amazon, positive customer reviews can be make or break.
"[Consumers] are looking for those real, unbiased opinions today from peers, from like-minded individuals, and so, the more the companies can provide that, it is going to really benefit them," Kaci said.
Many marketers fell behind in the shift and don't want to take the time to cultivate real user content when it seems easy and harmless to use a fake review.
Health Net was caught for their recent campaign, citing tweets on their billboards from users who had never tweeted a single sentence, let alone one praising the company.
While this practice will cost you the trust of consumers, it can also be costly. In 2005, Sony settled out of court to pay out $1.5 million after using a fake critic to praise its movies in advertisements. "David Manning" raved about movies including A Knight's Tale, The Patriot and The Hollow Man.
In an August 25 article entitled "The Best Book Review Money Can Buy," The New York Times outed a Tulsa man, Todd Rutherford, who has been in the ethically gray business of selling positive book reviews.
Rutherford advertised a book review at $99, 20 reviews would run you $500, and whopping $1000 for 50 positive reviews. The article reports that Rutherford was taking in $28,000 per month churning out faux reviews. Some of his customers went on to best-seller lists.
It is a disillusioning practice that not only wrecks trust between company and consumer, but squanders an opportunity to cultivate a genuine response that will really resonate.