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User-Generated Content Lessons

User-Generated Content Lessons Doug Wintz

For those of you who read this column, you know the focus is on media operations. Ad inventory, video, behavioral targeting, staffing issues, ad servers, contract management, site analytics-- you name it, we've covered it. But a couple of recent news stories really gave me the urge to step up to a different, though somewhat related soapbox that indeed has implications for the operations groups.

In short, its my contention that with over 20 years of online/internet experience under our collective belts as an industry, there is enough history of what works and what doesn't work to furnish adequate guidance for marketers, operations executives and major media companies. Nevertheless, I predict that as more brick and mortar companies migrate to the web-- much of that history will go unnoticed and we'll make the same mistakes over and over again. (Although, maybe I shouldn't complain. If politicians in the White House can make the same mistakes over and over again, why should we be exempt!?)

A couple of cases in point:

The New York Times recently (April 4, 2006) ran an article called "Chevy Tries a Write-Your-Own Ad Approach and the Pot Shots Fly." The article described the innovative efforts of one of Chevy's ad agencies who decided they should give internet users the tools to create their own Chevy Tahoe video ads and post them on the web. The results as related by the Times were revealing. Here are just some of the titles to the user-created videos: 

  • "Our Planet's Oil is Almost Gone. You Don't Need GPS to See Where This Road Leads"

  • "Like This Snowy Wilderness? Better Get Your Fill of It Now, Then Say Hello to Global Warming"

  • "$70 to Fill Up the Tank, Which Will Last Less than 400 Miles. Chevy Tahoe"

Now, in the accompanying article the ad agency and various pundits positioned this as a "good thing" because user generated content is all the rage and this type of feedback is expected. Wait a minute. You mean that GM thought that in the face of layoffs and rising stockpiles of unsold vehicles that this was a good thing? They thought that with the decline of SUV's popularity that the message would be "on point?" They actually knew this was going to happen and that the resulting coverage in the NY Times would be a benefit? That it was okay? Did their local dealers feel the same way?

My guess is that there was less attention paid to the history of user generated content and the negative environment that can be created when advertisers try to control it. As far back as 1988 online services created message broads that presented challenges to publishers in managing user generated content. Automotive companies provided forums for owners to discuss the merits -- or drawbacks -- of their vehicles. However, in the case of one very prominent Asian manufacturer, the boards were shut down shortly after they were created. Not only did they provide a forum for bragging about who had the most miles on their SUV, they also provided a forum for customers to band together and complain about vehicle problems, not to mention attracting ambitious attorneys.

Next up, MySpace
Why, in recent articles in The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, has everyone expressed surprise that the site is challenging for advertisers? They don't seem to be flocking to MySpace and paying premium dollars. Does anyone remember GeoCities? How about AngelFire and Tripod? These properties, featuring user-based content, as well as other "communities" have been the bane of online ad executives for well over 15 years. Ask anyone who's been saddled with a quota based on that content. They monetize at an effective CPM of way, way, way under $1.00. They present challenges to ad operations who tries to figure out what to do with the unsold inventory. The reasons have been well documented time and time again. Mainstream advertisers are not comfortable placing their brands adjacent to content that is not of a consistent, controlled quality.

The implications for ad operations are many. There is added pressure to fill this inventory with advertisers, but many of them have a "not in my backyard" mentality. In other words, they want run of site rotation, but need to be kept out of user generated content. So there is additional blocking and tackling that ad operations needs to facilitate to keep campaigns running on schedule, while dodging the areas of a site or network that generate the highest volume of impressions.

Is there any value to user generated content? Of course-- to the users! It's one of the few remaining aspects to the internet that follow through on the promise of free speech, youthful exuberance, self-expression and the creation of micro-communities that bring people to together. It attracts million upon millions of users-- and that makes them a tempting target for marketers and companies looking for instant ratings success in MediaMetrix.

But any company prospectus discussing this type of content should read "While the audience is massive, their views and activity are impossible to control. They may be attractive to a handful of fringe advertisers, but will present challenges to blue chip companies who are looking to reach a quality audience. We may not be successful at monetizing this audience through CPM based advertising, although we can expect a halo effect achieved through the turnkey access to a large audience"

While there is much innovation to come on the internet, there is enough history to know that the fundamental things still apply. We are not in "beta" mode anymore, folks. I am hopeful, although not necessarily optimistic, that executives, marketers and media operations managers will take a moment to look back in the past to avoid repeating the same mistakes in the future.


Image via Instagram.

You could argue that travel brands have it easier than most; they have a never-ending supply of beautiful, engaging content to share. Destinations, experiences, lodging, transportation -- so many options to create visual and verbal content for any number of social media channels. Given that, it takes a lot for a travel brand to stand out among the competition. A brand needs to go above and beyond the ordinary to become a truly great storyteller. Airbnb has done just that.

Instagram is where Airbnb really excels. Each photo it shares is from a different Airbnb property. Some show a spectacular view, some highlight an interesting feature or amenity, some include a guest or host, and every single one of them is beautiful. On its own, Airbnb's Instagram stream is a compelling travelogue that inspires potential travelers to dream about their next trip. But Airbnb has taken it a step further by linking to a page in its Instagram bio that includes a direct URL to each property featured in its Instagram stream. If you see a photo of a property you're interested in renting, you can click through to reserve it directly on Airbnb's website. In this way, Airbnb is moving from inspiration to action, turning travel dreams into bookings and reality.

Airbnb was one of the first brands to experiment with Instagram's carousel ad format -- using multiple photos in one ad, telling a more complex visual story and allowing viewers to scroll through the photos. Airbnb's Instagram ad featured homes in five locations, connected to a microsite and running alongside a web and TV spot with the message "never a stranger." It was a well-coordinated campaign, and resonated with the emotional and inspirational tone Airbnb has set with the rest of its Instagram presence.

On Twitter, Airbnb does an exceptional job all around, but one of its most fun initiatives is #TreehouseTuesday. Most Tuesdays, it shares a photo and link to a different treehouse property travelers can rent through Airbnb. This is a great way to showcase one of the things that sets Airbnb apart from other hotel or lodging websites -- where else can you rent a treehouse but from Airbnb?

Lowe's Home Improvement

Image via Instagram.

Lowe's has been able to successful capitalize on the recent increasing interest in home improvement and interior design by using its social media accounts to share inspiration and tips for home owners.  

On Instagram, all the images Lowe's posts feature a home improvement project, like an updated patio or redesigned bathroom. Each photo caption includes details on the products featured in it. That could include paint brands and colors, appliance makes and models, product names, and more. And if a follower posts a comment asking for more information about a particular element in a photo, Lowe's responds with specifics, including how the customer can find the product in the store or reproduce a look at home. It's interactive and useful for home-improvers.

Over on Vine, Lowe's has cultivated a more whimsical brand voice. Some of its short videos are shot in a sort of claymation style, and all include practical how-to tips for home improvers presented in a fun (and often funny) tone. Some are simple quick tips, while others are more complex, multi-step projects. For the more involved projects, each video's caption explains exactly how to walk through the video step-by-step to achieve the look demonstrated.

On Facebook, Lowe's shares lots of tips and ideas for new looks, as well as updates on sales in-store and online. Each post includes a link to the product on lowes.com. The team behind the Lowe's Facebook page is very responsive, engaging with its fans and responding to questions in the comments of each post. These responses sometimes include very detailed, personalized instructions on how to complete a particular home improvement project.

The brand also shares photosets of detailed projects and home makeovers on Tumblr, post tips and interact with customers on Twitter, and shares inspiration on Pinterest. Again and again, Lowe's demonstrates a sophisticated understanding of the power of social media, and how each social channel requires its own treatment. To be successful across social media, brands must customize their voice on each channel and share content that fits on that channel, and Lowe's does a great job with this.


Image via Instagram.

RedBull encourages an active, even extreme lifestyle. It has consistently cultivated an adventure-focused brand across social media. Over the past few years, RedBull has transitioned from a simple beverage company to a lifestyle and media powerhouse. It has aligned itself closely with sports and music, and create tons of original content on RedBull TV. Across social media, it -- like the other brands discussed here -- has created an inspirational voice, this one with a little more attitude.

On Instagram, RedBull shares photos and videos of events it sponsors, athletes performing impressive feats, and its iconic cans in an array of settings. A number of its Instagram posts are videos, showing athletes in action. Its Instagram content features gorgeous visuals of skydiving, surfing, skateboarding, racing, crazy daredevil feats, and so much more. It's a beautifully curated profile and inspires the wild side in its followers.

From its YouTube channel, RedBull shares tons of video content, uploading multiple new videos every day. Categories on its YouTube channel have names like "not your average selfies" and "earth porn," evoking the same kind of extreme attitude RedBull does on Instagram. In all its social media, RedBull also emphasizes a connection to nature, as many of its images are of people doing adventurous things in scenic nature settings, like walking a tightrope over a deep canyon.

Over on Twitter, RedBull has taken advantage of the multiple media formats Twitter supports, embedding images, GIFs and videos into its tweets. Most of its tweets include at least one hashtag or handle, encouraging interaction and sharing. And like many brands, RedBull has promoted its Snapchat account to its 2+ million Twitter followers, contributing to a large increase on the newer platform.

In its Snapchat content, RedBull can be a little less polished and a little more real than it is on Instagram and YouTube. It takes advantage by posting raw video of athletes trying new tricks, conversations with athletes behind the scenes of sporting events, and plenty of casual everyday video. It's highly active on the popular Millennial network, posting lots of new content daily. It has embraced Snapchat in a way many brands have yet to do.

Why these three brands?

A recurring theme for all three of these brands is inspiration. Every brand on this list has realized the power of visuals in social media to spur creativity and inspire its followers to do more. For all three, Instagram is the perfect social media channel for this kind of interaction, as it not only allows but also explicitly encourages beautiful, dramatic imagery. For Lowe's, this comes in the form of showing its fans how to make their homes look and function better. For Airbnb, it's giving travelers ideas and motivation for their next trips. For RedBull, it's encouraging the wild side in each of us.

In addition, each brand has realized that it needs to be consistent but customized across social media channels. To be successful, the content it shares on Facebook can't be the same as what it shares on Instagram or Snapchat. But at the same time, brands need to maintain a consistent, recognizable brand voice, no matter where their customers find them. This is far more challenging than it sounds, and these three brands do it very well.

Social media gives brands a space to interact with their fans and customers by doing more than just selling to them. Airbnb, Lowe's, and RedBull have embraced social as a space to inspire, motivate and relate to their customers, creating deeper, more meaningful relationships and empowering them to do more and be more.

Jenn Deering Davis is cofounder and editor-in-chief at Union Metrics

On Twitter? Follow iMedia at @iMediaTweet

"Creative concept pages of book stunning landscape at sunset" image via Shutterstock.

  Doug Wintz is Founder and Principal of DMW MediaWorks, a consultancy specializing in digital ad operations and technology.  Since 2004, DMW MediaWorks has helped emerging companies set up their ad operations departments and...

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