Whether it's an ad created by a customer and posted on YouTube, lavish praise (or a blistering review) on a blog, comments posted to a consumer portal or something else, user-generated media (sometimes called consumer-generated media or consumer-generated content) is on the rise as a key force in marketing. "Markets are conversations," as the Cluetrain Manifesto famously asserted, and users are increasingly raising their voices within those conversations.
The intrinsic pitfalls of a UGM campaign are large and many, but so are the potential benefits.
If you're a marketer or advertiser thinking about how your brand can engage with UGM, read this article to get a handle on best practices and also to help prevent an unwary -- and expensive -- pratfall into a UGM nightmare.
The key finding: don't be coy. The more you trust your customer base, the more likely you are to find success with UGM.
Remember: in Business 2.0's recent list of 50 people who matter now, the person who topped this list was the user who creates media.
Robert Moskowitz is a consultant and author who speaks and writes frequently in the U.S. and abroad on such topics as white collar productivity, knowledge management, practical use of the internet, telecommuting, caring for aging parents and business applications of information technologies. Read full bio.
"Marketers have never had an opportunity to 'listen-in' and to track the raw conversations of consumers," suggests Toby Bloomberg, of Bloomberg Marketing, a strategic marketing and social media consultancy. "That alone makes UGM interesting. Add to the mix the viral aspect of influencers, and the bloggers' connections to the brand and to their readers."
Makeupalley.com is one of many sites where that raw conversation takes place: it pulls together user-generated information about beauty products to provide a non-partisan information resource that other users can trust.
Bloomberg says marketers are quick to recognize that by means of UGM campaigns, they "can tap into trends, service issues, competitive intelligence. It's one more piece of information that can be added to the decision-making process."
Virginia Miracle, director of word of mouth with Brains on Fire, a corporate identity consultancy, points out that "UGM is content that today's media consumers are seeking out in record numbers and enjoying. And, if you have truly inspired one of your fans to salute you, it's also free-- what's not to like?"
"UGM is definitely the fad d'jour," says Drew Neisser, president and CEO of Renegade Marketing Group, a brand consultancy. "And why not? It's relatively inexpensive; it's potentially viral, and consumers continue to respond. That said, with so many advertisers asking the consumer to help them create ads, the novelty will wear off very quickly. Success will continue to depend on finding innovative ways to involve the consumer and reward them for their participation."
What does it mean to "get burnt" by a UGM campaign? Various experts define it as anything from a general lack of enthusiasm to consumers publicly attacking your brand.
Generally speaking, you've been burned if the campaign:
- produces unflattering buzz
- turns out to be a net negative in terms of consumer attention (probably not the case for Chevy Tahoe)
- proves less effective than a traditional alternative might have been
In March, General Motors experimented with user-generated media in a promotion involving the new Chevy Tahoe and the TV show "The Apprentice."
GM invited users to create ads under tightly controlled conditions, but didn't reckon on people taking the provided images and using them outside the box that it had provided.
The negative ads -- talking about the negative environmental impact of SUVs -- found a ready audience and garnered significantly more press attention than the company's positive ones.
By some tallies only 16 percent of entries to the Chevy Tahoe user-generated-advertising campaign were negative-- that's one out of six!
But did it really backfire?
Another way of reading the numbers is that of the 22,000 ads which consumers created a whopping 84 percent were positive, and 5.5 million people interacted with the site.
What's important to note, here, is that while GM did screen the user-generated ads for offensive or inflammatory content, it did not "remove material based solely on a 'negative tone' toward the company" (according to a report on CNET).
GM understood that getting involved with user-generated media is a way of having a conversation with your customers; it also understood that good conversations are rarely one-sided and universally positive.
In an interview with The New York Times, Chevrolet spokeswoman Melisa Tezanos said, "We anticipated that there would be critical submissions. You do turn over your brand to the public, and we knew that we were going to get some bad with the good. But it's part of playing in this space."
The takeaway: if you're going into a UGM campaign, expect to take some lumps from your consumers as well as praise. Don't try to stifle negative voices.
Not all negative UGM is short term. But how a company handles negative UGM is important.
Next: The Dell example
Dell, the computer company, has been a consistent target of negative UGM for a long time. It's not hard to find unhappy user testimonials that appear to be trustworthy and reasonable.
Here's a representative page from Randy Cassingham's site, This is True:
And another from Computer Gripes:
Both of these sites use the shorthand "Dell Hell," an expression first used -- or at least first made popular -- by blogger Jeff Jarvis of BuzzMachine.
Jarvis bought a Dell, had manifold problems with it, and began to complain repeatedly to Dell Customer Service, which didn't do enough to make the computer work to Jarvis' satisfaction. So, Jarvis -- already a popular and influential blogger -- began to write about his Dell experiences in BuzzMachine. The story got picked up by other bloggers and eventually by mainstream media including BusinessWeek and The New York Times.
The story was a significant black eye for Dell, although it is hard to determine the extent to which the story had an impact on Dell's declining market share.
The company refused to join the conversation about its brand that was taking place on Jarvis' blog and in the rest of the blogosphere. The company did offer Jarvis a refund -- trying to make him simply go away -- but for the longest time Dell PR maintained that it had a "look, don't touch" policy with regard to bloggers.
What Dell should have done is look and touch a lot, engaging with a very publicly dissatisfied customer, seeking to address his problems, and making sure that the company's perspective was well-represented in the conversation.
For a thorough account of the Jeff Jarvis/Dell story, check out this remarkable white paper.
So how do you keep your company from getting burned by UGM?
The power of UGM now extends beyond the walled garden that most advertisers believe they can create. Entire sites are replete with UGM, and marketers have no control.
But you can, at least, do your due diligence and find out what consumers are saying about your brand before you start a new campaign. After all, you wouldn't invite people to a party if you thought they would trash your house.
Here are some sites worth checking:
Epinions has millions of searchable and browsable consumer reviews of products-- both positive and negative.
As its name suggests, Complaints.com focuses on the negative (some of the stories are harrowing).
Likewise, My3cents describes itself as a place where "Visitors come to learn, interact and voice opinions regarding companies, products and services in our open community." Much of the content is negative, but it's free to browse.
Don't forget the blogosphere
Aside from consumer portals, you can also see what bloggers are saying about your brand-- and the Jeff Jarvis/Dell story should convey how important doing this is.
Technorati and Ice Rocket are two blog-oriented search engines. PubSub allows you to subscribe to a free monitoring service that sends real-time alerts as new online content, much of it from blogs, gets posted.
And you can always simply run a query on your brand through your favorite search engine.
-- Scott Holmes, United Future
Virginia Miracle of Brains on Fire warns that it's a mistake to think that "the traditionally separated PR and marketing teams will allow you to respond or, more proactively, harness the power of UGM."
She offers the following tips to staying fireproof:
- Identify and train groups of mature, personable folks in your company in technology, tools and blogosphere etiquette
- Allow them to answer questions on your behalf that may appear on message boards or forums
- Invest in educating part of the marketing team on the new tools and task them with thinking about how they can be woven authentically with your go-to-market plans
- See if you already have some fans telling your story. Let them know you're listening. This will allow them to feel an even greater degree of ownership in your brand
Max Kalehoff, vice president of marketing for Nielsen BuzzMetrics, a global measurement service for user-generated media, makes clear that UGM's popularity exists at least partly "because all the other controllable stuff is losing effectiveness."
Kalehoff counsels advertisers to be authentic and transparent. "Practice common sense ethics," he says. "Be a champion of the consumer. You can no longer market a product that sucks. Consumers talk to one another. Search engines are becoming not just ways to find data on the web but powerful enablers or facilitators for passionate information seekers. As a result, it comes down to less tolerance by the consumer. Consumer respect is an emerging theme here. Advertisers need to understand WOM and the interaction and process and flow surrounding it."
"Marketers should keep in mind that UGM, as a source of marketing research information, is at the infancy stages of development," Toby Bloomberg points out. "I think the day will come when UGM will be integrated into an overall marketing research strategy along with traditional quantitative and qualitative data."
Scott Holmes, managing partner of United Future, the interactive division of WONGDOODY, points to Apple as a classic case of a company going through periods of positive news, then negative news, then positive news again. "They have resurrected themselves once again. How? They embrace the customer."
And they don't monopolize the conversation. "The smart brands are allowing consumer-to-consumer conversation," says Holmes, "creating online exchanges between audience members. This is the wave of the future."
"We expect marketers will continue to look for ways to involve the consumer in all aspects of their marketing," says Neisser of Renegade Marketing, "from product development to package design to ad development and more. The spoils will go to the marketers who innovate, who deliver the highest degree of customer satisfaction. In the world of UGM, filtering will be increasingly important to both marketers and consumers. For marketers, filtering helps avoid the problem Chevy ran into. For the consumer, filtering means that only the best UGM sees the light of day. Converse Gallery was a great example of successful filtering."
As the experts see it, user-generated media is the camel's nose into the tent.
According to an article in the Financial Times (June 22, 2006), Mark Tutssel, worldwide chief creative officer at the Leo Burnett advertising agency, spoke to an audience at the Cannes Lions International Advertising Festival and said, in part, "Marketers must learn to let go of the control they think they have over their brand.... Once consumers have interacted with brands they will not go back to being shouted at by marketers."
Many don't like the notion of giving up that kind of control. They contend UGM is simply a fad. But to others it's a major advance in market research and message development. Today it gives brand-fans a chance to make their own commercial or TV show. Tomorrow it's an organized feedback channel that advertisers and marketers actively tap to keep a finger on the pulse of core constituencies, and probably the most likely prospects, as well.
But opening the doors to floods of feedback like this is neither simple nor benign. It can wash away comfortable assumptions and batter the internal walls that have been erected for the comfort of those within. As always, some will probably resist. It'll be interesting to see who floats and who drowns as the tides of UGM rise higher.