Google has both snapped up, as well as created, any number of properties that are based on user-generated content. Most prominent among them are YouTube, Blogger, and Google Local. What's really different in the Zagat acquisition is that it makes Google an actual publisher for the very first time. Zagat guides aren't just another UGC channel. Rather, the user content that provides a basis for the guides is edited, evaluated, curated, scored, ranked, and repurposed.
Google's acquisition of Zagat will throw renewed attention at the ways content marketers can deploy user-generated content.
Content can be a wildly effective marketing tool, but content doesn't create itself. Stories, videos, blog post, tweets, photos, polls, surveys, white papers, and e-books are just the tip of the iceberg. No sooner have you created new content than it's time to go back to the drawing board and create, create again. Content is work-intensive and time-consuming, not to mention costly.
It's no wonder content creators feel they could use some help. They have it, in the form of users.
They don't call it user-generated content (UGC) for nothing. More than 82 million people in the U.S. created online content online back in 2008. That number is expected to swell to nearly 115 million by 2013, according to eMarketer.
Most content creators are on social networks such as Facebook posting photos or links. Many users review products and services on retail sites, such as Amazon or Netflix, on "places" sites like Yelp or Zagat.com, and a host of others. There's also a rapidly growing population participating in much deeper activities such as blogging, curating, and organizing content on sites such as Digg or Delicious, or uploading their own videos.
Some 71 million people created content on social networks back in 2008, back when they were relatively new. At the same time, 21 million blogged, and 15 million uploaded videos.
It's getting ever easier for consumers (and professionals too, of course) to create and publish content -- just as it is for businesses. And frequently, the content they produce is about businesses: the products they buy and use; the food they eat; service providers they research; vacation activities; the books, movies, and DVDs they consume. These are just the tip of the iceberg.
While opening content marketing to consumer-generated content necessitates relinquishing (or at least sharing) control over messaging, there are strong and compelling reasons to do so. Worldwide, web users worldwide showed close to a 50 percent increase in their trust of social network contacts giving product recommendations, and a 21 percent increase for microblog contacts. Meanwhile, "professional" sources of information such as newspapers and TV (and presumably, the advertising they carry) barely gained any trust over the same period.
Trust is critical, which is why marketers must learn to invest trust in those who create content around their products and services. A survey of top marketing executives conducted in this year by Bazaarvoice and The CMO Club found 93 percent of CMOs plan on using some form of user-generated content to inform product and service decisions. The top forms of user-generated content marketers used in 2010 include customer stories (59 percent), product suggestions or ideas (54 percent), polling (49 percent), and customer reviews (47 percent).
Some companies have launched entire websites to encourage customer ideas and participation. Starbucks' MyStarbucksIdea was an early example of a digital suggestion box on steroids. Starbucks customers can still visit the site to submit ideas around products, store decor, new uses for the Starbucks loyalty card... anything Starbucks related. Site users can comment on and vote for their favorite ideas.
Dell Computers applies that very same notion to its business with IdeaStorm, a forum for customer suggestions around its technology products, as well as the ways the company services and markets its offerings.
Even Kotex launched a website, UByKotex.com asking customers to "Ban the Bland," or put an end to plain white sanitary napkins. It's a suggestion site, but also a design competition in which the winners get a chance to not only share their designs, but work alongside designer Patricia Field. According to Organic, which built the site, the initiative resulted in a 10 percent jump in Kotex sales.
Customer stories also add authenticity to brand messages. Many leading hotel chains now solicit customer photos and travel recommendations for local destinations. Amazon invites users to submit their own product photos to expand on the manufacturer-supplied product shots standard on e-commerce sites.
One particularly brave invitation to customers to tell their stories came from Miracle Whip, the ersatz mayonnaise. Recognizing that consumers either love the stuff or hate it, it invited users to submit videos to a YouTube channel explaining, in their own, unscripted words, why they're lovers or haters of the condiment. Comments range from, "My grandma makes the best potato salad with Miracle Whip!" to "I'd rather die than eat it!" Users are also invited to love or hate the product on Facebook.
Miracle Whip understands that everybody isn't going to love everything all the time, and nothing siphons authenticity out of a message faster than portraying things in too rosy a light.
As recently as five or so years ago, sites resisted adding user reviews of products and services. Fear of negative feedback is understandable, but must be overcome. Negative reviews (like positive ones) help in buying decisions and create trust. User-generated content is, after all, about real people, not marketing-speak.
Moreover, Yelp has found 85 percent of its reviews are positive; Bazaarvoice says 80 percent of its user ratings are four or five stars. Any e-commerce merchant with reviews on their site will tell you they increase sales -- as well as SEO. Users often use the same language to discuss products that searchers use when seeking those same products.
In fact, the online retail clients of consumer-review provider Bazaarvoice never found more than a 3 percent overlap between the search terms in its review content and the terms it actually uses in its own product content.
In addition to sharing stories, polling, surveys, ratings, reviews, and product suggestions, companies can engage directly with customers through user-generated content. By responding to their comments on Twitter and on blog posts, or in communities and social networks, organizations can demonstrate that they care, are listening, and are interested in the conversations customers are having about and around them.
Rebecca Lieb is an author, speaker, and consultant specializing in digital marketing, advertising, publishing, and media.
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