Feature

User-generated content decoded the perfect guest

Robert Gray looks at how brands are responding to the rapid rise of user-generated content, as they formulate new and improved ways of engaging with and cashing in on the consumer.

When ITV announced the £20 million revamp of its website last month, the inclusion of user-generated content formed part of its plans. Even large media owners with access to huge amounts of content cannot, it seems, afford to overlook UGC in Web 2.0.

The rapid rise of social networking and UGC sites such as YouTube, MySpace, Bebo, Facebook and Flickr has been discussed ad nauseum, but the speed with which they have built vast audiences and changed the internet landscape remains mind-boggling. YouTube was, after all, only formed in February 2005 and bought by Google 18 months later for $1.65 billion.

Blogs, mash-ups, online reviews, peer-to-peer Q&As, video clips, social networks, Second Life avatars ... in its many manifestations, UGC is proliferating. Small wonder, then, that Time magazine named "you" as its person of the year for 2006, and the US-based Advertising Age anointed "the consumer" as agency of the year.

Of course, despite the accolades, UGC is nothing new. What has changed is the ease with which it is possible to create and disseminate content. Widespread broadband penetration, camera phones, easy uploading of content, cheap digital editing software, a rapidly increasing choice of websites welcoming UGC, changing attitudes to social communication, blogs by the million: there are many factors driving the UGC explosion.

But how can advertisers best exploit this phenomenon? Microsoft Digital Advertising Solutions recently launched a set of "word of mouse" guidelines for advertising on social networks, based on research conducted by MetrixLab. Among its findings were that 70 per cent of consumers are prepared to put sponsored content on their personal space; 25 per cent of social networkers paste comments on ads; and 35 per cent will forward an ad to a friend if they deem it of interest.

The guidelines drive home the fact that UGC and social networking sites are clearly intended for individuals rather than big business, so any commercial presence needs to be carefully judged and sensitively implemented. "You have to remember that, online, we are seeing groups of people interacting socially, and there's a certain etiquette," Alex Marks, Microsoft Digital Advertising Solutions' head of marketing, says. "Brands that do behave like a proper member of a group stand a chance of making an impact and being seen in a good light."

Marks cites work from Volvo and MSN, now Windows Live Spaces, as good examples of hitting the right tone. Consumers were invited to write about their exciting experiences and adventures in a Volvo-branded "what's your story?" area. The exercise tied in with its "Volvo for life" positioning, and tracking showed an increase in both trust and levels of online buzz relating to the brand.

"Consumers don't want to interact with loads of brands, but there are some that we have a strong affinity with," Marks adds. "For some people, interacting with a brand on their Windows Live Spaces allows them to use that brand as a 'who I am' badge. It's a really exciting time. We are only starting to scrape the surface of how people are changing behaviour."

There's mounting evidence that those brands that succeed in building a legitimate presence for themselves in UGC spaces can carve out real relationship-building opportunities.

In March, the web traffic monitoring company Hitwise reported that Topshop was benefiting from its presence on MySpace, with twice as much traffic arriving at its website from the social networking site as from MSN and Yahoo! Search combined.

Topshop's profile on MySpace includes a blog that features special offers and discounts. It's for this reason, Hitwise concludes, that Topshop generates far more visits from MySpace than retailers with a similar audience demographic such as Miss Selfridge and New Look. The children's charity NSPCC is also attempting to raise awareness of child abuse issues among the social network's young audience with a presence on Bebo.

Online community site owners are looking to monetise their growing numbers of impressions by offering standard display advertising opportunities, but this may not be the best way for advertisers to use such sites.

Consumers don't visit community sites to read editorial content about a topic of interest (there are many online alternatives for that), they come to debate, gossip and exhibit themselves. They are unlikely to be interested in irrelevant ad messages, and clickthrough rates will inevitably be low.

"More sophisticated marketers are finding much higher levels of brand engagement by integrating more fully into communities and offering something much more valuable to members than a mere banner ad," Julian Smith, Mediaedge:cia's insight and research director, says. "Advertisers should look to leverage the networked aspect of the community and encourage brand messages to spread virally among their audience."

Some advertisers are horrified at the idea of co-creation, fearing a loss of control, but others appear to relish the scope. The clothing and accessories brand Quiksilver is one of the latter. Its agency, the Aegis-owned Isobar Global, launched a competition on YouTube last month. In return for posting their own videos of the "board-riding lifestyle" or creating one by downloading and editing action footage from Quiksilver's own extensive video library, entrants have the chance to win EUR10,000-worth of Quiksilver products. More than 100 entries were posted in the first week alone.

"More and more now, we are seeing opportunities for brands to hand over their assets to consumers and let them do with the brand as they please," the Isobar account planner Sasha Grujicic says. "It makes sense for some brands to do this, but not for others."

Using "real people who don't work in advertising" is now commonplace at TBWA\London, according to its executive creative director, Steve Henry, who points to work for McDonald's, PlayStation 3 and Adidas. Briefs have been put on the internet and Henry plans to put some up in the agency's reception, so that people can walk in from the street to work on them.

"It's like a tidal wave that's building and building," Henry says. "Everybody thinks they are creative, and everybody wants to be heard. In the future, the essence of this is going to be editing. It's fantastic that people are making videos of their pets doing funny things, but only one in a million is going to be actually worth watching."

Brands don't belong to the big companies any more, he claims. "They belong to their customers. What's exciting is what's new and what hasn't been done before."

This year's Super Bowl, coverage of which contains the most-prized TV commercial slots in the US, featured a 30-second ad for the snack brand Doritos that was created via an online competition run on Yahoo!. Of the 2,000-odd entries, the client apparently deemed 22 of sufficient quality to have been shown.

But for all this consumer engagement and brand interactivity, what of the critical measure of effectiveness?

Ozoda Muminova, the strategic planner of the interactive agency Play, believes that Web 2.0 evaluation requires metrics far beyond visits.

"Just as the 'build and they'll come' assumption was not right in Web 1.0, 'make them come and they'll build' is not necessarily true in Web 2.0," Muminova says.

According to Muminova, brands need to measure "events representing deeper engagement" through metrics such as "number of mentions in blogs", "share of buzz" and "site dwell". Suddenly, she says, the funnel approach of web conversions is no longer relevant: metrics in Web 2.0 are less linear. As UGC campaigns can build (or destroy) brands, so the distinction between hard media metrics and soft brand impact metrics is blurring.

Saatchi & Saatchi's interactive managing director, Neil Hughston, agrees. Gauging impact and effectiveness, as he sees it, hinges on assessing "return on involvement". By this, he means working out how users engage with one another, what they discuss and what content they share.

The fact that the web is awash with the self-authored, self-absorbed and frequently dire output of many millions of teens should not blind us to the profound impact of the UGC revolution. There are plenty of talented and not so talented people out there, interacting with individuals, groups and brands, creating, mashing, polemicising and demanding answers. Amid this febrile environment, some brands - and some creative agencies - will thrive. Others will surely founder.

UGC AND BRANDS: THE BLOGGERS' VIEW

Social networking has had a dramatic effect on my life. When I was asked to do this, I blogged about it, twittered about it, used the Ning platform, and went to my favourite ad group on Facebook - "Don't tell my mum I'm in advertising, she thinks I play the piano in a brothel."

These networks of smart ad and brand people from around the world all played a role in this. Thank you to all of them.

So, how can advertisers harness social network environments effectively, without alienating users? The following is a post I found on WonderlandBlog: "MySpace has turned into a massive zit full of marketing pus. Most teens don't mind advertising, but when things look more like spam than advertising, you're in deep shit. Every PR organisation and marketing arm is leeching on to MySpace like a blood-thirsty vampire. I'm really worried how over-advertising will kill even the coolest social hangouts."

Sometimes brands appear not to want to think about the places where their target audience is actively engaged. Dr Martens produced something called Freedom2. It was beautifully executed, yet fundamentally flawed. It was a "home to create and share your stuff". But there were already places for people to do just this, and they were already doing just that. When you go to Freedom2, there is never anyone there.

It'll be interesting to see how the new NBC Social Networking site works out. There are hundreds of active communities of passionate fans talking about TV shows and TV stars online. So, unless NBC can offer really compelling unique content, I am not sure why someone would go to it.

When should a campaign utilise user-generated content? Does it work better for certain brands, sectors, objectives, messages? In response, Tom Hopkins posted this on my blog: "Are we looking for user-generated advertising or user-generated content?" he asked. UGA is pure PR hype in my opinion. UGC, on the other hand, is a different matter.

Blogs filtered by Amelia Torode, the head of digital strategy at VCCP

WHEN IT WORKS

Guinness' "hands" is a lovely example of taking ad content and allowing people to make it their own. At guinnesshands.com, you can not only watch the ad, see footage that won't be shown anywhere else and find out about the making of the ad, you can also make your own version of the ad, choose a groovy soundtrack and send it on to your mates. A brilliant idea that will no doubt stick in the minds of consumers and be the subject of much discussion in pubs.

Red Bull's "the art of can" at redbullartofcan.com challenged the most creative minds to transform Red Bull cans into works of art. Using the can as a blank canvas, contestants produced 3D models, mobiles, videos, sculptures, pictures or whatever their imagination was able to produce. Exhibitions and events were branded, but legitimate and thoughtful.

E4's Skins is on MySpace (myspace.com/e4skins2), looking for new ideas, fresh writing talent and young actors to appear in the second series. It has created an extremely active community of fans who are engaged with the show's writers and directors. It's very smart and very different.

Absolut's user-generated campaign (absolut.com/100absolutes) solicits video, photos and audio clips from consumers. The site asks consumers to rate absolutes on 100 topics in six categories: culture; fashion; food and drink; science and technology; people and places; and miscellaneous. An engaging and innovative microsite.

WHEN IT DOESN'T

I don't much like Lucozade's "get your edge back" (lucozade.com/energy). I am just not convinced that anyone would take the time to make a film about getting their edge back and upload it to the Lucozade site. It looks like a case of jumping on an online bandwagon without real thought or insight applied.

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