The World: User-generated campaigns need fresh strategy

Global brands are in danger of mistaking social networks for ad channels. They must reach out to users, Maria Esposito says.

Men's razors and tortilla chips are unlikely standard bearers for innovative brand communication. But their manufacturers, Wilkinson Sword and Doritos, are leading the way in creative consumer participation.

Along with McDonald's, MasterCard, Westpac, T-Mobile and Sony Ericsson, both companies have invited consumers to produce content and both have found a more than willing audience.

According to a recent survey by Mediaedge:cia, this eagerness isn't unusual, with 20 per cent of young broadband users worldwide having already engaged with some form of brand-initiated and user-generated content.

Given this enthusiasm, it seems likely that more advertisers may increasingly call on UGC in order to improve their profiles with key demographics.

Mediaedge:cia's report revealed that almost 30 per cent of respondents aged between 16 and 35 were likely to make content for a brand in the future. From the 11,000 people interviewed across 22 countries, a further one in five said they would create UGC for a company they did not know or even like.

The Chicago-based market research business Leo J Shapiro & Associates conducted its own survey about the impact of discussion forums, blogs, online review and social networking sites on consumer behaviour. Findings showed that UGC was three times more influential than TV advertising when it came to making a decision about what to purchase.

Damian Thompson, the head of consumer insight at Mediaedge:cia's MediaLab, says: "What is surprising is the receptivity to creative consumer participation."

He attributes this receptivity to internet users' desire to build a reputation online.

"Within social networks the more that someone contributes, the better their status," he explains. "If brands can give them social currency, that will improve their status online too."

Becky Carroll, the director of social media at the Californian social media marketing company Brickfish, also believes that status among peers can drive consumers to a branded site.

Brickfish creates platforms to allow consumers to share branded UGC via blogs, e-mails and networks such as Facebook and MySpace. The company has seen core engagers spend an average of 13.4 minutes with branded campaign content, which is much longer than the average time spent looking at an online banner ad.

This scramble for online status and peer approval is borne out by Mediaedge:cia's campaign for Wilkinson Sword in France. Called "D.A.R.E" (le droit aux rasages extravagants or the right for eccentric shaves), the campaign invited consumers to upload photos of unusual beards for others to vote on.

The site, which was live for two years from 2006, increased the market share for Wilkinson Sword by 8 per cent, with more than 600,000 site visits in the first month and 1.5 million votes cast.

Meanwhile, "dance with Bob", another Mediaedge:cia UGC campaign for Sony Ericsson in France, generated 220,000 website visits within two months.

In the US, this success has been replicated by MasterCard and the car manufacturer Chevrolet, which received 100,000 and 30,000 entries respectively to their online competitions to create TV ads for their products.

In Australia, the media agency Carat set up Facebook and MySpace groups, dedicated to World Youth Day in 2008 for Tourism Australia. As a result, it saw the Facebook group attract more than 120,000 fans.

For Owen Shapiro, the vice-president of Leo J Shapiro & Associates, this upswing in consumer participation marks a critical stage in general attitudes to UGC.

He says: "It seems to have passed through the 'early adopter phase' and begun reaching a more mainstream audience."

While consumers are certainly making the leap, many advertisers and marketing companies are interested but tentative about asking the general public to create branded content.

Martin Cowie, the managing director of Carat Australia, says: "Marketers, increasingly, are realising that they can't dictate the organic conversations that consumers have about brands. Many clients are confused about how they can leverage UGC."

Thompson agrees that content generated by consumers can be misread: "Big brands are mistaking social networks for advertising channels. They think that MySpace has 305 million users and they should put an ad in front of them. That misunderstands the nature of that communication."

Brands also need to bear in mind that UGC-centred advertising can reach a wider audience than the 16- to 24-year-old demographic. "UGC campaigns are by no means limited to young people," says Cowie, who has seen the tourism, finance and FMCG industries tap into this resource in Australia. "Anyone can participate on some level."

Cowie says that the key is accessibility: "UGC can be opened up to all types of audiences by using not only online networks but story booths, events, or old-school photo competitions in shopping malls.

"I would go as far as to say that all brands should consider UGC, provided they do so strategically. It's a matter of picking a relevant topic that engages people and drives brand values."