In the age of social media, marketers are only able to control the public perception of organizations to a limited extent. Instead, consumers have the opportunity to exchange opinions directly with one another and can create an unbiased opinion based on their own experiences. One’s own opinion does not only affect a restricted audience but can potentially reach and influence everyone on the Internet. Increasingly, individuals are creating content that they share with the public through social networks. The spectrum of such content is very broad, but from a marketing perspective, brand-related content is particularly interesting. This raises the question of what impact user-generated content has on the perception of organizations and brands. This post will look at the characteristics of user-generated content, why organizations should consider it within the context of their own marketing activities, and whether content creation can be controlled by organizations.
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The public image of a brand is shaped in equal measure by the structured flow of information from the organization itself and the individual opinions of consumers. User-generated content (UGC) is found in particular in social networks and is capable of significantly influencing the public perception of a brand. The creators of such content are diverse, so that no general statement can be made regarding the characteristics that distinguish a content creator. Instead of personal characteristics, it is contextual factors that are decisive for individuals to create content. For example, the very fact that content creation and publishing has become dramatically easier in recent years is sufficient to explain why so many people publish content (online). Individuals can become part of the value chain of a specific brand by means of content creation. The sense of belonging to a positively perceived brand is a strong incentive for many, and a community usually forms around the strongest brands, which in turn increases brand equity. Organizations seeking to increase brand equity should therefore create space for interaction with and between consumers to foster this dynamic. However, it is important that organizations constantly monitor user-generated content, as this is the only way they will be able to perceive the general mood in the public eye and counteract it if necessary.¹ Under the right circumstances, organizations can also use UGC for their own advertising purposes and draw on authentic user experiences. User-generated content can be compared, at least in part, with electronic word-of-mouth (eWOM), since here too it is not a professional user but an independent consumer who reports on his or her own experiences. Individuals are more likely to trust other consumers than an organization, and the creators of UGC repeatedly achieve the status of opinion leader, so they can significantly influence the purchase intentions of other consumers. This influence can be both positive and negative for the perception of a brand or organization.²
UGC can be understood as a form of expression intended to communicate with various different stakeholders. However, the content is platform-dependent and varies greatly in some cases. Smith et al. (2012) used YouTube, Facebook and Twitter as examples to investigate the influence of the platform on the type of content published by users and concluded that the content differs in terms of its structure and the motives for publication. In the case of brand-related content, for example, the self-promotion of the publisher is an important factor. Regardless of the platform, UGC offers the possibility of joint co-creation of content between marketers and users, which can be used in a goal-oriented manner by organizations, especially if they pursue a proactive marketing strategy on social media.³ There is little dispute that UGC can be a positive addition to one’s brand appearance on social networks, but the question still remains as to what motivates individuals to create and publish appropriate content. The information market is increasingly changing to a user-centric model, so media content – especially online – is no longer shaped by publishers, but by independent individuals. Users create an individual environment from which they draw their information and interact with other users within that environment. Consumption of UGC often leads to consumers of such content also becoming producers of their own. One observation of this dynamic is content that goes viral by quickly finding imitators and creating new trends. The social component of UGC should not be neglected, as many content creators use their content to create a foundation for different individuals with similar interests to come together, and the resulting sense of connection and community is a strong motivator for many people.⁴
Relationships between people are easier to establish and maintain than those between people and abstract constructs such as organizations or brands. It is therefore not surprising that individuals are more likely to trust other consumers than the advertising of organizations. However, this leap of faith can also be leveraged by an organization through the effective integration of brand-related UGC. It can be assumed that incorporating user-generated content into one’s marketing activities is more cost-effective than producing advertising materials in-house. This is still likely to be the case if an organization invests in an adequate infrastructure to collect, review and incorporate the content. At this point, it also seems appropriate to point out that UGC does not refer to advertising partnerships – e.g., in the form of product placements – but to independent content in which specific products, services or brands are merely mentioned. From an organization’s point of view, it can nevertheless make sense to offer incentives for the creation of UGC if this content can subsequently also be used for the organization’s own advertising purposes.
Probably the most common criticism of UGC in relation to explicit marketing activities is that organizations have little or no control over the content. This statement is indeed correct in terms of substance, but it should not lead to UGC being ignored as a component of marketing. As described earlier, marketers are not in a position to fully control public perception. Thus, UGC is an addition to an organization’s formal information channels and is an important source of information for many consumers that can influence individual buying behavior. Since such content will always exist – regardless of whether it is desired or not – it seems sensible for organizations to invest in effective integration of this content. For example, it is conceivable that individuals who are enthusiastic about a brand will want to share their positive experiences with those around them and the public, and the respective organization will benefit by creating a framework that encourages this sharing. It can also be assumed that the content a user creates and shares with their network out of their own conviction will be more authentic and effective than professionally created promotional material. One aspect that may also be worth mentioning at this point has to do with the negative basic attitude many people have toward advertising: Advertising is often perceived as something negative, as the placement of advertising is often done in such a way that individuals are disturbed in what is actually their intended activity. User-generated content tends to be consumed voluntarily rather than imposed, so this negative basic attitude could be avoided. Even though it can be assumed that negative opinions will always be published in a discussion, UGC probably represents an opportunity rather than a risk for one’s own marketing efforts.
Brand-related UGC differs from explicit promotional material in that the content is not created and published by professionals, but by independent users. In the age of social networks, it is no longer possible for marketers to pursue a clearly defined agenda. Instead, public opinion on brands and organizations is formed by many individual opinion leaders. It has never been easier to create and publish content and share one’s own opinion with a large number of unknown people. Authentic customer experiences are capable of influencing buying behavior, and organizations can benefit by incorporating user-generated content into their own marketing strategy. For this to be successful, marketing strategies should be proactive and aligned with the respective platform, and supporting structures should exist to facilitate collection, evaluation, as well as integration.
¹ Christodoulides, G., Jevons, C., & Bonhomme, J. (2012). Memo to marketers: Quantitative evidence for change: How user-generated content really affects brands. Journal of advertising research, 52(1), 53-64.
² MacKinnon, K. A. (2012). User generated content vs. advertising: Do consumers trust the word of others over advertisers. The Elon Journal of Undergraduate Research in Communications, 3(1), 14-22.
³ Smith, A. N., Fischer, E., & Yongjian, C. (2012). How does brand-related user-generated content differ across YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter? Journal of interactive marketing, 26(2), 102-113.
⁴ Daugherty, T., Eastin, M. S., & Bright, L. (2008). Exploring consumer motivations for creating user-generated content. Journal of interactive advertising, 8(2), 16-25.