Is User Generated Content a trap for brands?

Barbara Messer from AdNews has sent me questions regarding opportunities and risks of user-generated content (UGC) in campaigns. Her article appeared recently but here are a few of my answers in full:
Is there anything wrong with using UGC in advertising campaigns? What are the boundaries – when is it clever, and when is it an invasion of privacy? What are the advantages?

There is nothing wrong with UGC in ads per se. Many consumers would rather have a connection and a dialogue with their favourite brands than simply receiving a one-way, mono-dimensional broadcast. Serving their interest by letting them have an impact on the brand’s communication can be seen as a good thing. It is clever when a brand offers this opportunity because it is genuinely interested in what their consumers do, feel and say. It is disappointing if it is used to tick a fancy box (“Hey, let’s do it 2.0 style!”) or downright terrible if done to save money on agency fees.

Photo by flickr user debaird in Chicago
Photo by debaird under CC (debaird photostream on flickr)

UGC in ads hold many promises, some of them being:
– show how much you care for the target group’s lives, ideas and feelings,
– gain insights for marketing, service and product development,
– participants deepen their brand engagement,
– a different and honest idea, imagery, copy or tone that cuts through the clutter of regular ads,
– something of interest that a target group will want to talk about rather than the brand talking about itself,
– acceptance inside the company that their brand is always subject to consumer interpretation: unmanage to stay relevant.

Is Australia’s legal system set up to cope with UGC?

It is not currently. Judiciary and legislative systems are slow to catch up with the pace of technology and the changes it brings to media consumption and publishing. Users publish for example photos in social networks without the consent of the people portrayed in it, they blog confidential information about their jobs and they are quick to hand over content’s usage rights without getting paid. The copyright and privacy laws in Australia will eventually change though and will affect how everybody can legally use services, upload, download and share content.

Should advertisers be more hesitant in their use of UGC? Are agencies that embrace UGC putting themselves at risk of legal prosecution?

Be hesitant seems like bad advice, as if staying away from social media might save the day, keep the brand intact and fresh at the same time. UGC is right if it fits the brand’s character and people feel strongly enough to produce content for it. Not being a lawyer in this field, I would assume that agencies are as much at risk as the client. While a legal assessment based on existing laws might give a campaign the go ahead, I wouldn’t neglect a very fuzzy factor: Does it feel like proper behaviour of a big company towards an individual? Campaigns rarely violate existing copyright or privacy laws, but sometimes create a conflict in a yet-undefined area. In those situations the ambivalence is always interpreted against the big brand (and their agency). The longer they then insist on having acted lawfully and start picking at legal issues, the more they tide turns against the campaign.

Using content from users requires therefore an additional step in campaign planning: advertisers and agencies should know how to communicate and behave before, during and especially after the campaign runs. This means honest, transparent and one-on-one communication if need be. They have to know how they want to respond to negative reactions as well as overwhelming success. This means more than releasing a press statement. Without this plan, the campaign can become a creative flop, a PR or even a legal disaster.

Too many UGC campaigns are currently hit-and-miss. Some are hard to measure or involve great efforts in initiating, growing and grooming participation. As an industry we will have to continuously learn from all of the mistakes as the clients’ demand for clever UGC and social media campaigns can only rise.


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