In his 1967 essay, The Death of the Author, the French literary theorist and philosopher Roland Barthes proposed that once a piece of literature was created it no longer belonged to the writer, but rather the reader. As Barthes put it, “a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination.” That’s because, he reasoned, the author’s ideas had been derived from countless previous influences and experiences and, so, it was up to the consumer of the work to provide it with context and meaning. Although Barthes’ ideas were controversial at the time, they seem self-evident in the digital age.
The messenger becomes the message
It’s time to accept the fact that, like Barthes’ theoretical author, you’ve already lost control of your message. And 2016 looks to be the year that user-generated content (UGC) KOs branded content once and for all. That’s because, time and again, UGC has been proven to garner public trust in ways your own messaging can’t touch. According to a recent Forrester Research study, 71% of US consumers say that “customer ratings and reviews are important.” 71% of people surveyed were more likely to buy a product if it has a lot of positive reviews. In a separate survey, 70% of consumers trusted recommendations from peers over professionally produced messaging.
The first rule of UGC: authenticity
Sometimes a company will try to elicit UGC by authorizing the use of its images or other branded content to a third-party. More likely, it will run ads on an amenable reviewer’s website or blog. But far and away the best UGC is that which is produced organically—content inspired by a customer’s love of an organization’s products, services or culture. It’s the best press money can’t buy. And the best way to achieve that kind of love is to be great at what you do. It’s also going to require new ways of working in order to curate and comment on content—and to gain important insights about your brand advocates.
Activate your brand advocates
User-generated content, including ratings, reviews and social media posts, can be a great opportunity for your organization to highlight positive feedback or to begin important conversations with customers. But how do you entice your most vocal and passionate brand advocates to share their brand love with friends, family and colleagues? The first step is to acknowledge who your brand advocates are and thank them for sharing their positive experiences across social channels. Public recognition of positive UGC will activate more UGC. And, if you provide a well-crafted and timely response, even negative feedback can be converted to positive UGC.
Turning UGC into a W-I-N
Barthes’ opinion aside, there actually are quite a few ways you can influence your message after it has fallen into users’ hands. Perhaps the easiest way is to simply ask advocates to participate in a UGC campaign—many will no-doubt be delighted to do so. Another is to incentivize UGC by promoting a contest in which you offer prizes for the best content. You can also partner with companies that specialize in vetting potential influencers. Whichever route you choose; the goal is to get people talking. One of the biggest mistakes a company can make is to ignore the conversations that are already taking place about its brand. And, it’s up to you to ensure that the UGC showcases your brand in a positive light.
You can learn a lot about your company from UGC. In addition to important feedback, it provides insights into how customers actually use your products and services, which allows you utilize your in-house PR materials and campaigns in the most effective ways possible. As a bonus, UGC can supplement your branded content in website copy, social media and emails. Barthes argued that, for too long, the reader had been ignored in favor of the author. He was right. It’s time to let your readers tell your story. And, besides, they already are.