How to Leverage User-Generated Content: Examples & Best Practices

User-generated content (UGC) is a hot topic for marketers, promising big rewards if done right.

First, as it’s created by users, you’re not devoting resources into ideation and creation. Plus, being generated by users, UGC innately represents the voice of the customer (VoC) and comes with a built-in element of social proof.

According to Nielsen, more than nine out of ten consumers (92%) say they trust organic, user-generated content more than traditional advertising.

As marketers strive to create a more authentic brand voice while moving away from the stiff, corporate, and impersonal style of the past, UGC seems poised to solve one of marketing’s biggest challenges today.

First, though, marketers must master the art of cultivating UGC, ensure that it’s on-brand, and optimize distribution for maximum impact.

Let's dive in.

How to Cultivate User-Generated Content

Before your UGC campaign gets off the ground, the first step is to find a way to encourage users to create branded content.

Incentivize Users

One of the most common – and proven – ways to cultivate UGC is by making it worthwhile for users to engage with your brand. Incentives often come in the form of contest entries, but in many cases, the appeal of having their photos or other content shared on a national platform by one of their favorite major brands is more than enough to incentivize your most loyal brand ambassadors.

Or, you can tie it in with a worthy cause, like Aerie does in its #AerieReal campaign. In an effort to fight back against the excessive use of editing in advertising images, Aerie no longer retouches photos of its models in bathing suits. And, for every user who posts an unedited photo of themselves in a swimsuit, using the #AerieReal hashtag, Aerie donates $1 to the National Eating Disorders Association.

how to leverage user generated content

Screenshot via Instagram, #AerieReal Campaign

Of course, if your brand doesn’t yet have that kind of clout, you’ll need to sweeten the deal a bit with a chance to win a free product, a free subscription, a weekend getaway – whatever your audience will jump at the chance to get their hands on.

A full-on contest isn’t always necessary, either; many companies find success with simple incentives. A juice bar might reward its customers with a free beverage every time they share a selfie enjoying a smoothie on the premises, or a retailer might offer a discount on a future purchase to those who post photos of themselves glammed up in the brand’s gear. A free or discounted product in exchange for an honest review is another tried-and-true way to cultivate UGC.

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Keep Campaigns Focused and Unified

User-generated content can take a multitude of forms -- images, videos, sound clips, social media posts, and more -- making the most popular social media platforms ideal for UGC campaigns. Rather than encourage users to generate content in any medium and on any platform, however, marketers new to UGC will find their campaigns much more manageable by focusing on a single platform and a single medium, such as images or videos. Calvin Klein takes this approach with the #MyCalvin campaign, inviting users to post photos of themselves sporting their favorite Calvin Klein intimates.

Screenshot via Instagram, #MyCalvins Campaign

That doesn’t mean ignoring your ongoing, cross-channel marketing campaigns. In fact, Calvin Klein uses a cross-channel strategy that resulted in millions of new followers across social channels including Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, where the hashtag took off, growing to 23.5 million interactions (and counting). It doesn’t hurt that the campaign attracted the attention of a few noteworthy celebrities, too, with the likes of Justin Bieber and Kendall Jenner getting in on the #MyCalvins action.

If you’re just getting started with UGC, focusing solely on a single platform allows you to better test methods and approaches, and you can tap into many of those lessons learned in future campaigns on other channels. For instance, if you run a Facebook video contest, you might discover that your audience isn’t particularly talented at video production. In this case, incentivizing the creation of on-brand images on a visually-oriented platform like Pinterest or Instagram may be a more successful approach for your next campaign. Like all things marketing, mastering UGC is about continuously testing, analyzing, and fine-tuning your strategy.

Best Practices for UGC Distribution

Getting users to create UGC is only half the battle; what you do with it after it’s created is what brings the race to the finish line.

Build in Validation Mechanisms

If you’re getting excited about the prospect of getting your users to create content on your behalf that will get your brand in front of a larger audience, it’s tempting to embark on a promotion frenzy, readily sharing any content your users generate about your brand. After all, the fact that people are talking about your products or services is a good thing, right? Not so fast.

Keep in mind that if you’re incentivizing users to create content, you’re also in some way incentivizing those who want to game the system. That means you’ll need to be on the lookout for fake accounts, as well as those with other content that could be potentially damaging to your brand image (think links to competitors, spam, or socially inappropriate comments such as hate speech). Finally, UGC should be authentic. Chances are the halfhearted attempts from those looking for a quick win will be easy to pick out among the genuine, authentic content created by those who know and love your brand.

Ensure That Messaging is On-Brand

The reality is that you won’t have complete control over all content generated by users. Anyone can, in theory, publish whatever they want (within legal reason, of course) about your company, products, or services. User-generated content often runs the gamut from amateur, rough video clips and Facebook status updates and tweets riddled with grammatical issues to impressively well thought-out and executed photographs that rival those of the world’s leading photographers.

Screenshot via Instagram, @UnderArmourCA, #UnlikeAny Campaign

The key for marketers is to carefully filter out UGC that doesn’t meet your brand’s quality bar or fails to line up with your brand’s core messaging. You won’t (and shouldn’t, unless it crosses legal boundaries) stop people from creating it, you should be mindful about the UGC that you choose to highlight and promote on your brand’s primary marketing channels.

Tap into Your Audience for Amplified Distribution

You can tap into your audience for broader reach when it comes to distribution, too. If you’re running a contest to incentivize users to generate brand content, you can build in some added benefits by featuring a set of finalists on your company’s web page and asking your audience to share their favorite entries – and make it easy with strategically placed social media share buttons.

Getting influencers engaged in your campaign is a surefire way to amplify your reach, as Olympic gold medalist Lindsey Vonn does for Under Armour and other brands she’s endorsed. Paid celebrity endorsements may be out of your reach, but getting influencers involved in your campaign organically isn’t impossible, either.

Screenshot via Instagram via @lindseyvonn.goat, #UnlikeAny Campaign

Even if you’re not building in a social voting mechanism, making it easy for your audience to share your content – user-generated or brand-created – will help you get more traction from every marketing initiative.

It Doesn’t End with Distribution

User-generated content is more than simply hitting the share button and calling it a day. UGC makes it possible to engage your audience in a deeper, more meaningful way, and that’s a connection that you should take advantage of. How? Engage them in conversation, ask for their insights, or invite them to participate in a Q&A session or focus group.

It’s going this extra mile that turns ordinary customers into brand ambassadors. When you continue to cultivate and nurture those relationships, you’ll build a reliable stable of raving fans who enthusiastically spread the word about your products or services – and those are the messages that matter to today’s consumers.

Author Bio:


Tom Demers is a co-founder and managing partner at Measured SEM and Digital Examiner. Prior to that, he was the Director of Marketing and third employee for WordStream. He has contributed to various industry publications such as Search Engine Journal, Search Engine Land, and Small Biz Trends. Headshot: