User-Generated Content As a Marketing Medium

I first heard “Phantom Limb” by The Shins on KINK-FM Amsterdam. The line “a Sunday walk in Austin” stood out. I live in Austin. I bought the song on Napster and did a search. The line I’d heard was actually “to zombie-walk in our stead,” not the first time someone’s gotten lyrics wrong. I also found a “Wired” article detailing the making of The Shins video in Austin for Current TV. If this sounds like my purchase of Paulina Rubio’s single last fall, it should. In both instances, all I really needed to do was get close. Search and related online content did the rest. This is how savvy marketers are using Millennials’ connected nature (along with the occasional aging Boomer) to do real business.

But wait, there’s more.*

The Shins video isn’t your standard band-lip-syncs-to-words fare. This video is better and produces better results because it was consumer generated. Producers Douglas Callabero and Alex Simmons, both with Current TV, worked with the band to pull it off. As they introduced “Phantom Limb” at the Austin City Limits Music Festival last fall, singer and guitarist James Russell Mercer asked the audience to use phones and digital cameras to record the performance and upload content to be made into a video. Two hundred fans followed through. The result is on Current TV.

It’s a standout example of how consumer-generated content can be used in a well-planned, integrated campaign. Based on their prior work, Callabero and Simmons knew the audience would be interested. They created a plan that pulled everything together. This is real marketing, with real objectives, including band promotion (a favorite of Current TV staffers) and development of compelling content. It’s real business.

The results? According to Joanna Drake Earl, president of new media for Current TV, “The Shins video is one of the more popular at Current TV,” hence meeting objectives. The Shins are prominently featured, which provides measured exposure, meeting those goals as well. “The Shins video has been an inspiration for collaboration. One of our producers organized a New Year’s Eve mashup from around the globe. This sort of media is the essence of Current TV,” said Earl.

The Shins’ video includes at least one frame of every single video fans sent in, so you know those fans are telling friends to watch. After all, they made it. Joshua Katz, Current TV’s president of marketing, adds, “The Shins pod was one of our most talked about. It showcases how Current TV strives to be ahead of the curve. The Shins pod is an example of viewer-created content at its most participatory: it was created by two producers, with the help of hundreds of other contributors. If that doesn’t turn the conventional media model upside down, I don’t know what does.”

Participative marketing often reaches beyond the originating campaign: beneficiaries to this one include AT&T (then SBC and Cingular), as well as phone and camera manufacturers. SBC is the head sponsor of the Austin City Limits Music Festival. Tracy Marino at AT&T’s lead agency, Austin’s GSD&M, has worked for years to develop this show into a strong sponsorship platform for SBC so this kind of thing could happen. How many people who watched this video will now, as a result, add video to the list of required functionality for their next phone? How many concert and band promoters, who often prohibit recordings, will build a new revenue stream based on licensing the permission to produce and distribute this kind of content? In the January 15 edition of “Ad Age,” Teressa Iezzi challenges consumers (a.k.a. “You”) with “creating brand-relevant entertainment, an ongoing connection with the consumer and even a revenue stream for your client? I’d like to see You do that.”

Considering The Shins video and its business results, I’d say “You” just did.

Herein lies the real value of consumer-generated content: a completely blurred line between marketing and social experience. It’s all just part of life: you go to a concert and record the band; and your content winds up informing other viewers about the band, the concert, the sponsors, the platform, and the phone you used. Again, from Current TV’s Katz, “The Shins and Current TV were able to harness the collective passion for the band and create a video that spread virally and showcased how passionate and creative their fans can be.” This is how smart marketing is done today, and how more marketing will look in the future.

As I’m writing, I’m watching “The Daily Show” on Slingbox. Ironically, I just skipped a commercial for The Shins album, proving it’s my objection to being interrupted rather than being marketed to that makes consumer-generated media so attractive. Consumer-generated content is gaining as a marketing channel and as a consumer medium because it transforms an interruptive ad embedded in mass-produced content into an integrated experience created by consumers, reflective of their life.

Consumer-generated content belongs in your marketing toolbox.

* Sadly, Arthur Schiff, who wrote this immortal marketing catch-phrase, passed away in late 2006. Return.

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