Who’s the “User” in User-Generated Content?

My last column discussed the making of The Shins video. I received a number of comments from marketers using content created very informally, either by themselves or their customers. Some asked about user-generated content (UGC) that’s produced by someone else, while others asked about making their own UGC (with disclosure).

From a production standpoint, the end products are similar. When applied specifically to online marketing, the two are essentially identical. The common thread is the desire for a tactical quick hit, a simple message designed to convey an idea or concept quickly through a casual medium. Compare this with a traditional agency-produced spot, more often a high production value story designed to tug an emotion. It’s from this viewpoint that UGC, which includes the larger set of casual content produced from any source, establishes itself alongside traditional (professionally generated) media.

There are two fundamental premises here: first, marketers are as much users as anyone else when it comes to UGC. Second, UGC fits alongside, rather than replaces, professional content.

It’s important to understand what constitutes UGC, something that at present we don’t all agree on. If I make a video of my son skiing and post it on YouTube, most of us would call that user-generated. If I’m a product manager for Salomon and I make that same video, is it still user-generated? I think so. Others may disagree, as it’s made by a marketer. Still others would say OK, provided there’s disclosure that the user works for the brand. Both are valid points, and both are part of the marketing debate when it comes to most new forms of media lacking a clear “this is an ad” stamp.

To me, “user-generated” speaks simply to the person creating the content, in a sense democratizing content production in the process. This means anyone can do it, even marketers. It’s all about the loose art of storytelling and sharing those stories through what’s become a fundamentally more accessible medium. In his book “Convergence Culture,” Henry Jenkins quotes MIT political scientist Ithiel de Sola Pool as saying, “Freedom is fostered when the means of communication are dispersed, decentralized, and easily available.” This most certainly describes current ubiquitous connectivity and digital cameras in some form in the hands of nearly everyone.

To the second point: an additional medium versus a replacement for traditional ads. This gets to the heart of the fracas regarding advertising content production. Ask the fundamental question: why does advertising exist? One of the better answers is to sell something to someone who might have otherwise looked past it. The answer has relatively little to do with specifying who makes ad content. Making the ad content, the ad industry as we currently know it is a more recent development, one that serves a distinct purpose in a world of intensely competitive media clutter. (How it got cluttered is a different matter.) Simply and arguably suspect, but accept it for the moment, better agencies produce better stories presented as better content that, as a result, gets noticed. In other words, they help sell stuff. The role of UGC as applied to marketing should be held to the same standard: it should help sell stuff.

One comment on my column came from the people at Mommy.tv. Here you’ll find half a dozen clips made with a basic digital camera. They quickly show moms interested in new products for their kids some items the folks at Mommy.tv found at the 2006 International Juvenile Products Manufacturers Association Show. If you’ve got kids ages 1-7, a lot of what you’ve purchased for them was originally launched at this show. Mommy.tv filters and extends the show to other marketers and consumers.

This raises another important aspect of UGC: it’s not just business-to-consumer (B2C). It’s a great business-to-business (B2B) medium as well. Mommy.tv may itself be consumer oriented, but as an outlet for UGC, it’s a perfect place for manufacturers and trade show attendees to post their own videos about products they’re interested in. It will be interesting to watch Mommy.tv develop and, more specifically, to see how many savvy retailers turn to resources like this as part of their normal product research.

UGC is a new medium with a low threshold for adoption. It allows many more people than otherwise to tell stories and share them. How it’s used is, of course, up to the user and the operator of the platform on which this content is presented. From an online marketing perspective, consider how your Web site might benefit from UGC, whether produced in-house (think Robert Scoble and his blog) or produced by your clients, suppliers, or end users. Not only is it an easy content addition, but, when used correctly, it can also help you sell stuff.

Related reading