You and Your Users, Marketing Together

It seems nowadays, every marketing plan or media business strategy must have its share of user involvement. On the marketing side it goes from short film contests to photo-submission solicitations to pleas for help in crafting creative. For media companies, it’s all about getting people to upload homemade videos, answer questions for other users or write in-depth reviews. In either case, businesses are making money by channeling people’s natural desires to create, to connect and to share. It’s undeniably the “in” thing to do.

I’m not knocking it. It’s a great idea. Our own Dave Evans extolled the phenomenon recently, and Pete Blackshaw regularly makes known his fondness for consumer-generated media.

I just don’t think it’s a sure-fire path to success. Hosting a short film contest isn’t unlike running an ad campaign — it’s all in the execution. Expecting users to generate the content you can build your media business upon isn’t guaranteed, either. Are we sucking people dry by continually asking them to contribute their passion and creativity to further our marketing and advertising aims? Where does it stop?

Some thoughts about the pitfalls (and potential ways of hurdling them) of user involvement.

The Coming Fatigue

It first struck me when I started checking out local search players like Insider Pages, Judy’s Book, Yelp and Yahoo Local. At first, I eagerly entered reviews of local businesses (not so hard to evoke passion when Zachary’s Pizza is concerned) to test out the systems. But it didn’t take long before I lost momentum. I suspect I’m not alone.

Read TechCrunch and you’re regularly introduced to earnest start-ups promising to be the “Flickr of video” or some such. How many of will attract quality contributions in substantial numbers?

Then there are those ubiquitous short film contests. Sure, aspiring filmmakers probably got excited by the first such competition on the Web, but it’s getting a little ridiculous when both Intel and its rival AMD are doing almost the same campaigns. Not to mention Nokia, Chrysler, Ford and American Express.

Tired yet? Imagine how those would-be content creators feel. That’s not even considering the target audiences for these brands, who could probably watch short film after short film for days straight. Think they will?

Passion or Money

There are only two ways around this issue. Either you have a product about which people go crazy (think iPod, not toilet bowl cleaner), or you spend a lot of dough either on marketing or on incentives. The Firefox Flicks campaign seems to have a lot of potential because the audience is passionate about Firefox (and hates its competitor).

Passion apparently works even when it’s against your product, or so the folks at GM would have you believe about their much-discussed Chevy Tahoe fiasco. For those who haven’t been paying attention, brand enemies, not evangelists, commandeered the company’s carefully-crafted campaign for their own purposes.

It probably wasn’t a great idea to expect consumers to champion an SUV when oil is over $72/barrel, but at least the GM folks handled it gracefully. In fact, the company says it was “one of the most creative and successful promotions we have done,” and indicated “the overwhelming majority of the 22,000 submissions thus far have been earnest attempts at creating positive advertisements.” Hmm…

If you’re going the incentives route, your short film contest prize had better be amazing. For things that require a smaller investment of time, a Peets card would probably suffice. (I’d say Starbucks, but my office is in Berkeley now. That’s heresy around these parts.)

I started thinking about this topic because it seems to me so many user- or consumer-generated content efforts treat people like just that… users or consumers. Now, I’ll admit I use products and I consume far more than is probably good for me, but I’d much rather be thought of as a human, a mother, a writer, a would-be runner and a wine aficionado. If you genuinely respect people, rather than exploit them, this whole thing might work out after all. At least for a lucky few.

Related reading

Overhead view of a row of four business people interviewing a young male applicant.