As someone with a genuine interest for all things marketing and who works directly with Percolate clients, I’m lucky enough to get a peek behind the scenes into the marketing machines at some of the world’s biggest brands. One of the best tools I’ve seen brands use to stay top of mind for consumers through engaging, creative content is user-generated content, or UGC.

A UGC campaign is the answer for providing authentic content that engages your users and increases brand awareness. UGC blurs the line between community management and advertising on social; it gives a personal touch and leverages social proof to lend credibility to a branded message. When done correctly, a UGC campaign improves reach while increasing your ROI. Here are some of the insights we’ve garnered from brands we work with, and others that we keep abreast of.

Loews Hotels: Authenticity at its best

The hotel brand, which operates 23 hotels and resorts in the United States and Canada, launched #travelforreal, an advertising campaign that replaced professional models with real hotel guests. We were lucky enough to get the behind-the-scenes look at how Loews planned and executed this campaign for Made With Percolate, a gallery highlighting our clients’ best work.

“Social media has been at the core of who our brand is for the last few years. This was just about elevating that platform.” – Piper Stevens, Senior Director of Brand Loyalty and Marketing Communications, Loews Hotels

For Loews, the campaign brought two benefits. First is authenticity. The impact of social media can no longer be ignored and your feed is likely filled with photos. Traditional stock photography is now a thing of the past as users on social become accustomed to mobile uploads and images that place individuals front and center (yes, that includes selfies). Tools and communities like Snapseed, VSCO, and of course Instagram are all fueling and spreading that trend.
Screenshot 2016-05-19 16.37.30

All the content Loews collected from #TravelForReal conveys the traveler’s first-person perspective, lending the content a narrative that traditional ads do not. It implies a truth, an intimacy; you might be able to identify yourself with the person strumming their guitar, kicking up their heels on a well-earned vacation, or just being goofy by the poolside. From the brand’s perspective, it’s about coming across as authentic, creating brand recognition and aligning customers with the brand.

Unlocking greater efficiencies

But beyond authenticity, the UCG-driven campaign had bottom-line impact by reducing non-working marketing spend. Each Loews hotel has its own feeling, look, and style — content creation costs can climb very quickly if the brand tried to hire professionals to capture each one. #TravelForReal let travelers take over the role of both the photographer and the photographer’s models to deliver the most authentic view of each hotel. Launching a UGC campaign enabled Loews to provide digital assets for a social, digital and print campaign without costly photoshoots.

Shinola: Making customers into content creators

Detroit-based Shinola sells high-end watches and bicycles. Its #myshinola UGC campaign put watch-wearers at the center of more than just their social feeds. But it needed to do so with respect. A core truth that underlies all UGC campaigns: the photos don’t belong to the brand, they belong to the audience. This brand saw their customers’ social posts display something different: a sense of pride in owning a Shinola product. This gave Shinola a huge opportunity not many brands can boast of: getting others to show off your product in an entirely organic way. But it also meant that one of the main challenges for the #myshinola campaign was to obtain the rights of the fan pictures in the most respectful way possible.

Shinola Facebook and Instagram UGC

Enter Percolate: Shinola was able to obtain the rights to use photos through our social monitoring tools, while being clear and open about the conditions and privacy details. But beyond simplifying the process for getting permission to use the images, the brand started a personal relationship with the customer. In every tweet, the fan-photographer is given credit. The brand increased visual post frequency and engagement on the Facebook page tremendously — all thanks to their own fans by publicly featuring their signature looks.

Real-Time UGC Content Marketing with Shinola

Another thing Shinola got right: going beyond social to start these relationships. In order to have a successful UGC campaign, you need to activate and rely on your most vocal advocates, get them even more enthusiastic about your product and willing to share their enthusiasm. However, it can be a challenge to find your customers on social. Shinola’s solution: when someone purchases online or in a shop, Shinola asks for a picture right away. The customer can then share the picture with #MyShinola, prompting Shinola to ask the customer for permission to use their picture. Once they say yes, Shinola publishes.

Applebee’s: Rewarding the serial food photographer

Last year, the restaurant chain launched the #Fantographer. This campaign combines Applebee’s large reach with what seems to be an intrinsic desire for taking pictures of our food and voilà: a User Generated Content campaign is born.

A cross-channel approach

The #Fantographer campaign is set up in combination with paid posts on Facebook and Twitter, while the UGC campaign is focused only on Instagram. At a time when the average 18-to-21-year-old uses 3.7 social media platforms, it’s ever more key to articulate a consistent brand message across channels. Another benefit: you’re automatically unlocking a wider audience and tapping into a larger pool of potential content.

Concrete guidelines and objectives make for success

Applebee’s claims 779,000 photos have been tagged with #applebees or #fantographer on instagram. It’s quite likely that the majority of the shared content was not usable when the campaign just launched. But teach a man to fish and you feed him (and your own content) for a lifetime — Applebee’s jumped in and came up with a side campaign where they shared photographer tips. Instagram junkies jumped on the chance to make their photos look even better, and in three months, #Fantographer tweets appeared in over 78 million users’ timelines and Instagram engagement increased by 25%.  Achieving that sort of engagement requires clear guidelines and concrete objectives with regards to quality, number of assets to generate, and how to use the photos.

UGC is within reach

The exciting thing about UGC campaigns is that they get your most vocal advocates talking about your brand. So if you’re making a foray into UGC, keep some tips in mind:

  • Be as authentic as possible— consumers will respond to authenticity both in your brand’s communications with them and the way you display their photos.
  • Tap into existing ecosystems: if you see your customers already talking about your brand on social and other channels, jump on it.
  • Set concrete objectives for your brand before you jump into UGC: are their KPIs you need to achieve, engagement figures you need to boost? But know that beyond the quantitative measures of success, UGC gives you something you can’t quite measure: a pool of brand advocates that money can’t (always) buy.

A version of this blogpost was originally published in Dutch on