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How Working With, and Not Through, the Public can Transform a Brand's Image Creating content that meets the elevated criteria of the public, while also establishing a bond in such a saturated marketplace, is no easy task

By Pranav Kosuri

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Consumers have always shaped the general public's perception of a brand. Through word-of-mouth, fan clubs, discussion boards, and a hundred other avenues, customers have consistently had an enormous impact on the image and positioning of a brand, regardless of their own efforts to shape the narrative. The advent of the Internet further strengthened the hand of these influential voices, allowing them to reach an exponentially larger audience. Influencer marketing boomed, with millions-strong communities forming around these social media celebrities. Naturally, it made sense for brands to approach them for partnerships and collaborations.

However, users have over time realized that most of this content is bought and paid for by brands, in an attempt to shape the narrative around their product. Subsequently, Instagram influencers have seen their engagement rates hover near all-time lows, as the Facebook-owned app becomes over-crowded with sponsored posts. As per a study analytics firm InfluencerDB, the engagement rate for sponsored posts fell to 2.4 per cent in Q1 2019 from 4 per cent three years earlier.

This scenario poses some serious questions for the marketing fraternity. Creating content that meets the elevated criteria of the public, while also establishing a bond in such a saturated marketplace, is no easy task. It's expensive and time-consuming, and worst of all, comes with no guarantee of success. Similarly, the true impact of influencers is being called into question. In the face of all these questions, user-generated content (UGC) offers a potential answer. UGC is any content and material created by a user and posted online. This can take a variety of forms, from audio-visual material such as pictures and videos to reviews and captions.

In an age when the public craves authenticity and a personal connection with brands, UGC serves as an ideal solution. By showcasing their products in a real-life context, regular trustworthy UGC allows companies to engage with their audience in a meaningful and reliable way—all free of cost.

The argument for adopting UGC is only further bolstered by statistics. Research shows that over 92 per cent of online consumers trust content generated by friends and family over brand messaging, while millennials believe that UGC is 35 per cent more memorable than other media. UGC has also become all the more important in the present context, with Instagram frequently removing likes from established influencers, even as their engagement rates dip to all-time lows.

Promoting and highlighting UGC, and the creators of said content, allows brands to shine the light on fans who might otherwise go unnoticed. In doing so, brands create a subset of vocal ambassadors and advocates, creating a community and inculcating a genuine sense of brand loyalty among its customers.

A prime example of this phenomenon can be seen on websites such as TripAdvisor and Reddit, where every view and voice is equally valid. A positive review or piece of UGC by any poster, no matter their "popularity' as measured by traditional metrics, can massively boost the fortunes of a business. This democratization of viewpoints also serves to ensure that a business regards every piece of customer feedback as important and acts accordingly. After all, everyone knows that the primary function of a business is to sell the public their goods and services. But hearing about a brand from an unaffiliated third-party, especially if that third-party is someone we know and trust, is a completely different matter. Their words carry weight, and we're more inclined to look upon a brand favourably. And if a whole host of people leave glowing reviews and feedback? That does far more to sway public opinion than any marketing campaign ever could.

However, the organic and unfiltered nature of UGC can also pose its share of drawbacks. Every company holds its brand image as sacrosanct, opening up this carefully cultivated image to the public has the potential to dilute these efforts. Content deemed inappropriate can steer the conversation in unforeseen and unplanned for directions, with serious consequences.

This puts brands in quandary. Should they continue to rely on UGC, and accept the inherent risks, or rely on traditional marketing methodologies? Thankfully, the introduction of new-age tools into the market has made this choice moot. Marketers now have the ability to determine whether UGC is contextual to a brand's image and tone, and reward creators on the basis of the quality. This results in a mutually advantageous situation—users are rewarded for creating relevant, engaging content for products and services that they use, while the brands benefit from positive word-of-mouth marketing. The advantages of such a system have become apparent, with brands from all walks of life now gravitating towards UGC, as evidenced by its recent adoption by Air India (AI). In order to promote AI's first direct flight to Stockholm, Sweden, the carrier used social media loyalty programme to harness the power of crowd-marketing.

By encouraging people to share their experiences of the city and the journey aboard across social media platforms and rewarding the best content, this UGC-led initiative transformed what began as a ripple into a wave. By campaign's end, this approach resulted in a 3.24 million reach on Instagram, with 1700-plus genuine fans engaged and over 1,300 photos going out across social media channels.

UGC has now become embedded in the public conscience. The only question is whether marketers will choose to take advantage of its opportunities, and in so doing build an engaged and loyal community, or shy away from it for fear of being burnt. The choice is yours.

Pranav Kosuri

Co-Founder, Brandie

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