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Are UGC creators busy destroying the golden goose?

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What is UGC exactly?

The term UGC used to refer to something that was organic in nature. It was essentially a person creating some kind of content to share how much they like a particular product or service.

In the early days, this was most commonly in the form of reviews and testimonials. But UGC has become a more popular form of marketing in the last few years and especially in video format. It's also branched off recently into a non-organic version of UGC.

A spin on an old favorite form of marketing

Think of organic UGC as the modern iteration of word-of-mouth marketing. Essentially people trust people and it's more likely they will hand over their money to a brand they feel more comfortable with because their family or friends have recommended it to them.

Online networks have amplified the word-of-mouth effect. Instead of just telling your bestie about this great skin moisturizer, you can now share a Reel or TikTok to the whole world that shows your unbridled joy for this product and your newly supple skin.

The skin moisturizer brand can then repost your video on their account to show how much their customers are genuinely enjoying their product. Since you’re such a big fan and may enjoy the extra exposure for your own account, you’d be happy to give them permission to repost it.

So now you have thousands of besties who believe you're another person just like them who loves this particular skin moisturizer.

Why UGC has exploded in use

The use of UGC has been a godsend to marketers looking for content that’s inexpensive, authentic and effective. Call it the holy trinity of content. This was heightened during the global pandemic as people spent more time online and especially on social media.

When set up well, UGC can be incredibly effective at continually pulling in fresh content at scale. A great example is the action camera brand GoPro, who actively encourages their customers to share the footage they've captured with the #GoPro hashtag. This allows GoPro to repost the best of their customers' footage on their Instagram account with their 21 million followers on a daily basis per the example post below.

The positive effect of UGC on consumers has been widely recognized. In one survey of over 2,000 consumers, nearly 80% said UGC highly impacts their purchasing decisions. This compares to only 19% of consumers who find brand-created content authentic and only 10% who find influencer content as authentic.

Eliciting and leveraging organic UGC takes some work, but is by no means difficult. Using mechanisms like hashtags to track relevant content, asking your customers for text and video reviews or testimonials, and monitoring usage of your brand online are some of the tools at your disposal.

The rise of the UGC creator economy

Perhaps acknowledging the consumer scepticism of influencer marketing and wanting to more fully exploit the benefits of UGC, platforms have sprung up to facilitate a new kind of UGC. This UGC is not gathered organically but is paid for.

Content creators sign up to trawl for opportunities from brands listed on the platforms. They are given guidelines on what the brand is looking for but it's generally some form of 'authentic looking' videos or sometimes photography for brands to post on their accounts or use in their advertisements.

These content creators are differentiated from influencers who have some kind of audience and aesthetic that brands want to tap into. Influencers post on their own accounts to share the content and brands they're promoting. UGC creators do not typically post on their own accounts and simply provide the content to the brands for their use.

However, this may be changing with at least one platform now offering the option for UGC creators to post the content on their own accounts for 'organic reach and conversions'. It's unclear how they can be claiming this is organic when the content has been paid for. Assuming these creators are adhering to various legislation around the world requiring them to disclose paid content, it definitely will be seen as paid for by their audience.

UGC creation is promoted by these platforms and fellow content creators as an easy way to make money. The hashtag #ugccreator on Instagram is approaching 400,000 posts, while #ugccreator on TikTok currently boasts 1.8 billion views as shown below.

With the number of creators now attempting to provide UGC content and the platforms needing to take their cut, income can be as low as $50 per video. On the brand side it's easy to see why this type of content is attractive.

Paying for this type of UGC content is considerably cheaper than a full commercial shoot with a photographer, make-up artist and model. But it's not as cheap or effective as organic UGC.

Losing the potency of UGC

Let's recap what's been happening here.

UGC was identified as a great way for marketers to obtain content from their customers to promote their genuine appreciation and even joy for a product. Customers are happy to share this content and be seen as true fans.

Since this content performs so well and organic methods are viewed as too slow, creators are now being paid to mimic the aesthetics of organic UGC to accelerate sales. This content is being used by brands in an attempt to promote how much people 'genuinely' love their products.

Except of course we know they are being paid to promote the product. The UGC creator may even claim they genuinely love the product they're promoting. Maybe they do, and who can begrudge them for making money?

But we know that consumers are growing more cynical of branded and influencer content. UGC content stands out because it's raw and offered by people who are happy to tell the world of their endorsement of a product.

We're effectively copying the formula for UGC without the key ingredient of authenticity. Mixing organic and paid UGC on everyone's social feeds is resulting in people associating the UGC aesthetic with inauthentic content. This effect can only accelerate as people buy inferior products on the basis of paid UGC content.

So, what now then?

There's a great line from Keri Russell's character in The Diplomat, where she chastises the White House chief of staff for being a greedy American. They'd already received great intel from someone in a foreign government and the chief wanted to tap them again for assistance at great risk to them and their family.

Let's not be greedy Americans. Let's instead enjoy the amazing benefits of organic UGC for what it is instead of trying to exploit it for more.