​5 epic fails brands make with user-generated content

UGC can be empowering for a brand, but mismanaged and the repercussions can cost both money and reputation

User-generated content can be a powerful way to build customer engagement and loyalty, but one wrong move can cause significant harm to a brand’s reputation and the business bottom line.

We talk to marketing leaders, brand consultants and industry experts to uncover the fatal mistakes brands need to navigate when implementing UGC and how to mitigate risks should they arise.

1. Annoying customers and publishing content without permission

The first commandment of UGC is you shall not publish without permission, Australian Marketing Institute CEO, Lee Tonitto, said.

“Though user-generated content is voluntarily created and can be voluntarily submitted, its use without consent of the content owner can be a serious offense,” she explained. “This usually happens when companies reuse customer photos that they’ve found on social platforms like Instagram and Twitter. However reviews, questions, answers, photos, and videos that customers post directly on your site are generally safe.”

Tonitto claimed there is a myth in some circles that, just because a piece of content has been uploaded to a site such as Twitter, Facebook, YouTube or Instagram, it is free to use without restriction and without reference to or permission from the original uploader.

“This myth overlooks one core legal concept: Copyright,” she said. “Uploading content to the social Web does not strip that content of copyright protection and the need to obtain the consent of the copyright owner to use it. Securing the relevant permission is at the core of ensuring UGC is used in a legally responsible way.”

The possible reputational and customer relations risks of using customer and fan content without permission are obvious – as a customer may not expect or want his or her content to be adopted in an advertising campaign.

“For example, the uploader of a ‘no make-up selfie’ photograph on Facebook may be shocked to see her face in a magazine advert,” Tonitto said. “Annoying your brand ambassadors who are, potentially without encouragement, participating in an online conversation about your brand does not seem to be good public relations.”

Cognizant Digital Works’ head of strategy, Susan Brown, agreed consumers’ information without formal consent can erode trust in the brand, damaging the brand’s image and sales. Having a robust system to reach out to UGC content producers to track acceptance of content use is critical to avoid harm to brand reputation and trust.

“The sheer amount of data and content collected by brands coupled with the complexity of ensuring privacy creates a significant amount of consumer anxiety,” she commented.

“Building trust is key, and mastering the ‘give to get’ ratio is essential. Consumers might forgive people for their mistakes, but not for their dishonesty. In fact, a survey we conducted across APAC in May showed 57 per cent of consumers would completely stop doing business with a company that had used their personal information unethically.”

2. Failing to respond to negative feedback before it goes viral

While UGC would lose its authenticity without criticism, experts agreed a lot of negative feedback could be prevented if the company handles complaints before a disgruntled customer makes them public.

“Quite often, a reviews feed will strike back at the negative, of course unless it’s what everyone’s experience is, in which case you need to look closely at your product or service,” brand communications agency Hard Edge’s managing director, Andrew Hardwick, said. “But it also quite often happens that the negative can be avoided beforehand.

“Many users post because the company has done nothing to appease their issues. I had a friend with a faulty couch ignored by the brand for months. Within minutes of their last attempt at redemption by posting on the company’s Facebook page, it was deleted and a phone call followed asking for what date they would like the new couch delivered. Companies cannot afford to act irresponsibly or with anymore.”

This is the issue United Airlines faced in 2008, when Canadian musician, Dave Carroll, submitted a claim the baggage damaged his $3500 guitar. When he complained to the airline, United Airlines informed him he was ineligible for compensation because he had failed to make the claim within its stipulated standard 24-hour timeframe.

Disgruntled, he decided to write a song called ‘United Breaks Guitars,’ which became an immediate hit on YouTube and iTunes in 2009 and subsequently, a global public relations embarrassment for the airline.

“It totally affected united airlines negatively – it would have only take a few steps to resolve that effectively,” Oracle Marketing Cloud’s master principal sales consultant, Nick Dennis, said. “It goes to show that if you don’t resolve things visibly, transparently or in a timely fashion, things can get risky – so you need to deal with issues before they become major problems.”

There is always going to be negative feedback and no one is perfect, Squiz’s global marketing director, Robin Marchant, said. But negative feedback should be appropriately leveraged as high-quality intelligence on how to improve.

“If marketers are going to provide the opportunity for UGC, they need to commit to it,” Marchant said. “Enabling their audience to submit comments, and then suddenly disabling this feature because of negative feedback, for example, is counter-productive and will only result in more negative feelings toward the brand. If an open dialogue is to be created between the organisation and its audience, effective monitoring and regulation methods need to be established.”

According to Marchant, the best response to negative feedback is to take it on as advice and do something about it, to not only avoid the same problem in the future, but to also show you’re responding efficiently to customer dissatisfactions. “You can’t be seen as censoring customers, as this will only draw more negative feedback.”

Dennis advised defining and adopting a clear process around how you will deal with riskier content in a transparent way.

“Some companies put in risk levels and processes depending on the nature of the UGC,” he said. “Responding visibly is the best way, because you demonstrate you can turn a negative into a positive in the public eye and as a result, customers are going to trust you more.”

3. Allowing fans too much power

A classic mistake marketers make when it comes to UGC is giving fans too much power when deciding final outcomes, local managing director of global production house Chimney Group, Bo Thorp, said. This was the problem the UK National Environment Research Council (Nerc) faced earlier this year, when calling upon the public to name its new research vessel in the #nameourship campaign.

'Boaty McBoatface' Rejected as Research Ship's Name

“The votes were overwhelmingly in favour of the name ‘RRS Boaty McBoatface’ to win, now named RRS David Attenborough,” he explained. “Luckily, Nerc did have a disclaimer in place saying its director was the one to decide. Nerc did try to make the best of it, and claimed it was a good campaign, but it did become an issue addressed in the House of Lords. The problem was that in the people’s perception, the winner should be the most popular voted name.”

4. Making content too pristine and perfect

While content needs to look authentic and presented in a way the customer would normally engage with online, too many marketers fall into the trap of only using pristine and perfect image content, especially on highly visual platforms like Instagram, Tonitto said.

“One of the biggest user-generated content mistakes comes from a slight misunderstanding of its purpose,” she said. “As a marketer, you should understand the very reason why UGC became a currency of modern marketing was consumers’ lack of faith and trust in traditional advertisements.

“So if you only use images from your brand or influencers, you’re missing the point. People want to see real customers enjoying your products.”

Another mistake many marketers make is user-generated photos, reviews and Q&A for a shorter span of time or in less repetitive manner, Tonitto claimed.

“The fact is this sort is content is evergreen and can really help keep customers’ interest level intact,” she explained. “Repurposing your UGC across marketing channels can make a little content go a long way. It’s very important to extend the shelf life of the quality customer content and it is easily achievable by accumulating contributions that drove the most engagement and use them for future campaigns.

“Another way to harness the power of quality customer content is to use it for social ads on Facebook and Instagram. You will see higher click-through rates for those ads.”

Letting conversations slide, ignoring great content generated by your tribe and ignoring your customers on social can also signal death to your UGC strategy.

“It’s critically important to maintain the ongoing momentum,” Tonitto said. “The efforts to encourage people to participate in your UGC activity should be ceaseless. So keep a close watch on your brand mentions and related hashtags so that you can like, comment, and share user-generated photos and statuses from your enthusiastic customers.

“It also enables you to answer the questions of your customers, which strengthen the relationship bond between you and customers. And this is how the mindset of loyalty shapes up in your customers.”

5. The haters are going to hate – so how will you handle it?

There is always a risk in relying on others to tell your story, or participate in your brand strategy, because the haters are always going to hate, Thorp said. Avoiding a potential viral disaster is all about good risk management.

Thorp suggested moderation, having fast responses and always being clear in your replies.

“A great way to ensure a higher degree of transparency is making sure users are identifiable and accountable, but don’t allow bullying,” he said. “If bad and negative responses arrive, handle honestly and in according to the careful strategy you have already have set in place. Bad can be turned to good if handled well.”

For moderation to be efficient and make sense, strict policies must be set and applied to govern content authenticity, originality, privacy, as well as political and social correctness and legalities, both locally and globally, Brown suggested.

“I recommend a mix of automated, community and human moderation of UGC to mitigate risks,” she said. “Automated moderation uses computer applications and algorithms. Effective methods include the use of automated algorithms such as the Bayesian filter, most commonly used to detect email spams. Such filtering models can, for example, detect patterns of blacklisted words and phrases, colour tone and other specific items that need monitoring.

“Community moderation involves leveraging the online community to self-moderate content, such as flagging or volunteer administration. Human moderation, whether by dedicated staff or crowdsourced, can become highly inefficient if one has to continue moderating the same UGC in different formats or if multiple moderators must continually track previously moderated UGC.”

It’s therefore imperative to leverage the right tools and adopt a cohesive risk management strategy, Brown said.

“Content moderation must also continuously improve by leveraging scalable, effective and cost-efficient options,” she added. “In this way, we can ensure that we continue to provide an enriched, socially-enabled user experience. It is crucial to ensure that only appropriate UGC is posted by screening and filtering for mal-content.”

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