Why brands are tapping UGC for COVID-19 marketing

While the COVID-19 pandemic has halted production, it’s also raised the stakes for brands to respond with authentic messaging, with some turning to their customers to help hit the right note.

A raft of brands are turning to user generated content (UGC) during the COVID-19 crisis to reduce costs, embrace the content their customers are producing and make it relatable.

Shutterstock Custom, for instance, has seen an increase in agency briefs requesting UGC look and feels, with content from real postal workers and facilities. It cites Apple's recent ad as well as The Iconic's 'Mother's Day' campaign, which incorporate UGC in its creative, of this interest in less stylised creative. 

Woodlea sales and marketing manager, Lora Armstrong, told CMO that when budgets and resources are reduced, an opportunity opens up to innovate and think differently. One of the ways to do this is to introduce more UGC across digital and social channels.

Equally with COVID-19 and in in times of uncertainty, Armstrong said people crave safety and connection.

“This can lead a marketer to pivot their strategy to include more UGC to help to build trust around the brand and build long-term customer value and loyalty, but it needs to be real and authentic," she said.

So how have brands approached user-generated content in the current crisis, and what are some of intentions and outcomes it can - and can't fulfil?

When the message is the medium

The COVID-19 crisis and now the ongoing protests and unrest in the US, Australia and other parts of the world has created uniquely uncertain environments for brands to project their advertising into. These testing times comes along with the immediacy of social media to give individuals and groups the ability to respond with virtual bouquets or brickbats rapidly, publicly and collectively to brands and their messages like never before.

In relation to the coronavirus crisis, the easiest and most earnest way to engage customers has been to actually invite them into the conversation, according to Modern Impact founder and CEO, Michael Priem. He told CMO it opens a real dialogue through social media or other channels, which can then be leveraged to make that exchange move the relationship forward.

According to Priem, many consumers today are more interested in what brands actually do - how the company’s actions back up its words and demonstrate brand values in the real world. This was certainly true of respondents to a Qualtrics survey in early May, which found consumers were looking for practical messaging first and foremost from brands during the lockdown rather than generic messages of optimism.

“Given that kind of environment, many brands aren’t sure what to say, how to say it or if they should even say anything at all,” Priem continued.  

“How do you curate a message that really resonates with your people? This is clearly no time for traditional advertising and self-promotion. It’s the time for humanity and collaboration. Not just in a generic ‘we’re in this together’ sort of way, but in a genuinely connected ‘let’s talk about you’ kind of way that generates real insights and let’s your people know you’re really listening. Useful, meaningful user generated content only comes from that kind of active listening.”

Related: 5 epic fails brands make with user-generated content

7 brands with great user-generated content campaigns

Recovery phase

With COVID-19-related social distancing measures in play, production teams haven't been able to operate as normally. This has also seen several brands turn to developing content at a distance by using customers and staff in their own environments, as well as content provided through shared platforms, BWM Dentsu MD, Belinda Murray, explained

“While it’s successful and has resonated well, this has more been developed out of necessity than cost,” Murray said.

Yet, Murray said, UGC works better in some areas than others. “For sectors like health and emergency services, the use of this content has been a powerful way to humanise the brand and help the public understand the risks these workers take to keep us safe. Their stories become our nightly insight into the reality of the pandemic,” she said.

“However some efforts by brands have looked a little like virtue signalling – where they say they’re behind their staff, but actually do little to support them. Every brand needs to be careful here. If you say ‘we stand with you’, then what new benefit or action makes this true?” she asked.

The trend toward embracing UGC may or may not continue post-pandemic. Murray, for one, predicted some brands may abandon their Covid UGC, while others may redeploy it.

“They may use it as a way to leverage staff and customers as part of their ongoing comms strategy to show their brand is behaving in a positive, socially responsible way,” she said.

Cost versus the value of UGC

Marketing budgets facing increased pressure over the last quarter, is arguably another factor bringing the focus back around to the value of UGC, according to MediaCom Creative Systems partner, Tom Robinson. But Robinson cautioned against seeing UGC as a perfect answer to the perfect storm of a battle for relevance, spiralling production costs or an inability to produce new content due to social distancing measures, decreasing budgets and a need to be in market quickly. 

“We’ll often hear of the great success stories of Apple and Burger King as two examples of how effective this form can be. While there are the obvious benefits, UGC can come at a significant cost to a brand if not handled correctly or it hasn’t been clearly outlined as to what role it plays within the rest of a brands communications strategy,” he said.

“There are no second chances for brands looking for an opportunistic way to insert themselves into a cultural moment. Polish vodka brand, Żytnia, found this out the hard way in 2015 when they used a photo from a trade union protest of four men carrying an activist moments after he had been shot by secret police. The image had been used as part of a Facebook campaign along with the copy ‘When the stag night gets out of control. Is it Żytnia’s fault?’”.

Robinson said challenges don’t just rest with curation and moderation either. “Further consideration needs to be given to the consistency in approach to branded communications, the application of brand codes and identifying an ownable content territory that doesn’t create more noise in an already cluttered environment,” he said.

“A quick litmus test is this: If UGC is simply an answer to today’s problem - stop.”

Follow CMO on Twitter: @CMOAustralia, take part in the CMO conversation on LinkedIn: CMO ANZ, follow our regular updates via CMO Australia's Linkedin company page, or join us on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/CMOAustralia.

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