Participation is arguably the defining quality of social media (Hinton and Hjorth 2013). It is the opportunity to speak, contribute, publish and be heard that makes social media so engaging and compelling for it millions of users. The proliferation of user-generated-content (UGC) is evidence of this ‘participation’ concept in action.
Hinton and Hjorth define UGC as the process by which ‘users forward content made by others’ (Hinton and Hjorth 2013 p.55). Alternatively it can be observed as ‘media content created by members of the general public’ (Daugherty, Eastin, & Bright, 2008 as cited in Kim and Johnson 2016 p.98). Goh et al. define UGC by what it’s not, ‘UGC is the alternative to marketer generated content’ (Goh et al as cited in Ding et al 2014 p.1785).
What has contributed to the rise of UGC on social media? What elements of Web 2.0 and the networks contained therein lend themselves to UGC? I propose that the proliferation of UGC can be explained, in part, by two phenomenon. Firstly, the basic principals found in traditional word-of-mouth (WOM) communications theory help explain why UGC is so relevant and effective today. UGC and social media are not entirely new concepts and many of the operating mechanisms of social media can be observed in traditional communications theory. Secondly, the nature of networked publics contribute to the increased use of UGC because they promote connection and social capital which are central to UGC.
There is a vast range of UGC, everything from a 12-yr old making a video and posting it online to Wikipedia and citizen journalism. This article will look at UGC as used by brands in the promotion of their product. So what does communication theory have to say about what might motivate people to create content to be used by brands? Dichter’s WOM communications theory identifies four inter-related motivators of consumer involvement in WOM communication: product involvement, message involvement, self involvement and other involvement (Dichter as cited in Ding et al 2014). Whilst this is a long-standing communications theory, originally used to explain physical word-of-mouth, these motivators can be seen in the production of UGC today.
Product involvement drives consumers to share what they know or feel about a product. Message involvement is when a consumers’ discussion of a product is stimulated by messages created by the organisation or other consumers. Self involvement suggests that consumers participate in content creation to enhance their image. Other involvement concerns users’ genuine desire to help others (Dichter as cited in Ding et al 2014).
The most authentic UGC is often created when two or more of these motivators combine. For example when a user is genuinely passionate about a product but also concerned with promoting their own image. Or when a user is influenced by what others are saying and wants to help assist future customers.
In my own social media campaign I learnt that I never had two factors working together. At best I only had one and this meant that UGC wasn’t being created and subsequently couldn’t be used by the brand for promotion. At the beginning I thought that self-involvement would be enough for guests to produce UGC. I was relying on the fact that audiences already post and share content about travel so this wouldn’t be an entirely new practice for my guests. ‘Travel’ ranked second on the ‘top 10 live events people shared most frequently on Facebook’ (Zeman 2014).
Zeman gives evidence about the habitual nature of sharing travel on social media
Posting images and content about travel is already an accepted practice. Image used with permission by author.
However over the course of my campaign, and through my research, I discovered that UGC production relies on users being passionate about the product and either driven by what others are saying or interested in building their own image. It would be interesting to run a UGC campaign for a product that already had engaged, passionate advocates.
Empirical examples of brands that have engaged with these motivators to produce exciting UGC results include Poler Stuff and Tourism Australia. Poler Stuff contributors are motivated by message involvement and self involvement. They are listening to the message from the brand to ‘go on hiking adventures’ and are budding photographers. In a similar way, Tourism Australia’s contributors are semi professional photographers looking to build their own personal brand and they are passionate about Australia as a travel destination.
Poler Stuff’s #Campvibes campaign asked fans to participate with amazing camping and hiking photography, not requiring them to feature Poler gear in the photos. It is about the lifestyle, not any specific product. Poler then curates and shares the best photos and videos on their website and in store to inspire visitors to go on their own camping adventures.
Here the contributor @dsimages has had their photo re-posted by Tourism Australia. The photo went from 70 likes to nearly 30,000 likes. This is exposure for @dsimages wouldn’t have been possible without the re-post.
The second phenomena that explains the proliferation of UGC is, the nature of networked publics that use social capital to expand their reach. UGC doesn’t sit in isolation, its success often relies on the networks it is embedded in. danah boyd (styled lowercase) identifies networked publics as both space constructed by networked technologies (how it exists) and the imagined collective which emerges from a common set of beliefs interest or practices (why they exist). These networks are essential to how UGC behaves on social platforms (boyd as cited in Hinton and Hjorth 2013).
One of the key factors in establishing and maintaining these networks is the social capital of some users (Bourdieu as cited in Hinton and Hjorth 2013). It is these users that can make or break a social network. The social networks rely on these people because of who they know not what they know (Hinton and Hjorth 2013). An empirical example of a brand doing this well is GoPro who have partnered with a number of elite athletes (including the surfer Kelly Slater). GoPro gives the athletes GoPro cameras and then uses the content they produce on the GoPro social media channels. It is the networks that these athletes have which makes their UGC valuable and useful. It is less about quantity of content and more about quality of the networks.
It was an interesting journey as I aimed to integrate content from key influences into my campaign. In a real-life situation the integration of social capital UGC could work well for a luxury lodge which would potentially attract cliental with networks aligned to those the entity was trying to engage with.
The content that I posted from an accommodation blogger performed well at the time because it was an authentic voice advocating the product. However the network implications of using UGC from users with social capital is hard to measure. It is difficult to know exactly how much impact these influences have and this would have to be observed over the long term.
It’s not just social capital that makes UCG successful its authenticity. UGC shared via social media has more influence than other sources because it is transmitted by a trustworthy information source embedded in a consumer’s personal network (Chu & Kim, 2011; Corrigan, 2013 as cited in Kim and Johnson 2016).
UGC inspires more trust than other types of media (Feldkamp 2015).
This is confirmed by Dichter who suggests that WOM communications by highly involved consumers are more contagious, in that they are likely to be deemed more convincing by the audiences (Dichter as cited in Ding et al 2014). This implies that UGC by highly involved users are likely to be influential in attracting people to join a brand community. Tourism Australia have seen the benefit of only featuring UGC and now receive close to 1200 photos a day (Dejardins 2014) from passionate fans. Their strategy ‘the world biggest social media team’ comes to life when they ignite a ‘whole army of advocates’ and use the networks these fans have.
In my work I look forward to playing an active role in social media campaign development. The key learnings around UGC creation and the power of networks will help me to identify potential pitfalls and also strategies for greater audience engagement particularly in the production of UGC.
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