June 2008 - Ask The Expert

By Timothy R. Hawthorne

A: As marketers flock to user-generated content (UGC) as the latest road to riches, the increased traffic has created some potholes. Clumsy creatives, self-absorbed spots that stray from product benefits and overtly negative brand associations are landmines that all sensible marketers should avoid. But since a UGC campaign’s goals are positive and promising, advertisers must develop a strategy to harness consumer communities’ energy.

The UGC movement’s engine is the Internet, which has knocked down media publishing barriers to the point where, last year, 77 million people created content online. Though text-based blogging remains the predominant medium, affordable consumer electronics and YouTube have popularized online video-the most expressive outlet for users and advertisers to build buzz. Trend-spotting marketers have designed platforms that show consumers respect, give them a voice and help win their trust. Simply hopping onto the UGC bandwagon creates positive word-of-mouth buzz. User-generated video contests inspire scores of blog posts and legions of amateur commercial auteurs. What’s not to like?

Well, those potholes. When any cultural trend explodes on the scene, a backlash inevitably ensues. Positioned as an antidote to marketing deception and gimmickry, user-generated video can be every bit as narcissistic and gimmicky as agency commercials created more for Clio nominations than a client’s bottom line. Though these contests uncover genuine talent, most submissions suffer from technical shortcomings and misguided focus. Some aggressive contestants actually bash the brands that invite their input. It’s no wonder many marketers pass.

But in doing so, they bypass opportunities that direct response tactics afford. Every UGV contestant responds to a call to action, persuaded to participate by compelling offers: fame, cash and face time with the industry professionals they’re trying to emulate. Ironically, much like traditional commercials that UGV spots presumably supplement, few feature their own CTAs. This inhibits measuring the most meaningful metric: sales that the clips help to generate. With undocumentable benefits-and plainly visible hazards-conservative advertisers remain aloof from their most ardent supporters.

While DRTV tactics can address these shortcomings, it’s unreasonable to expect amateur videographers to understand industry nuances, much less implement them with any sophistication. The most promising solution may be amateur/professional collaboration. Most notably with Apple’s iTouch campaign, there is precedent for taking UGV ideas and submissions, then reshooting and producing them in studio. Many contestants consider themselves one break away from succeeding professionally themselves. The opportunity to participate in a professional production could merge the best of both worlds: inspired contestant creatives that professional marketers polish.

As we experiment with this hybrid, we’ll need a new acronym. I nominate UGA for user-generated advertising, which carries the reminder that our goal is selling products, not drawing attention to clever conceits. With no professional focus or oversight, UGA campaigns risk vanishing in a chaotic user-generated hell. And that spells UGH!

Timothy R. Hawthorne is founder, chairman and executive creative director of Hawthorne Direct, a full-service DRTV, print, mail and digital ad agency founded in 1986.


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