Brands helping tell people’s story for them

A couple weeks ago I came across a phrase I’d previously been unfamiliar with: User-inspired content.

I was kind of shocked at the phrase. “User-generated content” has been in usage for over a decade in the online marketing world to describe the material that’s produced by everyday people online, those unaffiliated with brands or agencies. This material was held up by marketers as very important because it showed the talent of the people actually buying products, talent that grew over time as the tools of creation were improved. A whole cottage industry was born as agencies and others integrated UGC into official marketing campaigns and brands were advised to respond to blog posts, social media comments and more feedback.

Eventually everyone figured out (some far later than others) that you couldn’t just grab photos from Flickr and put it in your national print ad campaign without consent. At least not without being sued for doing so. The emergence early on of the Creative Commons license helped with this, allowing creators to clearly signal whether their work could be used for commercial purposes and what credits had to be included if it was. Even so, brands would occasionally have their hand slapped by a photographer, video creator or other individuals who showed they had essentially stolen their work for their marketing.

In other words, even if some marketer didn’t actually reappropriate an actual photo, video or other bits of content outright, they were still on the hook if they had clearly copied what someone had already done.

Enter Inspiration

User-inspired content, then, seems to be not on using content other people have produced but telling marketing stories that are centered around the actual users of a product or service. So instead of asking Stacy if you can use her video in your campaign you can use Stacy and tell her story yourself.

That shift in tactics means the marketer herself is in control of the process and not subject to whatever Stacy (or whomever) has created already. Tamper with the UGC too much and you lose the authenticity. Create your own ad and you have to claim to authenticity. But use your official platform to tell Stacy’s story and you get to still retain some semblance of the rough-and-tumble UGC world while still exercising oversight over the content. The presumption seems to be that it’s the best of both worlds.

Aside from one or two mentions from several years ago the most recent conversations around user-inspired content comes from Expertcity, an agency that matches brands with experts and influencers to help guide their decisions and choices. CEO Kevin Knight spoke on the topic at a recent WOMMA event and wrote a sponsored post on Digiday on the topic.

The Next Evolution of Influencers

The industry’s current fascination with “influencers,” either macro– or micro-, was the direct result of the attention paid to user-generated content. Eventually those who were best at producing such material amassed sizable followings, aided by their presence on the radars of marketing managers who fed them products to review and news to break. That market is expected to continue growing for the foreseeable future.

Facebook and other platforms have made it easier for brands to get the maximum value out of those campaigns, letting them pay to boost an influencer’s own post without having to create one of their own, while also putting more structures in place to clearly identify which influencer posts come as a result of a paid relationship.

User-inspired marketing seems to cut out the middleman in that equation. Influencers, or something close to that definition, are still important but instead of working with brands to create their own content, they are co-opted by the brand into corporately-managed messages.

Here’s the evolutionary track laid out more clearly:

  1. User-generated marketing: Cool picture, Tim, can we use it on our website?
  2. Influencer marketing: Here’s a brief and a review unit, Tim, you create your own video.
  3. User-inspired marketing: We love your story, Tim, and would like to use it in our campaign.

The through-line in that history is that corporate and other marketers are looking to regain some of the control in the messaging. UGC was often messy and came with a lot of complications. Influencer marketing means your message is secondary to the talent staying on-brand for their audience. UIC, though puts the brand marketer back in the driver’s seat.

What’s Old Is New Again

This isn’t so much an evolution to something wholly new but a return to something that’s been in regular use by the marketing and advertising industries for decades: The testimonial. Through that tactic, user stories have been used on TV, in print and in other media as part of the marketing mix for almost as long as there’s been an industry.

That people were more likely to believe someone’s personal story is the reason traveling salesman, both legitimate and otherwise, would put a cohort in the crowd to “spontaneously” begin sharing their experience. They were the “shill.”

Right now this concept seems to be fairly limited in its reach. I’m anticipating hearing more about it if it catches on as a way for brand marketers to once more own the production and distribution of the consumer message, particularly if it comes without the hefty price tag often attached to influencer marketing campaigns.

Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.

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