Build Your Brand in the Digital Age: User-Generated Content

Building a brand for your small business used to mean advertising in the local paper, posting in your store window, encouraging customers to come back, and sponsoring the local Little League team. Those things still work, well, except for the local paper, but in a digital world, you need more to compete with national brands. Most purchases begin online today (as you can see below), so if you don’t have a presence in cyberspace, you’re nowhere. User-generated content online is a veritable goldmine for businesses when it comes to building your brand in today’s world.  Whether the content supports sales, as in the case of reviews, or user-generated content IS the business model, as on YouTube and other social media platforms as UGC drives user engagement which drives ad revenue.

start search onlineBuilding a brand

As a small business, especially one with a local market, building a brand is hard. Well, building a brand is hard for any business, but with their limited resources, building a brand that helps your business stand out from the crowd is especially hard for a small business. To build a brand, you need to do the following, according to the Harvard Business Review:

  1. offer a clear and unique customer promise that differentiates you from the competition
  2. keep your promises, always
  3. commit to constantly improve
  4. innovate rather than follow

An example or two

You likely saw high-velocity, adrenaline-pumping commercials for products like Red Bull and GoPro online or in traditional media. They show people jumping out of planes, riding crazy contraptions, trying dangerous stunts, and appealing to the Evil Kneivel side of viewers. We talk about this type of marketing as experiential or hedonic experiences. Even though the companies don’t sell hedonic experiences, associating their brand with these experiences makes the brand seem more exciting and interesting. Using user-generated content and brand ambassadors further builds the brand around whatever emotions and thoughts you want.

Look at the products being sold. What do they have to do with action sports and crazy stunts? Nothing, specific, although using Red Bull gives you energy you might need to participate in these extreme sports and GoPro is a great way to capture your participation in an interesting way. Hence, building your brand doesn’t work if there’s no relationship between your brand and how you advertise the brand.

Hence, Red Bull and GoPro create an atmosphere and attitude that’s emotionally charged around the products they sell — linking their brand with the actions portrayed. That’s brand building. Red Bull’s commercial message positions their brand as adventurous, dangerous, and exhilarating — not something for the faint at heart. Obviously, this doesn’t appeal to everyone but that’s not their goal. As with any brand, you want your brand to stand out from the competition and match the lifestyles, wants, and other aspects of your specific target market.

Does their brand really have anything to do with these extreme sports? No. But, they make consumers think that drinking their brand is an easy way to walk on the wild side — just a little bit.

Think about the marketing lessons learned from these brands. How can you use their example to bolster your brand?


Red Bull sells three drinks, so they don’t have a diverse product line. Regardless, they found a marketing strategy to sell an incredible number of cans ($2.89 billion for the 12 months ending in May, 2020 based on Red Bull data) and keep customers coming back. They’re the top seller in their market and account for a quarter of all sales in their market. Similarly, GoPro sells a small range of cameras and accessories and has found a strategy to keep cameras vital, relevant, and interesting.

Both companies found their brand identity and voice, which allows them to successfully market their products to their target audience rather than trying to be just another brand selling the same way to the same market.

In building their unique selling proposition (USP), they had to decide what to sell, who they wanted to sell it to, what else appeals to that audience, and how they could promote their products to make that combination uniquely different from other brands in a way that appealed to a specific audience. Both brands suddenly exploded into the marketing scene by capturing their audience’s attention and using creative marketing tactics such as user-generated content (here are some other great examples of user-generated content) and brand ambassadors.

Using user-generated content to build your brand

User-generated content (UGC) is a powerful tool for small businesses looking to build their brand, as it leverages content created by customers, such as reviews, images, videos, and social media posts.

Examples of user-generated content include Apple, which encouraged iPhone users to develop apps, resulting in the full-fledged app store they operate today. Other types of user-generated content, such as user reviews of products, are valuable because they are organic. People are more inclined to trust a user review than a review from another business because users have no “skin in the game” and thus have no reason to lie. Services like YouTube and Facebook are built entirely around sharing user-generated content. User-generated content is all around us.

Here are some strategies on how small businesses can use UGC to their advantage:

user feedback
Image courtesy of Ecommerce Nation

Social proof and trust building:

Encourage customers to share their experiences with your product or service on social media and review platforms. Positive reviews and testimonials can be used on your website and in promotional materials as social proof, which helps build trust with potential customers. However, police reviews to weed out inauthentic or fake reviews and don’t be tempted to manipulate your reviews. Adding favorable reviews from friends/ family or writing your own using some tricks outlined below only hurts your brand and, when users discover the fake reviews, it can damage your brand beyond repair. The same goes for removing negative reviews. These tactics never end well for your brand.

Address any negative reviews or feedback publicly and promptly. Never try to hide them as you can never really delete anything once it’s online. This shows that you are attentive and committed to customer satisfaction, which can turn a negative experience into a positive one for both the reviewer and potential customers.

Content for marketing campaigns

Use UGC in your marketing campaigns. For example, feature customer photos on your social media platforms, in email newsletters, or in advertising. This provides authentic content and encourages other customers to share their experiences in hopes of being featured. My kids went to a dentist who incentivized patients to post pictures of themselves on location wearing his branded T-shirt. A random drawing of those who posted a picture using the hashtag for the contest won an iPad.

Engage with your community

Engaging with users who post content related to your brand is crucial. Like, comment on, and share their posts to show appreciation and foster a community around your brand. This can increase brand loyalty and encourage more UGC. This exposure is extra valuable for a small business, as most customers have many friends in the local community and connections that share their interests.

Create hashtag campaigns

Launch a hashtag campaign, either alone or as part of a contest, to encourage customers to share their experiences with your product or service. This generates more content for you to use and increases brand visibility on social media platforms.

Contests and giveaways

Host contests or giveaways requiring participants to create content using your product or service, such as photos or videos. This can significantly increase the amount of UGC, and a prize incentive encourages participation.

Incorporate UGC on your website

Showcase customer reviews, testimonials, and photos, especially on product pages of your website and in marketing campaigns. This can enhance the shopping experience and provide social proof, encouraging website visitors to make a purchase. However, recognize that users are becoming jaded when it comes to reviews and other types of UGC endorsements. Overuse of influencer marketing, where influencers are incentivized to post favorable reviews, has nearly destroyed user trust in influencers for some demographics.

Leverage UGC for product development

One of the best uses of user generated content is something we don’t often consider when we think of the benefits from UGC. When users share their problems, how they feel about your products and those of competitors, or make suggestions they’re providing the most valuable kind of UGC. Gaining these insighs give you a leg up in differentiating your brand while providing insights into what consumers like about your competition. These insights are invaluable; like being invited to sit around the table to discuss unvarnished perceptions of your brand. You’d require expensive and time-consumer market research to have any hope of gaining insights you get for free from UGC.

new product
Courtesy of CES

Optimize your brand

Utilize user-generated content. With the constant flow and infiltration of social media, people are constantly bombarded by advertisements. To cut through the noise, companies can use what their customers are already putting out there. By using hashtags on Twitter, Instagram pictures, and Facebook posts, people see the information from people they know rather than advertisements.

Find advocates and build brand ambassador skills. Much like Red Bull uses their Red Bull girls on college campuses, it is always a good idea to have feet on the ground spreading your brand to the masses. Finding ambassadors that already have a social media presence is a great way to create trust with potential customers, and that’s what really counts.

The dark side of UGC

But while user-generated content may look like organic content produced by a single individual who has no relationship to the company, that’s not always the case. In fact, by using a reliable proxy network, bot accounts, and pre-written content, a business or other entity can quickly spread its branded content while passing it off as organic user-generated content.

The shed at Dulwich

We all encountered fake user reviews, or at least highly suspicious user reviews, at least a few times when researching products online. Such fake reviews are annoying. Moreover, the false messaging may cause potential harm when users buy products that don’t measure up to the review. The manipulation of user review systems not only has real consequences for users but may also cause severe damage to legitimate businesses when users distrust fake reviews. These reviews are such a serious concern that Amazon and other retailers work tirelessly to ferret them out for removal.

Perhaps the best illustration of this is the Vice reporter, who succeeded in getting their garden shed listed as a top-rated restaurant on TripAdvisor.

Aptly named “The Shed At Dulwich”, all the reporter did was invest in a £10 burner phone, although you can use your own phone to save money, buy a domain name, and build a basic website.  Oh, and he did manage to get a celebrity endorsement from the British actor Shaun Williamson (Barry from Eastenders, or Extras, depending on which side of the Atlantic you are on). Still, anyone can get one of those these days.

After getting his friends to post some fake reviews for his fake restaurant, he cracked the top 10,000 restaurants on TripAdvisor. After hitting this point, requests for bookings at the restaurant inundated the reporter’s team and resulted in a flood of emails. Of course, there was no restaurant, so to hide the fakeness of the restaurant with the glowing fake reviews, anyone attempting to make a reservation was told the restaurant was fully booked, without disclosing an address for the restaurant or anything that might shed light on the fact there was no restaurant. The fake restaurant grew until it eventually hit the top of TripAdvisor.

The reporter succeeds with nothing more sophisticated than a £10 burner phone and a relatively small number of user reviews written by real people. The reporter’s stunt shows the real-world impact that fake reviews online can have.


Astroturfing involves people or organizations attempting to control the narrative surrounding them by pushing their message through apparently organic means. In the real world, astroturfing involved sending paid actors to local government meetings and paying them to ask particular questions or raise specific issues. Or, paying actors to show up to bolster flagging attendance simply. Online, astroturfing refers to the use of apparently regular individual user accounts to push a message.

When we look at the Reddit statistics for people like Elon Musk or businesses like Nintendo, we can see clear signs of online astroturfing. When you have multiple users saying the same thing consistently across various threads, you reasonably conclude astroturfing as the cause. Because Reddit gives its users control over what content gets promoted (upvoted) and which content gets buried (downvoted) if you employ enough users spreading a positive message, it’s possible to hide any negative news before other users see off message posts.

What does this mean for marketing?content marketing

Wherever you find user-generated content, marketers seek to exploit the situation. The power of organic, word-of-mouth marketing is undeniable. Marketers don’t need to resort to drastic tactics like astroturfing to promote their clients using user-generated content.

It is also clear that some users themselves are unable to distinguish between genuine user-generated content and marketing content when the brand uses individual accounts to hide the nature of the message. When brands use tactics like astroturfing, the two types of content are sometimes indistinguishable. However, many brands mastered the illusion to the point where even sophisticated users can’t detect their fakes. These brands ultimately end up pumping out a constant stream of apparently organic user-generated content that actually promotes their clients or pushes their marketing message rather than reflecting honest user opinions.

Online platforms must police themselves effectively or risk damage to their reputation. For instance, Facebook accepts videos from brands that appear to do the impossible. Over time, users discover the feats are, in fact, impossible and refuse to buy any products promoted through Facebook videos. Thus, false advertising hurts legitimate brands by eliminating a marketing tool and, ultimately, hurts Facebook by reducing the number of advertisers on the platform. Therefore, users themselves become wary of online advertising.

Further, using disingenuous tactics to produce fake user-generated content can backfire on the brand and result in alienating some of their audience when their users discover the deception.


Until online platforms hosting user-generated content start taking the issue more seriously and instituting harsher crackdowns, marketers can decide for themselves how aggressive they want to be in taking advantage of user-generated content. For some businesses, it might be best to dive in with both feet, but many should take a more cautious approach.

However, you decide to leverage user-generated content for your clients and brands; it is vital that you do so with an awareness of what you are doing. Remember, flooding online platforms built around user-generated content with artificial marketing content may severely damage your brand.

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