What is…user-generated content?

In the second of our ‘What is…’ series, we dive into user-generated content to explain what it is and how you can use it to your advantage.

If you can only summon up the memory of a by-gone cinema chain when I say UGC, this blog is for you. Other than a retro date-night haunt, UGC stands for user-generated content and, in the digital world, UGC has never been more important for business. So, what exactly is it?

UGC is content that is created by unpaid contributors – ‘real people’ that may use your service but otherwise aren’t part of your business. The terminology has been around for decades, but its relevance has grown exponentially. To the extent that there are entire platforms dedicated to it. I’m talking about Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, TikTok, Snapchat and all other social media platforms. They’ve taken UGC to the extreme and handed over content creation completely to the user.

On Facebook, users (people) post memes, endless photos of their family and political dialogues that would make War and Peace seem like a digest. On Tik Tok, video challenges and lip-sync battles are the order of the day. We’re so used to UGC on these platforms, but how does it relate to businesses?

Where can you use UGC?

Predominantly, user-generated content is used as part of a marketing strategy and can be used in both digital and analogue spaces, including:

  • social media channels
  • website content
  • email marketing
  • digital advertising
  • magazine advertising
  • billboard and other out of home advertising.

It can be particularly effective when used across a range of platforms to form a unified message, and tied together in a campaign webpage or microsite (small website developed for the purpose of the campaign).

User-generated content campaigns

UGC has been harnessed in many extremely successful marketing campaigns, from Dove’s Real Beauty campaign, which celebrates our wonderfully unique bodies, to Sainsbury’s #everybitofchristmas campaign, which had the nation singing their specially-written Christmas song.

These campaigns typically use imagery, video and audio created by individuals around a themed topic, piecing it all together into one unified advertisement or series of content.

But often, UGC campaigns sit solely on social media.

Take a look at Wayfair’s #wayfairathome Instagram campaign that uses this hashtag as the hook to get their customers to share pictures of their products in their homes…

Campaigns are a good use of UGC, because it helps to build engagement. The more people featured in the advert, the more individuals’ networks they tap into to share, comment and generate buzz.


On a more day-to-day basis, one of the most common forms of user-generated content is the testimonial. Coming straight from your customers, testimonials are a tried and tested way to evidence the success of your services and provide a highly-trusted source of advocacy for your products. Why are they useful? Because human beings trust their peers more than they trust the people trying to sell to them. It’s a phenomenon called ‘social proof’ and it’s powerful.

Because review sites like Trustpilot are independent (and therefore without vested interest) they can provide a really valuable way to build advocacy through UGC and that’s why many businesses embed their Trustpilot rating on their website.

Influencers don’t count

Social media content, as discussed, is the epitome of UGC, but it’s important to make a clear distinction between unpaid for testimonial content provided by real people and paid promotions made by influencers. Influencers have a tremendous sway of influence with their followers and peers, however their job is promotion and so, in this way, you wouldn’t class influencer content as UGC, unless it was unpaid.

UGC Photography

But these days everyone with a smartphone can have their moment in the spotlight. Many online retailers have now replaced some or all of their photography with genuine UGC photography. Fashion brands and online stores in particular have found that UGC photography can increase their relevancy to their target market. They recognise that people want to see what their clothes, accessories and make up will look like on ‘people like them’ and so now real customers are often featured instead of models on product pages.

This also provides an opportunity for brands to tap into the network of the customers that they feature. Because who wouldn’t want to shout about it if their picture ended up on the website of a major retailer?

What to consider when thinking about UGC

UGC’s benefits include:

  • Increased relevance
  • Increased trust
  • Increased advocacy
  • Can be cost-effective

But what should you watch out for when using user-generated content?

  1. The first thing to consider here is that you cannot use anyone else’s content without their explicit consent. Copyright rules apply and it’s not ok to just pilfer images from your customers, even if they tag you in it.

You can approach UGC in one of two ways: Asking for permission to use existing content; or requesting fresh content.

Either way, you’ll need terms and conditions ready and permission will need to be sought before you can use the content. Using an embedded hashtag feed from one of your social media platforms is a way around this, but you will not be able to use the content from the feed in any other way without permission.

2. UGC needs to be very carefully curated to ensure it aligns with your brand messaging and is safe to put out. Does it breach any legal regulations or could it be seen as too offensive? Is there anything lurking in the background that might?

3. UGC campaigns are complex. They are very involved – from coming up with the concept, to sourcing content, to pulling it together as curated content, to sharing and engaging.

4. Because of the permissions and the curation needed for UGC, it can take time to pull together the necessary assets.

5. And because there is fierce competition for attention, it can also be challenging to get responses.

But if you can look past all of that, if you have a particularly engaged following already, or a great idea that you have the resources to follow through with, then user-generated content can make a huge impact on your business.

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