The Strongest Branded Content Is Visual Earned Content

In a sea of social media, consumer feeds are flooded with an endless supply of content—from travel pictures and #FlashbackFridays to branded images. With nearly 2 billion photos shared on social daily, the space is getting crowded.

Advertisements in particular are easily overlooked if they lack relevance or authenticity. This oversaturation of content, coupled with growing ad fatigue, has forced brands into a new era of marketing—one in which they must identify and share content that can both capture the attention of shoppers as well as propel them into some sort of behavior.

Consumers are increasingly using social media to serve as brand ambassadors, whether solicited or not. On Instagram alone, they are generating an average of 95 million Instagram posts per day, many of which include images or videos of their favorite purchases. 

In the U.S. specifically, 63% of adults online talk or post about products or services, and 81% read what other people have posted about those products and services. Rather than waste valuable resources on expensive, staged photoshoots or reused product shots, marketers need to tap into this abundance of visual user-generated, or “earned,” content, as a powerful means to embrace the consumer voice and share engaging, compelling imagery.

A Case For Authenticity
Earned content is the most sincere way to leverage support and advocacy from consumers. According to a November 2016 Forrester Research report, Spin User-Generated Content Into Brand-Building Gold, “the inherent authenticity of user-generated content is kryptonite to even the most super of brands.”

Genuine content gives shoppers more avenues for relatability, which has become increasingly important as they continue to demand a whole new level of trust from brands. As the report states, “consumers’ honest perspectives deflate brand mythologies and reveal once-hidden flaws.” By utilizing authentic consumer experiences, marketers can effectively attract customers seeking real life use-cases they can relate to and trust.

Because social media is such a visually centered platform, earned content enables brands to authentically show how a certain style or shade looks on different body types, hair colors, skin tones, and across different user demographics. Magnum, for example, encouraged visitors to its London popup to post photos of their custom ice cream bars using the hashtag #MagnumLDN, which powered a visually stunning gallery of earned content and stirred the appetites of potential customers.

Embracing A Two-Way Dialogue
As the demand for authentic engagement continues to grow, brands must also recognize the value of creating meaningful two-way dialogues with their audiences. Emerging channels and platforms for sharing content have led to a symbiotic relationship between marketer and consumer, wherein everyday shoppers can better articulate what they want and how they want it, and brands are better equipped to meet those expectations. Marketers need to speak with consumers, not at them.  

With this changing culture in brand engagement, leveraging earned content can help marketers humanize brands across industries, from fashion and beauty to travel or even financial services and automobiles.

Retail and e-commerce industries in particular have often led the charge for spreading brand awareness through existing consumer content, and they recognize that 78% of consumers are influenced by social media when making a retail transaction.

American Eagle Outfitters, for example, has identified and cultivated an army of brand ambassadors by curating user images and videos with the hashtag #AEOStyle. By listening to their customers and recognizing the value of earned content, brands like American Eagle Outfitters can more effectively build trust and inspire action across current and future audiences.

Travel and hospitality brands have also been ramping up their earned content strategies, but there is still an opportunity for growth among industries such as automotive and financial services. Even if the product itself is not the focus, marketers can encourage consumers to share content highlighting the value and opportunities a brand’s services may bring.

Business Considerations And Activation
While brands need to recognize the pivotal role consumer posts are playing in marketing, it’s equally important for them to develop upfront strategies before enacting an earned content program.

One way marketers can do this is by creating a set of brand guidelines for identifying compelling user content. Brands should ask themselves whether they want images including consumers or solely product shots and decide on what types of submissions are too explicit to share.

With such an overwhelming amount of images and videos shared across channels, these guidelines will help marketers cull the best, most relevant earned content for their campaigns. Likewise, marketers should utilize powerful images within their social channels to encourage consumers to consult content before making purchases; after all, research shows that consumers who use social media during the shopping process are four times more likely to spend more on purchases.

From a business perspective, marketers also need to think about the role earned content plays beyond just social media. Considering that 70% of consumers use three channels or more when researching a purchase, brands should enhance their overall marketing strategy by utilizing user-generated posts across all mediums—whether social, digital, or offline—instead of letting content live in a silo.

Baby retailer giggle, for example, successfully activated an omnichannel strategy by encouraging its customers to share #gigglePICS across social on Instagram and Twitter, as well as on their website gallery and mobile app. People want to see relevant content on all of the platforms they frequent, but if the images they are viewing are inconsistent from channel to channel, they will fail to leave a lasting impact or produce an authentic experience.

No matter the industry, earned content will help shepherd brands into the digital marketing age. Marketers don’t need to give up their investment in branded content; rather, they should utilize user images and videos as a supplement to their pre-existing strategies.

Every day, marketing is becoming more and more human. Consumers are constantly looking to other consumers for ideas and inspiration while demanding that brands talk and listen to them as real people, and earned content is the currency marketers need to use to authentically connect with their audiences and drive meaningful engagement.

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