Pitfalls of User-Generated Content

It may look like free content, but be considerate of the challenges

Krzysztof Shpak
Oct 10, 2019 · 3 min read

What will happen to a plain white wall, if you let people draw whatever they want on it. My guess would be that some of them will leave nice doodles of cats. But others will probably leave doodles of something less socially appropriate. In both cases the result would be user-generated content, or UGC for short.

User-generated content is any piece of content created and published on a platform by its users. Videos on YouTube, Wikipedia articles, and bizarre imageboard posts are common examples of user-generated content.

In marketing user-generated content is any content that refers to a company and is produced by people not affiliated with the company in question. A Facebook post that roasts a certain brand for questionable ethics is user-generated content. So is a testimonial written by a real customer. And a hashtag campaign on Twitter.

To some extent all forms of user-generated content entail challenges beyond the inappropriate doodles from the white wall example. Here I’ll highlight the largest caveats of UGC in my humble opinion.

Content Moderation

A brand doesn’t have full control over the content produced and published by customers or outright strangers on social media. Whether it is videos, pictures, or texts, the quality will vary wildly. In some cases amateur camerawork and a few typos make the piece feel real and authentic, but people can be surprisingly sloppy with such things.

By posting, reposting, or promoting low-quality content on social media a company can harm its public image. Nobody will care that wasn’t the one producing it.

Quality aside, there’s a reason content moderation is a thing. When different people express their thoughts online, somebody will try to troll others, ignite a political debate, or try to sneak in an ad for some irrelevant product. And you simply asked them to rate your app.

Moderation is a must if the general public is involved. There should be clear rules and restrictions, so the entire process of censoring and otherwise restricting people’s freedom of expression is as fair as it can get.

Authenticity

Brands typically motivate people to create and share UGC by the means of giveaways, bounty programs, discounts and such. It works, since people like nice things. The problem is that the motivation here is to get some freebies, not to do good for a favourite brand.

This leads to spammy and outright inauthentic content spread across social media. There will be fake profiles and fake reviews, as well as people who are obviously in for a prize. Yes, more potential customers will see your logo and name, but it will not go well for brand credibility or work as social proof.

There are no simple solutions here. The most straightforward option is to promote and reward good content. On a larger time frame it is best to nurture honest and beneficial relationships with the audience inspiring people to promote your brand out of loyalty. Unsurprisingly, the downsides are the costs and effort involved.

Legal Issues

The least obvious problem with user-generated content is that the company in question doesn’t necessarily own it, neither does the platform it’s posted on.

Imagine that a company launched a UGC campaign on Twitter. They ask people to post a photo with the company’s product and some hashtag. In a week there are tons of photos. The company happily uses the photos to create a nice collage and proudly puts it on its website. The next morning the company is facing charges of privacy violation and copyright infringement.

The solution is to get implied consent to use the content from the users who participate in a UGC campaign. Disclaimers and clearly stated terms will help. Another option is to get explicit consent from the authors individually. The chances for a lawsuit will be lower, unlike the effort required to reach out to lots of people. All in all, it is always better to consult a professional corporate or copyright lawyer before using all this juicy content to your liking.

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