Even before supply-chain armageddon, eCommerce wasn’t easy. Digital ad space has gotten increasingly competitive in recent years—competitive meaning expensive. For anyone tracking their spending, these rising costs have always been a headache.
At the onset of the pandemic, most of us pulled back on spending. When the realities of life in lockdown set in—and the customers came back—competition and costs became, somehow, even fiercer.
Then came the arrival of the cookieless future.
Not only are ads on the big social platforms more expensive, they also provide less hyper-specific targeting. Apple has prioritized data privacy and foregone access to device identifiers on iOS. They banned the Facebook tracking pixel in January of 2021. Google has also promised to do away with 3rd-party cookies in Chrome (first by 2022 and now delayed until 2023…we’ll see).
According to Business Insider, FB and IG’s CPM increased 89% YoY as of the end of Q2 2021. The avg price for an ad rose 47% during that same period. These pressures, inflated prices, and lower ROI have left most of us scrambling.
We know we can’t acquire customers in the usual way. If prices stay high, the economics don’t add up. For those of us in eCommerce, acquiring those first customers may now be too expensive. We’re simply not going to be able to replicate the roadmap of brands like Allbirds.
One marketing solution that will likely feature more prominently in the future, however, is user-generated content (UGC). You’re probably familiar with traditional UGC, but there are far more possibilities than just influencers shouting out wellness products.
In its purest form, UGC lets your community co-sell with your brand—your biggest fans can help sell your products with you. The opportunities are endless, but some of the exciting ways we’ve seen UGC used recently include trends like brands gifting influencers their product.
If the cost of digital ads is prohibitive and not yielding results, why not divert some of that marketing budget toward getting your product to influential people? Build in the free distribution of your product as a portion of your marketing spends. An authentic and influential person, who’s tried and appreciates your product, persuading their followers of its value provides real ROI.
The most important thing about utilizing UGC, however, is to align incentives with those of your community—whether they’re current customers or not.
If ever-increasing digital acquisition costs are unsustainable, what evidence is there that UGC will be effective? You can probably think of your own experience with digital ads. While ad-block installs on desktop have leveled off—about 42% of browsers worldwide report blocking ads—mobile usage has skyrocketed. Usage has more than doubled over the last five years, from 282 million to 586 million at the end of last year.
In many ways we grow immune to ads over time—we’ve become our own ad-blocker. Did you see the glossy photoshoot with the glossy model holding the glossy product? Didn’t even register?
That’s because we recognize the gloss as marketing. We’re quickly able to discriminate between what we’re actually interested in—our social feed—and something that reeks of advertising.
But it looks nice, you may be saying—and what’s so wrong with advertising?
Most of us have lost trust in advertising because the hype often doesn’t match reality. We marketers have done so much shady business that no one trusts us.
Here are a few alarming stats about how little our potential customers trust us:
Customers have been burned, so perhaps it’s better to let the folks who like and use the product sell the product.
How does UGC fair versus traditional marketing?
We’ve all learned some good marketing tricks over the years—hello affiliates. However, it’s more effective to leverage the way your community talks about your product than the way marketers want to sell to them.
What sets apart the best digital marketers from the rest is speed—launching fast, seeing what performs, and quickly iterating. It makes sense, the faster you learn, the faster you can grow. The limiting factor is often creative, waiting for the design team to come up with something new to avoid creative fatigue.
What makes user-generated content great is that, rather than relying on design team wizardry, it taps into the ideas of hundreds or thousands of people who are passionate about your product.
Here are two scenarios. You have a new product and you need new creative to test. Do you:
I’ll go with higher test volume and social proof almost every time.
User-generated content lets you tap into thousands of different value props, different ideas, different styles, and different creative executions by thousands of diverse users and influencers. Optimization is a numbers game. Hopefully, we all have more customers than team members.
From a marketing perspective, UGC often performs better. I could bore you with stats and studies that show, on average, Facebook ads featuring user-generated content have 300% higher CTR, 50% lower CPC, and 50% lower CPA, but that starts to feel a little bit like marketing.
Instead, I can tell you my story. After graduating from Stanford in 2014, I jumped right into eCommerce. I joined H.V.M.N., a metabolic health, and nutrition company, as an engineer and founding team member. H.V.M.N. is a DTC company that uses Shopify, like many in eCommerce today.
Our top priority was growth. Obviously. And so began my career in marketing (miss you, engineering), helping grow our SEO channel from 0 to 250,000 new visitors/a month in 1.5 years. I was spending millions on paid social and hard at work on email, SMS, and influencer campaigns.
I went from engineering to organizing a hundred workflows, digging out creative from Google Sheets, Dropboxes, Google Drives, Google Sheets that linked to Dropboxes and a constant nightmare of syncing and linking content.
The most frustrating thing, though, was the creative. We’d finally shoot a video I thought looked good, then we’d need a designer to cut it several different ways, only a few of which we ever ended up being happy with. Then the few we liked wouldn’t always end up performing.
That’s what led me to UGC. Because I was impatient, we started repostings the raw images and videos. This content performed better than any of the expensive stuff we were designing.
Even our predictions about what UGC would perform best were off. Way off.
We started playing something called UGC roulette, where I’d bet on a user-generated ad and our head of design would bet on another. Neither of us were ever very successful, sadly. A trip to UGC Vegas would have left us broke and stranded.
Using user-generated content did help us lower our creative costs, however. Significantly. When we started leveraging UGC at H.V.M.N., we were saving, on average, $8,000 per month. It lowered our FB/IG CPAs by 25%.
Here’s what some of those ads looked like.
So how do you make use of UGC?
Here are some of our real UGC ads and the engagement they received.
Here was my best performing ad from my time at H.V.M.N. (before I started Archive). Everyone on the team at the time lost UGC roulette on this one. It required zero production. A customer literally made an instagram boomerang of one of our products and put a sticker on it. This went from their instagram story to our Facebook Ads Manager and performed better than anything our design team had ever created. The reason I think it performed—it’s not marketing, it’s authentic.
This example represents combined forces—our design team stitched together unscripted videos from our community. We collected these from customers, cropped them, and added some audio. But because it’s actual people who have used the product, not actors we hired to talk about it, reading off of a script we wrote about it—the video feels authentic. At the same time, it looks more professional. For H.V.M.N., it was the best of both worlds.
Ads are tremendously important, but there’s more to life than just direct response. Let’s look at something that every DTC brand has—a website.
Terrelique makes incredible slippers, I love their brand. Their Shopify store is slick, they have color swatches, free shipping, reviews—truly nailing the best practices. They actually do a fantastic job using UGC, but I wanted to see what their shop looked like without it. A thought experiment. Here’s their Shopify without UGC.
It’s what you’d expect, right? Great look and feel, but it doesn’t necessarily light a fire to buy.
As you can see in their actual site above, Terrelique features tons of UGC. With user-generated content, the site has more color. You can see the product in action—slippers that are comfy, stylish—and it doesn’t look like an anonymous drop-shipping store. So why does it work so well?
Here’s another example straight from the H.V.M.N. product page. After the cart, there’s an entire section of embedded Instagram stories. With the Archive app, H.V.M.N. is able to automatically saves these stories from real users, all of which provide different angles, and all feature people discussing how they use the product. The videos provide a richer experience than static images. Because there’s so much UGC coming in, we didn’t exhaust the creative team by constantly begging for refreshes. We could update these testimonials with new stories as they came in.
Here’s an example from a larger brand, Under Armour. This is straight from their homepage. Here you see actual people using their product. They’re not flashy models. It’s amateur athletes, people taking a class at the gym. It gets you into their product faster—instead of navigating a bunch of drop-downs, you see the product immediately with tons of social proof. It’s a more dynamic way to showcase a product.
Another Shopify page here, this one from a yoga gear retailer Alo. Here’s a view of their product page, which functions as a lookbook for the product. The page provides an alternative to models wearing products against a white background. Here you have actual people wearing the clothing in real situations—leggings, tops, a whole look. You’re helping inspire your customer’s fashion sense.
We’ve talked about and provided examples for ads and websites. What about retention channels, which are important for targeting existing customers?
Sometimes it’s easier to talk about what not to do. Don’t show up in people’s inboxes or texts with slight variations of the same image or just a mass of text. When we have limited time and resources, it’s easy to do. But know what else is easy? Unsubscribing.
Why do we get stuck in campaign routines? When you launch your first email or SMS campaign, you’re going to see great performance. You want to replicate that success, so you go back to the well. But seeing similar messaging over and over in these channels is deadening for customers. They stop reacting.
Because marketers are always looking for proper attribution, you’re seeing continual impact from these campaigns, when, in reality, a high percentage can actually be coincidental. Customers who were going to buy anyway happened to open your email.
Likewise, a challenging reality is that many of our favorite ad platforms create attribution models that heavily favor their platform. Marketers keep spend directed toward that channel so the conversions keep coming, when the truth of that attribution is likely much more opaque. In my opinion, this is a major attribution issue for retention channels and why you absolutely cannot simply continue with repetitive campaigns.
Retention channels need something fresh—something that’s low-lift but high impact. Let’s get into some suggestions.
It’s a family secret, my grandmother’s slow-cooked email recipe, but I’m going to share it because it’s only four steps.
First you’re going to go to Instagram. Find yourself something tasty—feed, post, reel, anything. Once you’ve found something that really speaks to your brand, convert the video content to a GIF with a free online tool. It’s going to take about 30 seconds.
Once you’ve got your video set, pick out 5-7 words from the caption that speak to the video’s content. In this case we’d just use: “5 minute matcha kiwi oatmeal recipe.” This delicious dish is already simmering sumptuously.
It’s almost too easy. Just grab the caption from the post and stick it in the body of the email to show how customers are using your product. Tasty!
Dinner’s ready, and so is our email! We just want to make sure to credit the source of the content. They’ll be flattered and your email and SMS list will be impressed. Sprinkle a CTA on this content as garnish and dinner is served.
So those are the four easy steps for using UGC in email campaigns. It’s not the same old boring variation on your original email campaign. You’re sharing your customer’s stories about their experience with your product—people respond to that.
I don’t need to tell you anymore about user-generated content’s benefits. You get it. It’s inexpensive. It’s highly effective. With UGC, you’re looking at more sales from higher conversions, less creative costs, better tests, lower CPAS. But there is one big question remaining—why isn’t everyone already using it? Why aren’t you?
The answer is, sadly, mundane. UGC is fleeting. We like IG stories because they’re ephemeral, here and then gone. But, as a marketer, that means you have 24 hours after someone says something nice about your brand or product before it disappears.
We conducted a poll and over 50% of brands don’t save Instagram stories that mention their company. Great content? Poof—it’s gone!
For the rest of us, even when we are saving stories, we’re not doing a great job. In this same survey we received some real-world feedback, examples of how folks are trying and failing to save the great content their communities are coming up with.
The first example we heard was from a brand whose process involved:
At least they have a process, right?
Another example was from a brand that said their intern “generally” saves stories and adds them to a Google Drive folder. At least the gDrive is a little more reliable than Slack as a content management system, but that “generally” sure sticks out. And finally we heard from one brand, and, bless their honesty, who said that, “Sometimes we add them to our IG highlights, but more often than not, we lose them.”
So there you have it—the answer to the eternal question of why aren’t more people using UGC: It’s actually incredibly difficult to save before it’s gone!
So what’s a marketer to do? What if there were a way to save all that beautiful UGC? Well, I’ve been you. As a performance marketer who truly grew to love user-generated content, I was determined to find a solution and I think I have one that might make your life better.
There are now tools (including Archive App, the company I started to solve the problem) that will let you overcome the tragedy of lost UGC. Instead of messing around with Slack, and Google Drive, we built a an app that takes stories from “disappearing in 24 hours” to “saved and searchable forever.”
In the glorious presence of UGC, there now are tools that can help you:
Above all, I want to say that I get it. The cost of advertising is ridiculous and way less targeted than it used to be. But you still need content, something that’s going to increase sales. Something that isn’t insanely expensive and can save you time and creative costs. That lets you test more, faster, and, why not, lowers CPAs.
The answer just might be that you’re getting great content every day—from your community. Just make sure you don’t let it disappear.