User-generated photos and videos are some of the most engaging types of content out there, but learning how to use them is another story.

UGC photo
Photo by Kathryn Stone/Scopio submission.

Entrepreneurs are always looking to differentiate themselves from the competition. One of the most effective ways to stand out as a brand is easily brushed aside by busy entrepreneurs, marketers, designers and other creative brand builders. This key piece of the puzzle? Authentic (read: “real”) user-generated photos and videos.

What does user-generated content—or UGC for short—mean to you personally? If you said something along the lines of a buzzword or a short-lived fad, it’s time to wipe that mental slate squeaky clean. And hey, think of reading this piece as the first step.

Why should you think differently about UGC?

Photography is highly democratic, and just about anyone with a smartphone and internet access can become a visual content creator. This has made social platforms like Twitter and Instagram a goldmine of visual content, and the billions of photos and videos on social media range from the mundane to the why-didn’t-I-think-of-that brilliant. Believe me when I say there’s something out there that’ll work perfectly for your branding.

UGC travel photo
Photos and videos from everyday people can hold more influence than stock photography or in-house visuals. Instagram photo by @tom.wolf.

This content is effective, too. We’re always talking about marketing to millennials, who surpassed Boomers last year to become the largest living generation in the US. And given millennials’ penchant for technology, the internet and all things social media, it’s really no surprise that they find UGC 50% more trustworthy and 35% more memorable than other forms of media.

Young folks aren’t the only ones. Another survey shows us that 70% of respondents “trust images taken from people like them over brand created images.” And in a world where microstock photography is sterile rather than convincing, publishing UGC is becoming more than just a bold marketing tactic. Just think about shopping online. Sure, adjective-studded company copy and in-house images and designs are a necessary piece of the puzzle. But for most of us, verified reviews with customer photos are what seals the deal (Don’t let these nightmares happen to you!).

Like any other change, incorporating user-generated photos into your marketing strategy takes some good old getting used to. I see this firsthand at Scopio, the image-licensing platform I work at. UGC does involve a slight learning curve, and using it really is open to your imagination and what jibes with your customers. It’s not always cut and dry.

That being said, there are a few uses that’ll work for just about any creative entrepreneur. Keep these in mind when building your site, brainstorming projects and shaping your brand, and you might just get the engagement and upper hand you’re looking for.

1. Start. Gathering. Content.

Seriously! Whether you’re just starting to experiment with user-generated visuals or they’re already a huge part of your branding, this is absolutely crucial. Without a content library, it’ll be pretty difficult to work things out when it comes time to publish—right?

Instagram photo
Social sites like Instagram host many brilliant photo communities, and it’s not difficult to find one that’s right up your alley. Instagram photo by @still.bittersweet.

Spend an afternoon poring through social media to find the great hashtags and niche communities filled with stunning photos and videos. They’re definitely out there; the film community and EyeEm are just two solid examples. If you’re convinced that user-generated photos would garner more engagement than stock photography — and if you’re a brand, this is often true — it’s time to keep tabs on your favorites and maybe even reach out to the photographers to get permission to use their work.

When you’re ready to take the next step, invest in a system to gather brand-relevant photos and videos. Just hear me out if that sounds excessive. Have you ever tried to unearth a post you saw earlier on a popular Twitter, Facebook or Instagram hashtag? Chances are that you just scrolled in endless pursuit. Unfortunately, that’s social media in a nutshell. The internet is so full of spam, advertisements and junk that keeping track of your favorite branded content would be a completely separate job for you. And sure, you could favorite or bookmark Instagram and Twitter posts, but then you’d have to start separate conversations with tens—if not hundreds—of strangers. And after that, you’d be tasked with noting everyone you’ve talked to, following up with them, sending out individual licensing agreements, having them send you the original content and storing it. Payment might also be a consideration. Yuck!

If you have time to do all of that and are a creative entrepreneur, I’d be convinced that you finally found a way to skip out on sleep. Please share your secret with the rest of us! But for now, white-labeling is seriously king. So if you’re wanting to create an entire library of UGC and track results in one place, find a platform that helps you discover, license and publish this kind of content. You’ll create a great image library over time without too much of a burden.

2. Stock your site with UGC galleries

The sweetest sound in any language is your own name. And in the language of social media, that sweet sound translates to a reshare.

Let’s say that you’re at a local haunt getting your work done. A coworking space, perhaps. You snap an artfully arranged photo of the table you’re camping out at, upload it to your personal Instagram account and put your favorite filter on it (Aden, anyone?). After posting, you’ll tag the space or add a location, maybe hoping for a little more exposure.

When that coworking space picks it up and reposts it on their website’s social gallery out of the blue, you’re not only surprised, but genuinely excited. Your everyday moment—one you post on your own time—is worth a share to them, and you’re more likely to create, upload and tag more brand-relevant content. You might even share that page with friends and family.

This year, the UN Environment gathered visuals from around the world for their World Environment Day event. The best submissions live in this curated UGC gallery, which helped keep viewers engaged and encouraged people to upload their own shots.

This is the probably the easiest way to reap the benefits of UGC, as the ROI for live UGC galleries is almost unbelievable. In fact, audiences can spend up to 90% more time on your webpage with this super-scrollable addition (there’s a reason why Pinterest’s endless masonry layout is so addicting). There’s no need to get permissions from content creators if your gallery links back to each original post. A UGC gallery doesn’t take long to create, and the benefits make it worth the while.

The content you share doesn’t have to be directly related to your brand, either. Live galleries can function almost like mood boards, and the content can be about any brand-relevant topic. Think interior design photos for a paint company, or different world cuisines for a food subscription box. Either way, you can keep people scrolling for longer and get more eyes on your brand.

3. Build a following with email

Warby Parker’s #SeeSummerBetter campaign
Warby Parker’s #SeeSummerBetter email campaign built up brand identity and encouraged fans to use their hashtag.

Though crafting emails can be labor intensive, their effectiveness and high ROI means that they should definitely play a role in your marketing—especially when you’re building brand identity.

But email marketing is a battle, y’all. First, you’re forced to compete with the rows of digital flotsam and jetsam in your audience’s inbox. Many of us have signed up for far too many email newsletters, so it’s clear why getting your weekly digest clicked on is a feat in and of itself.

Once your email is open, you’re in completely different territory. Website clicks and high-quality conversions are part of your end goal right now, and the key to all of that is including written and visual content that’s both eye-catching and engaging.

As far as email marketing goes, featuring UGC is great for directing more clicks to your site and getting customers to post about your brand, and savvy companies like Warby Parker are taking full advantage. Using the hashtag #SeeSummerBetter, the popular eyeglasses company conveys their chic brand vision and encourages happy fans to post about their experiences. It’s the perfect example of persuasive email marketing boosted with actionable UGC.

ReturnPath’s Alexandra Braunstein and Laura Christensen sum this campaign up perfectly. “Effective social media promotion doesn’t simply ask people to ‘follow.’ It creates a desire to belong.”

Warby Parker UGC
Encourage fans to post about your company with branded hashtags. You might just find content that you’d like to share with your audience, just like Warby Parker did here.

Since people identify so strongly with Warby Parker’s aesthetic and the visual content they feature, they’re much more likely to click through on that email, read more about the campaign and upload their own moments to Instagram in hopes of being noticed. It really does go full circle.

You can start by licensing a few UGC images that fit your overall vision. Use those pieces of content on an email campaign to shape your desired image, and encourage folks to move forward by tagging you in social posts and using your hashtag. You’ll find community—and great content—quicker than you think.

4. Earn content with contests

If this post was about the benefits of running your own UGC photo or video contest, I could probably submit it as a dissertation. It would seriously be that long. Compared to the work you put in for promoting and running your own UGC-based contest, it’s immensely rewarding.

First, you actually engage both your current and target audience when you provide incentives for sharing brand-relevant UGC. Think about it this way: when someone who has never heard of your brand before sees a clever social media contest that catches their eye—maybe one posted by a friend, family member or acquaintance—they’re much more likely to take part. Your fan base will snowball naturally, and the connections you create will last. Second, your contestants will do some marketing for you. And third, you’ll end up with a ton of data on geography, age ranges and interests. It’s a marketer’s dream come true!

#wanderlustcontest
To earn a chance to win a photo expedition to Yosemite, all photographers had to do was post a photo on the #WanderlustContest hashtag. This allowed Nat Geo to collect beautiful visuals from around the world without even sending a photographer abroad.

The most important perk of a UGC contest, though, is that it allows you to gather scores of engaging photos and videos without too much of a fuss. The key here is licensing this content. Why ask for content from customers if you’re not going to use it later?

You can definitely encourage people to share entries under your own social media hashtag to get more exposure, but the process is a little different if you want to license the entries. Here are two ways to do that:

Draft up an agreement

Give your legal team a call, because it’s time to draft up a watertight licensing agreement! Exciting, right? This should be crafted just for photos and videos submitted to your contest, and it should also include a space where contestants can sign digitally. When the contest is officially over and it comes time to license entries, either direct message each participant or leave them a comment with the link to your licensing agreement. Make sure you have a system in place to keep track of licensed entries.

Go all out with a portal

If you’re ready to take on a new design and programming project, why not create a gorgeous portal where folks can upload their contest submissions directly? This sidesteps the compression that comes with social sites like Instagram and can also direct more traffic to your site. You’ll be able to license each photo directly if you include the contest’s terms and conditions on the portal. This process tends to be easier than commenting on everyone’s photos and keeping track of things manually.

If you don’t have the spare time to do all of this, consider collaborating with a visual or UGC licensing platform. Your new content library will definitely turn heads.

What brand do you think has the best user generated content? Let us know in the comments!

This article was written by Marlee Ellison. Marlee is a St. Louisan, hobby photographer and arts and culture journalist. She’s also a Content Editor at Scopio — the Getty Images of social media. Drop her an email at marlee@scop.io to chat about all things writing and UGC (or just to exchange cat GIFs)!