Advertising and marketing are changing and more than ever, and it's the customers who are pulling the strings. The Internet has given customers ever-increasing powers to research, compare, and review brands, enabling both good and bad customer experiences to be broadcast to the world. This is proving challenging for many companies, who've always exercised so much control over their brand messages.
But many brands are harnessing the power of the Internet and "social proof" by optimizing user-generated content (UGC). These are the brands that understand the power of co-creating their brand together with consumers and tapping into the creativity of their biggest fans. For most companies, this also means encouraging--and actively participating in--reviews of their products/services and conversations around them, either on their own, or on third party websites.
Reviews are one of the best types of UGC to encourage, as reviews are closest to the buying process, and directly affect conversion rates and sales numbers. Bazaarvoice software helps clients create social communities on their brand sites and across all Bazaarvoice clients, product page visitors who interact with reviews and consumer Q&A show a 153% lift in conversion over those who don’t interact with UGC. Reviews directly influence customer decisions, such as travelers who look up hotels or attractions on travel review site TripAdvisor  before booking. Companies can place links to their TripAdvisor page on their website or in emails, and invite customers to submit reviews.
Inevitably, some negative reviews will emerge. But according to Bazaarvoice, negative reviews are the minority--across all of their clients, only 10% of reviews are rated two stars or fewer. Sites like TripAdvisor offer business owners the chance to reply to reviews, and a company should definitely take the opportunity to perform some damage control. Begin by thanking the reviewer for taking the time to comment, address their complaint directly and in a calm, professional manner, and invite the reviewer to speak to you directly about their complaint. Use a bad review to show that you're a professional who cares deeply about customer satisfaction.
It pays to remember that TripAdvisor itself is also a brand, and in order for their reviews to continue to be powerful, the brand itself has to remain trustworthy. Anonymity, self-reviews, and fake reviews have eroded the credibility of many review sites and it's vital that these brands remain on top of policies and monitoring content. Many review sites are now using Facebook login, which attaches a review to your Facebook profile, allowing users to easily see what their friends--or celebrities they follow--like and dislike.
User-generated content, of course, doesn't stop at reviews. Businesses across all industries can find ways to engage with users to produce content. In New Zealand, Orcon Broadband  auditioned more than 200 customers to find 9 local musicians to re-record Iggy Pop's famous song "The Passenger" live over Orcon broadband with Iggy himself. The resulting track aired on New Zealand radio and on TV advertisements.
San Francisco-based apparel company ModCloth  is an expert at creating user-generated content opportunities. Customers have great fun in their "Be the Buyer"  section, where they vote on their favorite pieces. When a piece receives enough votes, ModCloth will order the item for the store. Customers can also name new designs and receive credits toward clothing for referring others. Every month, a prominent fashion blogger is nominated as a "Blogger of the Moment" and has a dress named after them, which their followers can purchase from the store.
ModCloth has taken this user-generated inventory to a new level by creating an entire collection of user-generated designs. In its "Make the Cut"  event, users sent in their sketches, and seven winners had their designs produced.  More than 1900 designs were entered in the competition and voting occurred through the ModCloth Facebook page, generating thousands of comments.
For ModCloth, this user involvement enables them to build a community around their inventory, expand their reach in the fashion blogging community, and forecast supply and demand for specific items.
User-generated content can also be used to produce advertising campaigns. Rubbermaid used consumer-written content in a print ad, and saw a 10% lift in coupon redemption  over a similar campaign. And financial services provider USAA reads real consumer testimonials in their radio spots.
Coca-Cola has a history of fan first interactions,  from their friendly approach to problems with a popular Facebook fan page created by two Coke fans,  to Coke Australia's recent "Share a Coke" campaign  encouraging fans to create their own Coke commercials with pictures from their Facebook albums, share a virtual coke, get a Coke can with a friend's name on it and win prizes.
“We are using the power of the first name in a playful and social way to remind people of those in their lives they may have lost touch with or have yet to connect with," says Lucie Austin, marketing director, Coca-Cola South Pacific. "We’ve put names on Coca-Cola bottles so consumers will have fun finding their friends and family members’ names and then enjoy sharing a Coke together.”
A recent Target campaign  used home videos of real students opening their college acceptance letters. The commercial resonated with people all over the country because of the use of real people with real, emotional reactions. This kind of campaign helps a superstore company like Target build a more personal relationship with customers.
Other companies have put forth larger financial incentives to spur creative engagement with their brands. Last year, Zappos offered $48,000 in cash awards to users who created the best 30-second commercials that celebrated the art of gifting during the holidays. The online shoe and apparel shop broadcasted their top consumer-generated commercial  on a host of TV networks to promote their website as a premiere destination for holiday gift giving.
A similar campaign organized by Chevron  supplied $100,000 in cash awards to motivate the spread information and optimism around the fight against AIDS through online video. Both Zappos and Chevron launched their campaigns on Zooppa’s co-creation platform. 
Megabrands and smaller companies alike are harnessing the power of user-generated content by mobilizing their audiences in social sharing, both on- and off-line. Instead of looking at online review sites and other social sharing tools as enemies of your business, why not find ways to engage customers in creating your marketing content for you?
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--Ekaterina Walter is a Global Social Innovation Strategist at Intel. Follow her @ekaterina .
[Image: Flickr user Sean Molin ]