Content Marketing

Does Censorship Kill the Appeal of User-Generated Content?

Coffin. Bill Cosby. Perky. Tacos. According to The Atlantic, these are four of the 3,415 words banned from Coca-Cola’s user-generated content campaign “GIF the Feeling.”

Developed by the agency Oglivy & Mather, “GIF the Feeling” is user-generated content with a twist. On a microsite, people can create shareable GIFs by adding a tagline to Coke-themed visuals. But there’s an invisible fence protecting the brand: A “profanity API” censors not just the usual swears and innuendos, but any word that the company deems harmful to its image.

But no one can rein in the forces of internet satire—not even Coca-Cola. Despite this overprotective filter, users with their own off-brand feelings found ways around it on Twitter and Tumblr:

Even without subversive misspellings, there are only so many words that the brand could police…

Coca-Cola, a company (and Contently client) often leading the charge in creative and sophisticated marketing, appeared to have followed the UGC playbook here. It targeted a niche millennial audience, used cinematic visuals, and even partnered with social media influencers. But the campaign was still skewered by the Daily Dot, CBC News, and New York magazine, which called “GIF the Feeling” a “hilarious and regrettable” mistake.

Despite its popularity, user-generated content can still be an enigma for digital marketers. The wildest ideas for engaging consumers can yield huge payoffs, viral disasters, or, worse, no response at all. Some UGC campaigns, like “GIF the Feeling,” blur the edges between viral content and PR failures.

According to Digiday, millennials claim that UGC is 20 percent more influential on their purchases than any other type of media. But there are many kinds of UGC strategies and not all of them hit their targets. Brands sometimes struggle to let go of image control only to find that, in many cases, trying to control user-generated content completely kills it.

Tell us your story

Have you ever asked an acquaintance to tell you the story about their devotion to you? Of course not, because it’s contrived, self-aggrandizing, and weird. That’s not how people actually build relationships. But too many brands overuse this phony “Tell Us Your Branded Story” strategy, as Contently’s editor-in-chief, Joe Lazauskas, wrote last year. And as the Tell Us Your Story Tumblr documents, this call to action is hilariously tone-deaf:

… because Derek Jeter always makes us think of dollar bills. And when my grandmother came to this country, all she had on her back were obscure-brand tortilla chips:

Bryan Adams, founder and CEO of Ph.Creative, believes that asking people to create brand-centric content using the brand’s own language is just plain selfish. “Saying that an audience has a nine-second attention span is complete nonsense,” he said.“What we’ve got is an abbreviated tolerance span. We just won’t put up with selfish, blatant marketing stunts.”

And when a user-generated content campaign feels contrived, it just gets ignored. “Social media and content marketing should all create an element of user-generated content,” Adams said. “If it doesn’t, then there is no response, community, or conversation.”

Hashtag your (un)happy meals

When a brand releases a hashtag into the social media world, it’s akin to opening the floodgates—no one can control it. And hashtags that get hijacked by users tend to go viral. While this achieves a ton of earned media for the brand, it’s still embarrassing.

The most glaring example of this social snafu is McDonald’s “Tell us your #McDStories” disaster. The company’s vague hashtag campaign in 2012 was only live on Twitter for two hours, but it instantly morphed into the bashtag #McDHorrorStories. For a brand with a controversial history of food safety, an open platform for storytelling devolved into a Festivus-style airing of grievances. Here’s a taste of what happened:

Since 2012, brands have learned a lot about Twitter etiquette, but some haven’t figured out that hashtags can amplify controversy. In an attempt to recover from a previous PR disaster, SeaWorld launched #AskSeaWorld to invite public questions about its treatment of animals. The end result, according to CIO, was called one of the biggest social media fails of 2015, which also coincided with a 40 percent drop in its stock price. And as you can imagine, PETA had a field day with this one too.

SeaWorld, in an even more myopic social media play, completely dismissed the hard-hitting questions that it asked for:

For Adams, digital marketing is a process of continual engagement, the majority of which should be listening, not arguing. “A more sophisticated approach is to put things out there…and succeed by having people talk about it,” he said. “That’s the challenge and the smart play.”

In a way, NYPD Deputy Chief Kim Royster got in front of the controversy when the #myNYPD hashtag, asking for “a photo with a member of the NYPD,” got hijacked by Occupy Wall Street activists (and others) in 2014. Despite the wave of photos that captured police misconduct in action, Royster owned up to it, saying that Twitter “provides an open forum for an uncensored exchange and this is an open dialogue good for our city.”

Chiraneev Kholi, professor of marketing at California State University Fullerton, told me that originally, “Social media wasn’t meant for marketing, it’s a way for people to talk to each other, share stories, and share opinions.” In order for brands to remain relevant on social media, they have to become members of the community without trying to exert control over it.

So while the NYPD isn’t a for-profit company, and police misconduct is indefensible, brands can learn a lot from Royster’s response: encourage real conversation, especially after handing people the microphone.

Use the power of prizes

UGC contests can give brands free publicity and boost engagement—all with less risk of losing control.

Starbucks, for example, retained control over its image while engaging consumers with the UGC White Cup Contest. The company asked users to submit original designs to spruce up the brand’s iconic white cup. The contest served to both elevate the brand and provide valuable promotion for the artist, enough to generate 4,000 submissions in just over three weeks.

“Asking for content is a part of building the relationship with the community,” said Lindsay Baish-Flynn, director of content at Blue Chip Marketing. “But it’s important to participate in their lives without making it about the brand in the frame.”

Companies outside of the mainstream are also looking for engagement from user-generated content. In 2014, PornHub, a company with an active social media and a data-driven blog, launched its “Safe for Work” ad contest, inviting people to submit designs and awarding the winner a job as the company’s creative director for a year. This strategy not only inspired clever content, but put the entire branding effort in the hands of users. The contest generated a lot of positive PR—the public unveiling of the winning entry in Times Square, accompanied by a live rock choir, got some major headlines in the two days before its “premature evacuation.”

“You can’t stop people from creating something about your brand that you don’t like,” Baish-Flynn said. “Brands need to figure out what they need to improve to start changing that conversation.”

Share (some of) your feelings

To avoid the open-platform pitfalls of social media campaigns, many brands run their user-generated content through a microsite, giving them the option to censor off-brand messages—as long as the censorship is subtle enough to go unnoticed.

But before you declare “GIF the Feeling” a disaster, rogue GIFs did increase the campaign’s reach. For example, Tumblr user Tehawesome‘s dark and absurd GIFs got over 28,000 notes in the first 10 days (the number has now jumped to 64,472). And that’s just one user. So did this negative coverage actually hurt Coca-Cola or, in a roundabout way, turn the campaign into a strange success?

According to Marcos de Quintos, Coca-Cola’s chief marketing officer, the campaign was meant to convey that “Coca-Cola is for everybody.” In this case, everybody includes the haters. But instead of hiding a censorship tool, maybe Coca-Cola would have been better off publicly confronting its own lack of control. As Ian Bogost of The Atlantic writes: “The coolest brands are the ones who accept and embrace the inability to control messages online—even as they make every effort to exert that control—in order to hunt the internet wilderness for secret converts.”

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