Letting Customers Talk the Talk: Grassroots Marketing through Consumer-Generated Content

In an effort to spread the word without spending a fortune, what marketer hasn’t considered engaging their consumers in the process of content creation? After all, you don’t own your brand — your customers do. Chances are, they also own a camcorder — or at least a cell-phone with built-in camera — and are not afraid to use it.

V-CAM, or viewer-created ad messages, have taken marketing by storm, and are becoming an important element of grassroots marketing in the YouTube era. If part of your goal is to support a living brand, then consumer-generated content can be an effective way to get results — so long as it is properly planned and executed.

The idea of getting consumers to create your content is sometimes called brand democratization. Many big players are doing it: Audi, GM, Nike, and L’Oréal Paris. Sometimes it works brilliantly. Nike’s consumer generated ads for Converse led to a 300% increase in site traffic and an 11% increase in sales. But there are also risks. VW, for example, ended up in a socio-political minefield when a V-CAM was created featuring a VW Polo that thwarts a terrorist attack, confining a suicide bomber’s blast to the inside of the car. Politically sensitive material, to say the least.

Because of the inherent risks, and the fact that V-CAM works best (and worst) with the world’s biggest brands, pure consumer-generated ads may be more of a fad than a movement, and are unlikely to see widespread use.

Consumer Collaborated Ad Messages

So how do you mitigate the risks and still engage your customers in the life of your brand? Call it consumer collaborated ad messages.

Provide all of the creative elements you want to see in an ad, then let your customers “mash them up” to create something they can call their own. The Internet, with its combination of Ajax tools and cultural shift toward user-generated content, is an ideal place for this kind of customer engagement. Give them a sense of brand ownership — let them create, judge, share, and encourage their friends to try making their own ads — without endangering your brand.

You can take the idea of consumer-generated content a step further by integrating customer input into your overall brand message. Think of those charming couples wearing Tilley Endurables in exotic locales. You can control the results to some extent by providing examples of the kind of submissions you’d like to receive. As a bonus, what you receive may provide some insight into your customers’ minds.

Think your brand could use a boost from the grassroots? Effective communications thrive on three key aspects: how a message is delivered, who delivers it, and what the message is. We have found that who delivers the message can be as important as how the message is delivered. Messages from peers are often perceived as more genuine, and may provoke a greater response. And that’s the key to grassroots marketing.

Like any marketing campaign, engaging your customers in content creation requires heads-up planning and clearly stated objectives.

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