User-generated content gone viral

Every marketer dreams of creating a campaign or piece of content that is so awesome it can’t help being shared. But the reality is that there are a lot of great marketing campaigns that, while very creative and share-worthy, never quite make it to viral status. This is mostly due to the large volume of content that comes across our computer screens and mobile devices every single day. We are inundated with emails, funny cat videos, top 10 lists, and how-to articles. Being able to cut-through the noise and get noticed (and more importantly shared) is becoming harder and harder for marketers. That’s why smart marketers are spending less time trying to come up with the next great idea and leaving it to their customers and fans to do the work for them.

User-generated content (UGC) has grown steadily in popularity over the last few years, and while it can be scary for brands to relinquish so much power, the benefits can be huge. Mashable blogger Carolyn Baumgarten says there are three distinct advantages to UGC — cost savings, novelty, and social engagement. I would add a fourth advantage, and that is authenticity. Consumers and users are skeptical and they don’t like to be sold to. When the content being shared has been created by their Uncle Pete or former high-school English teacher, it has more authenticity and therefore is more likely to be viewed and shared.

Elf YourselfOne of the first really successful UGC campaigns was back in 2007 (before it was being called UGC) when Office Max’s “Elf Yourself” website and app went viral (the website was first launched in 2006, but didn’t hit viral status until the following year). According to Media Post News, in the six weeks from Nov. 20, 2007 to Jan. 2, 2008, the site had over 193 million visits and over 123 million elves were created–which equates to 60 elves per second! The site was discussed on news programs like The Today Show, and celebrities created and shared their own elf videos. Pretty soon everyone you knew on Facebook or Twitter had “elfed themself” and shared it for all to see. While Office Max did have to develop the app, it was the users’ ability to create their own personalized videos that resulted in the viral spread.

Ballon Lego Minifigures

The Ballon family’s Lego alter-egos.

Since then, many companies have tried to follow in Office Max’s footsteps and created similar apps. These seem to be especially popular around major holidays. Just recently Lego launched an online app that lets visitors create a custom holiday card of their family as Lego minifigures. The great thing about Lego’s offer is that the yellow minifigure is such an instantly recognizable symbol of the brand that it’s an obvious connection when you see one of these cards, whereas the “Elf Yourself” app was less obviously a representation of Office Max.

In a similar vein, Marvel has a Create Your Own Superhero website app; Disney recently launched a Create Your Own Monster app (to promote the new Monsters, Inc. movie); and Jostens (the yearbook people) created a very popular”Yearbook Yourself” website app.

Of course custom videos, images or eCards are just one form of user generated content that is seeing viral success. But what makes them stand out is that these apps and websites create a point of interaction and engagement with users that, while somewhat streamlined and formulaic, feels unique and personal to the end user. And in return, users inevitably want to share their custom creations with their social networks.

What examples have you seen of companies getting creative with UGC apps or tools?

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