What you need to know now about user-generated content

As I marketer, I understand the value of user-generated content (UGC). Free content, customer engagement, access to other peoples’ followers, social proof, backlinks, improved SEO, and insight into your customers that’s so good it almost feels like eavesdropping.

We can top that off with a few statistics:

  • 85% of consumers say they value UGC visuals (photos and videos) more than brand visuals
  • 30% of millennial media consumption is spent on UGC
  • 48% of all consumers say that UGC is a great way to discover new products
  • 84% of millennials say that their purchase decisions are influenced by UGC
  • Placing UGC on product pages increases conversion by up to 64%

Those stats paint a pretty picture.

As a writer, however, the term user-generated content strikes terror in my heart.

What if the people who submit content have bad grammar? What if they still use two spaces after each period? And (horror of horrors) what if they don’t use the Oxford comma?

I know I’m a grammar snob, but I still can’t bring myself share a link to content that’s full of grammatical errors, no matter how good the content itself is. I just can’t turn off the part of my brain that makes small writing errors shine like supernovas when I’m reading somebody else’s work. (I just wish the same thing would happen when I proof my own work!)

basic grammarBut just because I’m a bit neurotic when it comes to grammar doesn’t mean there aren’t legitimate concerns surrounding UGC.

Just like any other online activity, there are both risks and benefits. Today I’m going to walk you through what some of them are so that you can make an informed decision about whether UGC is right for your brand.

I’m not a lawyer and am not dispensing any legal advice. I’m just raising some questions and encouraging you to think about the answers so that, if you do decide to use UGC, you do so as wisely and safely as possible.

Let’s start by defining what we mean by user-generated content.

What is user-generated content?

User-generated content is content that is created by customers (followers, fans, etc.) instead of by the brand itself. Sometimes UGC is solicited, as when the brand hosts a contest asking customers to send in photos of themselves with the product. Other times, UGC is discovered rather than solicited — when an employee comes across a Tweet or review extolling the product’s virtues, for example.

Brands love UGC for a number of reasons. For one thing, it’s about as close as you can get to free marketing. But an even bigger reason is that it’s hard to beat for authenticity. And today’s customers value authenticity:

  • 86% of millennials say that UGC serves as proof of a brand’s quality
  • 68% of social media users between the ages of 18 and 24 say they consider UGC when making a purchasing decision
  • UGC can increase brand engagement by as much as 28%
  • 51% of consumers trust UGC more than similar content posted by the brand itself

And did I mention that user-generated content can be the next-best thing to free?

But (you knew there was a “but,” didn’t you?)…UGC doesn’t come without risks. And I’ve seen an awful lot of advice touting the benefits of UGC without even giving a nod to the risks.

So I’m going to throw some questions out there to encourage you to think about the potential downsides of user-generated concert. Discuss it with your team, have a debate with yourself while you’re on the treadmill, and talk it over with your lawyer; then make the decision that’s best for you and your brand.

Risks of user-generated content

content marketing


Once upon I time, I lived in downtown Memphis, in an apartment building right across the street from my job. It was an historic building where my mother had gone dancing in her youth, and it was just a short walk from Beale Street and the annual roundup of festivities tied to Memphis in May (Music Fest, the barbecue competition, etc.).

And something was always happening. I remember spending one lunch hour sitting in a restaurant across the street from the Peabody Hotel, watching Tom Cruise film a scene from The Firm. (Yep, I’m that old!)

So I was used to seeing random camera crews. But I was still rather shocked one day to see a TV commercial from a major insurer featuring little ol’ me walking across the street on my content marketingway home for the evening. It looked as if it had been filmed from the roof of my building, and I’m quite certain no one asked my permission. And plenty of people recognized me. I started to make a stink about it, but then sanity kicked in and I realized it was probably a bad idea to hack off my health insurer.

More than 20 years later, however, I still remember that. And it still bugs me that the company felt they were entitled to use my image in an ad campaign without my permission (or knowledge, for that matter).

Assuming that you don’t want your customers holding a 20-year grudge, there are a few important rules to follow. But it all comes down to this:

“If it ain’t yours, don’t use it without permission. And it ain’t yours just because there’s a picture of your product in it.”

There are three main things to worry about (aside from irritating your customers, that is):

  • Ownership and copyright: This is about whether you have the right to share, use, alter, repurpose, or distribute the content. And it can be tricky: A user who’s flattered at the thought of her photo being the featured image in one of your blog posts may react quite differently if that same photo is at the center of a very successful ad campaign that generates millions of dollars in revenue. Lending indirect support through UGC is one thing; knowing that the company is directly profiting from content you created is quite another.
  • Privacy: Think you’re covered because you got permission from the user who took the photograph? Not if there are other people in the picture (and especially if some are children). The photographer can only grant you usage or ownership rights. They can’t sign away somebody else’s right to privacy. So you’d have to get additional consent from each person pictured.
  • Trademark: This one comes up a lot in crowd shots. In the foreground, there’s a picture of somebody using your product, and you have their permission. In the background, however, there’s somebody wearing a hat with another company’s logo. Would using that photo in your marketing content count as a misuse of their trademark?

Most brands understand that they need to get usage permission from the creator of user-generated content, but they don’t always go beyond that to consider privacy and trademark issues.


Let’s say you run a bike store and are thrilled when a user sends you a picture of his child taking his first-ever bike ride sans training wheels — but the kid isn’t wearing a helmet. Or what if somebody submits a photo of himself watching a solar eclipse with your top-of-the-line telescope, and he’s not wearing eye protection? Or what about a photo of a teenager drinking your beer?

It seems pretty obvious that publishing a photo of someone using your product in an unsafe (or illegal) way could be seen as an endorsement. But would merely “liking” a Tweet constitute endorsement?

Think you can avoid liability by including a statement in your Terms of Service that says depicting inappropriate use of a product doesn’t imply endorsement? Digital policy expert Kristina Podnar says that probably won’t be a lot of help.

“Legally, this may not hold water in a court of law, because arguably the company knows that its product is being used in a dangerous or inappropriate way and thus has an obligation to stop or prevent further harm,” she explains. “Even if the company is not fined from a legal/regulatory perspective, lawsuits (including class action) can arise from such behavior.”

“On the other hand,” she continues, “if the company filters or moderates content so that dangerous or inappropriate use of products is not depicted in its digital channels, then we have freedom of speech considerations.”

The only thing you can be sure about when it comes to UGC and liability issues is that there’s no easy answer.

Social issues

Remember last Thanksgiving, when Aunt Sally came out with that comment that was so blisteringly offensive you didn’t know whether to scream or crawl under the table…?

How much worse would it be for that to happen with user-generated content? It could be a comment on your blog, a Tweet that goes viral, or a hashtag hijacking, but, at some point, a piece of user-generated content is going to embarrass the heck out of you. And you’ll have to decide how to handle it.

Go ahead and do that now. Trying to formulate your response in the middle of a social media firestorm is never a good idea. Either you’ll forget to consider an extremely important angle or your intern will react according to personal beliefs rather than organizational values.

Some things to consider:

  • What’s your position on taking a position? Some brands, like Starbucks, Anheuser-Busch, and Ben and Jerry’s, intentionally incorporate their social beliefs as part of their brand identity. Others prefer to stay neutral.The problem with neutrality is that, as soon as reporters start calling, or an employee deletes comments supporting one belief while publishing comments that support another, neutrality is no longer an option. Assuming that you may eventually have to take a position, what position will it be? And how strongly do you want to voice it?
  • Do your digital workers know how to handle a social media crisis? If someone tags your brand in an offensive Facebook post, should they ignore it? Respond? Call a manager? Do your night shift employees know who to call if your Twitter stream starts imploding?

Flare-ups over social issues are a predictable consequence of user-generated content. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the risks outweigh the benefits. But if you choose to accept the risk, make plans now to protect your organization and its reputation. Don’t put it off until you’re in the midst of a crisis.

Regulatory concerns

As if liability and your brand’s reputation weren’t enough, you also have to worry about violating regulations — which can sometimes result in steep penalties. A couple of examples:

  • A customer posts before-and-after pictures of themselves with your prescription skin cream. Would it be OK for an employee to “like” or retweet it? In the U.S., maybe. In the EU, which has tighter regulations governing such products, absolutely not.Just recently, an Amgen employee in Denmark faced criminal investigation for using his personal LinkedIn account to link to a press release covering the results of a recent study involving an Amgen cancer drug. Danish authorities claimed that doing so violated a Danish law prohibiting direct-to-consumer advertising of prescription drugs.The lesson here? Common sense is not a reliable defense.
  • In the U.S., the FTC requires influencers to disclose whether they receive any type of compensation from the companies they endorse. Do you have a process in place to monitor whether your influences abide by that requirement?

It’s hard enough to keep up with the various regulations that can apply to your brand and its employees. Monitoring the compliance of non-employees adds yet another layer of responsibility.

What should you do about user-generated content?

I don’t know…and it’s not my place to tell you. But I do want to encourage you to make informed decisions rather than following the herd.

A few conversation-starters for you and your legal team:

  • Who owns the content once it’s submitted? Has that been clearly communicated to users?
  • Have you made clear statements as to how you intend to use the content (ad campaigns, images for blog posts, etc.)?
  • If you intend to alter or edit the content in any way, have you requested separate permission for that?
  • Will you give credit to the user? If so, how?
  • Do digital employees know what steps to take if they find a piece of unsolicited UGC that they’d like to use?
  • Is your industry governed by any additional regulations that could apply to user-generated content?
  • Do you have a responsibility to verify the age of users who submit content? If so, how do you do that?
  • How much risk are you willing to take, and under what conditions? Are there situations where it’s OK to “like” a piece of content but not to share it?
  • Can users post content directly to your website, or is there an approval process? If so, do employees have clear guidelines that protect the brand without violating users’ freedom of speech?
  • Do you have a contingency plan in place for a social media crisis? Has it been thoroughly distributed, and does everybody know their role?
  • Have you consulted legal counsel on your use of user-generated content?
  • Have you taken advantage of all opportunities to build controls into your process? Do you use your Terms of Service statements to request consent? Could you include a built-in checklist in the approval process for UGC? Could you use automation to scan UGC and flag anything that may be inappropriate?

User-generated content can do wonders for your content marketing goals. But it can also turn into a hot mess, And that’s a risk you should shoulder with intention and foresight, not something that sneaks up behind you when you’re not looking. “Oops” moments may be inevitable; what you want to avoid are the “oopses” you never saw coming.

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