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In an increasingly cluttered online advertising environment, brands are struggling to overcome “banner blindness” and they are looking for cooler ways to engage their target audience, beyond traditional display advertising and their favourite search engine marketing. In accordance with the general trend towards a more interactive and consumer-driven Web, a phenomenon often referred to as Web 2.0, advertisers are embracing user-generated content in their online marketing efforts.

So what would be the “correct” way for a brand to launch a successful consumer-generated content campaign? Well, there are many examples of companies that have invited their customers to submit their own stuff (whether it be comments, photos, videos or any other form of self-expression) and the Internet population has responded positively. For instance, HSBC has established an online forum where users can discuss on a wide variety of topics, from Blackberries to dog shows. The website has attracted over 1 million unique visitors and a new discussion issue is proposed every week. Mastercard has extended its popular offline “Priceless” campaign on the Internet, inviting users to submit their own “priceless picks”. An early example of a user-generated content campaign is Converse Gallery, where Converse encourages its fans to create and submit short films for its iconic All Star shoes. The website is up and running since August 2004.

But it is not always the advertisers themselves that initiate consumer-empowered Web activity around their brands. Flickr, the photo-sharing online community, has over 30,000 photos tagged “Vespa”. This is not the result of a planned promotional move, but a collection of photos uploaded by the worldwide aficionados of the Italian scooter. In addition, a video showing the result of mixing Mentos with Diet Coke (the Coke explodes creating a small geyser) has become a huge success on YouTube, generating a bulk of video responses from people who tried and recorded the experiment themselves. Again, the original video had nothing to do with Mentos or Coca Cola, and the buzz it created led the drinks giant to sign a deal with the production company for future cooperation.

However, not all user-created campaigns have a happy end. The Internet, by far the most open and democratic medium, provides consumers enough freedom to praise an effort they like but also to hurt a brand severely. Dell, the electronics manufacturer, has learned this lesson very well when a blogger posted a problem that he had with Dell’s technical support, then others added their similar comments and this evolved into an “I hate Dell” movement. On the user-generated content arena, the idea of Chevrolet to invite consumers to insert the text in the video ads for its new Tahoe SUV did not quite have the desired effect: a wave of anti-SUV and anti-Tahoe ads flooded YouTube, creating a remarkable negative hype around the brand.

Any publicity is good publicity, it is often said. On the other hand, even the most optimistic observer would have a hard time finding a positive aspect in a consumer-created campaign that leads to irony and hate messages for the brand. So what are the elements that determine whether such a campaign will take off or not? First of all, having a cool product helps. And it helps a lot. Brands such as Converse and Vespa did not have to do a lot to get their customers contribute. It wouldn’t be too surprising if the next successful user-generated content campaign was launched for the iPod or for Diesel jeans, products that have a worldwide base of enthusiasts ready to become brand ambassadors. Another factor that is important is relevance. It makes a sense to launch a photo-submitting campaign if you want to promote a new camera (as Canon did for its EOS 350D model, a campaign that attracted about 20,000 photograph uploads).

Advertisers that are planning to invite consumers to contribute in online campaigns should bear in mind that their campaigns are likely to grow out of control. This is what happened with the Chevy Tahoe videos and it could happen to any brand, especially when advertising a controversial product (such as the massively-polluting SUVs). Even the “Priceless” campaign, which is executed in the controlled environment of a company website, has grown out of control since there are loads of spoof “Priceless” ads on YouTube. Luckily for Mastercard, the majority of these videos do not make fun of the brand but are using the idea in other, mostly humoristic contexts.

A question that arises from the above remarks is whether it is worth the risk to enable users to publish their own brand-centred content if it is so easy for the situation to go out of hand and even turn against the company. The answer is a hard one to give, but the benefits of a successful consumer-empowered campaign are not to be ignored: in a media system that is bombarding people with advertising messages, the opportunity to get the customers to truly engage with your brand is a scarce one. Such campaigns unleash the potential of peer-to-peer marketing, turn committed customers to brand evangelists, and the buzz created around the product is almost impossible to be achieved with mainstream advertising. Are the benefits strong enough to outweigh the risks? The answer is yours.

Σημείωση: Επειδή θα λείψω για λίγες μέρες στο Βερολίνο, τυχόν σχόλια που θα κατατεθούν σε αυτό ή σε άλλα posts θα δημοσιευτούν με μικρή καθυστέρηση.

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