User-generated content (UGC) such as social media hashtags, reviews, and product demonstrations let consumers see the benefits of a company's products from their peers’ perspective. We asked 401 people in the U.S. which type of content - branded or user-generated - would be more likely to drive them to make a purchase. We found that user-generated posts on Instagram are more effective at driving purchases than UGC on YouTube or Twitter.
Swiping through pictures of friends and family on Instagram Stories is how many people pass idle time during COVID-19 stay-at-home orders.
It’s easy for people to swipe or scroll past sponsored content that companies pay hefty sums to create and promote on social media. That’s why many companies are getting customers to do the advertising for them using user-generated content (UGC).
UGC provides social proof that a company’s product is worth using and purchasing. As tech-savvy consumers become more sensitive to advertising, user-generated content such as reviews, pictures of products, or demonstration videos can help businesses win over anyone in a valued customers’ network.
User-generated content doesn’t just reach more people, it also saves businesses money. Businesses cutting marketing budgets during the COVID-19 economic downturn can maintain a steady stream of promotional content by outsourcing to customers and users.
We asked 401 people in the U.S. to choose between a user-generated image and a brand-generated image. We found that user-generated content on Instagram was more likely to drive a purchase than UGC on YouTube or Twitter.
- More than half of people chose user-generated images from Starbucks (61%) and clothing brand Aerie (60%). This shows the potential of user-generated content to drive sales for businesses.
- Only 30% of people said a user-generated Instagram post from vacation rental company Getaway House would lead them to make a purchase. This shows Instagram’s limitations for brands using UGC.
- Most people (71%) preferred a branded YouTube video from subscription box FabFitFun to a user-generated unboxing video. UGC on YouTube works best when it includes products from multiple competing brands.
- About two-thirds of people (68%) preferred a direct tweet from Netflix over a user-generated tweet. User-generated content on Twitter can be helpful for businesses looking for more Twitter content.
People Prefer Some User-Generated Content on Instagram
Feel like life during COVID-19 is one endless series of scrolls on Instagram? Emarketer upped its prediction for Instagram growth from 1.5% to 14% in 2020, as stay-at-home orders drove more people inside and to the platform. This is part of what makes Instagram the perfect platform for businesses to test a UGC strategy.
Tools such as stories, which allow users to post temporary images and videos for 24 hours and to repost content from popular public accounts, make it easy for businesses to identify accounts using and posting about products.
Businesses also use hashtags on Instagram to see who is sharing or talking about their products online.
Women’s clothing brand Aerie has nailed user-generated content on Instagram. Almost two-thirds of people (60%) say they’re more likely to make a purchase from a user-generated image on the company’s Instagram account.
Successful user-generated content focuses on the benefits of a product for a consumer, not the brand.
In the example from Aerie, the user-generated image shows a customer happily enjoying an Aerie swimsuit. The branded image, by contrast, shows a model lounging by a pool in a shot that looks staged.
Aerie as a brand is committed to body positivity activism by featuring images of unretouched models on its website. In 2014, that brand image extended to the brand’s #AerieREAL campaign, which encourages customers to take pictures wearing their Aerie merchandise.
This user-generated content campaign is particularly effective for Aerie because its hashtag remains consistent with its overall brand image. Unaltered images of models combined with this UGC strategy make Aerie’s brand seem authentic and accessible to anyone.
Starbucks also shares effective user-generated content on Instagram. The company has near-universal brand recognition, making it easy for user-generated content to appeal to a broad range of audiences.
Most people preferred Starbucks’ user-generated post (61%) to its branded content (39%) on Instagram.
Starbucks’ popular #RedCupContest is one of the most popular examples of user-generated content on social media.
This popular holiday-season hashtag inspires customers to purchase and post pictures of its popular holiday cups.
Consumers, therefore, are already used to seeing user-generated images on the Starbucks Instagram account. This gives Starbucks the benefit of brand recognition and consumer familiarity when posting user-generated content year-round.
Not All User-Generated Content on Instagram Inspires Purchases
Brands need to be deliberate about how they use UGC on Instagram. Sometimes, high-quality images can get confused with branded content.
People will not trust user-generated images that match too closely with branded content on platforms such as Instagram, which could be perceived as inauthentic.
More than two-thirds of people (70%) preferred vacation company Getaway House’s branded content to this user-generated post (30%) shared on the company’s Instagram account.
In this example from Getaway House, the user-generated image features a caption where the customer describes her experience with the company.
The promotional image the brand produced, by contrast, shows a Getaway House vacation home standing alone in a forest. It's a high-quality image, but it still looks like it could've been taken on an iPhone and not an expensive camera.
This shows that Instagram has a few limitations when it comes to brands repurposing user-generated content.
In 2019, 39% of all Instagram users with more than 15,000 followers were social media influencers, therefore, are highly sensitive to corporate advertisements masquerading as authentic user content.
The woman in Getaway House’s post is not an influencer, but her glowing endorsement of the company in the caption might make someone suspicious as they casually scroll through their Instagram feed.
People Are Less Driven to Make a Purchase From User-Generated Content on YouTube
Want to see how a product looks, feels, and works before committing to a purchase? User-generated content on YouTube shows inquisitive customers the details of a product beyond what’s listed on a product page.
Product demonstrations and unboxing videos on YouTube rack up huge views. According to Google, the amount of time people have spent watching unboxing videos on their phones alone is equal to the time it would take to watch romantic comedy classic "Love Actually" 20 million times.
People preferred a branded video from subscription box service FabFitFun. Only 29% of people said a user-generated YouTube video from the company would drive them to make a purchase.
Product videos and demos are similar to reviews — they can validate purchases and help buyers along the buyer journey.
If the product video only showcases one product and doesn’t compare that product to any competitors, though, it serves as little more than another promotional piece of content rather than an informative look at a brand’s product.
“Users don't like one-sided content,” said Taylor McCarthy Hansen, co-founder of e-commerce coaching agency The Ecomm Manager. “If a piece of user-generated content is comparing two products, for example, it may lean toward one product but shouldn't overtly show bias. Clearly favoring one product turns the content into a sales pitch rather than a legitimate review.”
Consumers are highly sensitive to YouTube posts that could be perceived as advertorial. Companies often sponsor influencers on social media by sending them free products in exchange for posting positively about the product.
Beauty influencer Kelly Shahbazian's "Product Battle" videos on YouTube are a prime example of user-generated content that shows a brand's benefits compared to competitors.
Shahbazian uses this video to demonstrate two different curly hair products side-by-side. She assures viewers in the video description that the post is not sponsored.
Brands should be aware of where their YouTube audience is in the sales funnel. If their audience is casual YouTube browsers, for example, users might not be as receptive to the information found in an unboxing video designed to trigger a purchasing decision.
Consumers Find Branded Content on Twitter More Authentic
Short content and viral hashtags on Twitter show businesses what is trending among their audience, but reposting audience content might not resonate with users the way Instagram does.
Two-thirds of people (68%) said Netflix’s original tweet about the show "Selling Sunset" would be more likely to drive them to make a purchase than the Alex Goldschmidt’s tweet shared by Netflix's account (32%).
Netflix uses its social media accounts to generate buzz around its original content and content from other companies that comes and goes from the platform.
Netflix’s Twitter strategy may not need an authenticity boost from user-generated content, but what about other companies? Is it worth it for a smaller business to pursue user-generated content on a textual platform such as Twitter?
“While people generally trust UGC, sometimes they would rather hear straight from the horse's mouth,” said Vinay Amin, CEO of Eu Natural, a nutrition supplement company. “UGC is often subjective and opinionated, and it certainly has its place.”
Amin concludes that in the case of a larger brand such as Netflix, people might prefer and expect to read updates and promotional content from the company account, making user-generated content less effective.
Companies looking to pursue user-generated content strategies on Twitter can repurpose content from Instagram to maximize their reach online.
User-Generated Content Is More Popular on Instagram Than Other Channels
User-generated content provides social proof for companies advertising their products on social media.
Instagram is a popular social media platform for user-generated content. UGC on Instagram is well-received by consumers, but companies should take care to make sure their posts are high-quality and don’t appear too advertorial.
Bloggers and customers post reviews and product demonstrations on YouTube. This type of user-generated content, however, is less effective at driving purchases unless the video presents the product alongside competing products.
It’s easy for companies to retweet and share user-generated content on Twitter. Tweets, however, also provide limited social proof for consumers looking to make a purchase.
Companies should invest in user-generated content strategies on Instagram for maximum effect.
About the Survey
Visual Objects surveyed 401 people in the United States.
Less than half of respondents (42%) identified as female, 39% identified as male, and 19% declined to self-identify.
One-fifth of respondents (11%) are ages 18-24, 18% are ages 25-34, 19% are ages 35-54, 13% are 55 and above, and 21% declined to identify their age.
Respondents are from the South (36%), Midwest (27%), West (23%), and Northeast (17%).