UGC is Dead. Now What Are Brand Partners to Do?

Paid content and partnerships are here to stay

fenty
Fenty is a good example of creating long-term partnerships a la TikTok. Fenty Beauty

User-generated content (UGC) has long been the go-to creative solve for brands looking for free social assets. But as the creator economy evolves and even casual fans start to know their worth, the days of cheap brand UGC are over. UGC is dead, and paid content will replace it.

In the early days of organic brand social, UGC was a key method for brands to engage with their audience. And unlike other methods of traditional engagement, such as asking questions or prodding followers to “drop a like,” the act of soliciting fans to submit pictures resulted in a bank of assets that could populate an always-on content calendar. It was a win-win: brands received free content, while fans got recognition from a brand they love.

Some brands can still get away with this. For example, Apple’s “Shot on iPhone” Instagram campaign issued a series of public briefs to their community. In return, Apple netted professional quality photography to share on its brand page. That makes sense, since brand affinity for Apple is extremely high. Plus, the promise of being one of the select few creators reposted on Apple’s Instagram page carries a ton of clout. 

But for brands that don’t have that same dedicated fan base, a call for UGC in 2020 and beyond won’t have the same result. When there is no clear incentive for users to share content, they’re less likely to do so. And as the world of influencers, microinfluencers and content creators continues to grow, audiences are less likely to share valuable brand content in exchange for a mere shout-out. 

The influencer content space has grown so much, that there’s now an ecosystem of Tiktokers, Instagrammers and YouTubers who teach eager creators how to profit off their work. Tiktoker Juliannetaylorstyle, a content creator and business coach, instructs her followers to respond to brands who reach out to them by asking about the budget: “This sets boundaries from the beginning that you expect to get paid.”

With creators looking to get their money, brands will have to start ponying up for fan content. Rihanna’s Fenty Beauty House, while paused due to Covid-19, was a brief but best-in-class example of brand paid content. It was created in the style of TikTok content houses, with hand-selected beauty creators and a house full of Fenty products to incorporate naturally into their Instagram, YouTube and TikTok posts. 

While tons of beauty creators post tutorials with Fenty products that the brand could repost for free, the content house approach built a crew of recognizable personalities to create consistent, ongoing high quality Fenty content. So if the post-UGC world is paid content, the post-paid content world may be brand-owned content houses and creator crews, much like the Fenty house.

Paid content, unlike free UGC, is created with intention, through a specific outreach or a brief with a defined budget supporting and directing the process from conception to placement. It offers the same benefits to brands in that they can engage with their fans and pool assets for future social use, and even if it’s no longer free it can still be far more cost effective than a traditional shoot. 

How can marketers build a successful paid partnership program? It’s all about creating authentic connections with a fan or creator community: Always include an incentive for calls for UGC or content. If you’re asking fans to do something on your behalf, make it worthwhile. Conduct outreach to key creators, being transparent about budget and payment options. Utilize social listening to identify authentic fans of the brands and creators with audiences who align with brand targets and goals. Track content and test, learn, and optimize to identify creators who make work that resonates with your social audience.


@Jrudis Jessica Rudis is digital director at The Walt Disney Company.
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