With communities doing their best to adapt to pandemic-related restrictions, it’s unsurprising to see the huge momentum shift we’ve seen play into digital channels. With lifestyles severely impacted, we’ve had to trade IRL connections for their best online equivalents, be it shopping, entertainment, or social connection. These trends alone aren’t groundbreaking, as the behaviour shifts fueling them have been taking place for some time, but the impact of the ongoing pandemic has intensified the acceleration.

Social platforms, streaming services, video conferencing, and e-commerce have all benefited from this surge of increased activity and engagement.

And with more time on our hands, we’ve started creating, participating, and sharing a lot more.

Doubling down on digital

Brands have also been under increasing pressure to adapt their businesses and stay connected in an effort to remain front of mind with their customers. This has led most brands to follow consumers by doubling-down on their online presence and meeting their customer base where they are.

Due to business closures and social distancing measures, the usual means of creating high quality and high production content was brought to a sudden halt. With both budget and creative options severely reduced, brands needed to find alternative approaches.

The authenticity of UGC

One prevalent strategy during COVID-19 has been leveraging user-generated content as a way of humanising brand communications, and it’s easy in the current climate to see why:

First and foremost, breakthrough creative starts by understanding your audience and building that connection. Being able to not only capture but empathise with the everyday frustrations of isolation, work/life disruptions, bad news cycles, and the general unpredictability we are all feeling is a great start.

One way of achieving this is by putting your customers and your staff at the heart of your message. In contrast with the pre-COVID world of inauthenticity, leveraging UGC now creates far more relatable and authentic content that reflects the times we are all living in. This type of content is also much harder to be critical of versus anything too overly polished that risks alienating the audience or being labeled as tone-deaf.

Brands are also recognising the personal drivers and overwhelming sense of community that is ignited when uplifting stories are told when the times are hard. Human nature nurtures our desire to band together and unite, and by utilising UGC in the right way, you can build strong connections and celebrate smaller or individual efforts that promote unity and feel ‘local.’

The combination of which is a great way to build brand loyalty. As we all begin to feel the impact of the economic recession and scale back where and how we spend, we vote with each purchase, so this loyalty translates to huge value, not only during the challenging times but for the future.

Democratising content

Perhaps a dangerous oversimplification, but UGC can also be seen as a relatively simple and cost-effective way of creating content, which is appealing when you have restricted budgets. Tapping into your customers and positioning them as advocates of the brand doesn’t require expensive production, and democratising content has the added side effect that can build consumer confidence by signaling proof that normality does exist and people are reengaging and buying products, which in turn reinforces trust in your brand.

Standing out in a sea of UGC

Given the above merits, the resurgence of UGC is no surprise at all, but the democratisation of this content away from just the top influencers and creators has been the real shift, as people look for inspiration and stories in the everyday. However, it’s important to find a balance between maintaining a presence and uniqueness. In a sea of UGC, there’s a huge argument to be made for creative distinctiveness — how do you stand out? How do the messages not all blur into one?

Nike achieved this in a creative and innovative way on its #MagicBoots campaign on TikTok. Firstly, the brand recognised the opportunity on a platform surging in popularity that really increased during the pandemic (the TikTok app itself saw a meteoric rise in the first quarter of the year, reporting 315 million installs, the most downloads any app has ever had in a single quarter). TikTok rapidly positioned itself as the app of the pandemic from a UGC perspective by providing a light distraction and new source of entertainment at a time when it was needed most.

Nike partnered with TikTok creator @Ben, who proudly has 2.2M followers on the platform, to create content alongside some prestigious Nike football stars. The audience had a chance to win a pair of #MagicBoots by uploading a video of their best football trick to impress Ben. This placed the creator at the heart of the campaign, had a low barrier to entry as all you needed was a football, and was live on the app at a time when users had plenty of time to create. All while leveraging @ben’s large organic reach, which aligned with Nike’s target demographic.

The combination of the influencer, platform selection, timing, and incentivisation all contributed to its success. The branded hashtag campaign reached 317M video views, a total of 160k video entries, and Nike’s following increased by 215k. This is a masterclass in how to utilise UGC to engage an audience, grow a following, and launch a new product.

Creative experimentation

Businesses will be under pressure for some time, and as we take steps to stimulate the economy, brands will need to be familiar with doing more with less to offset the financial impacts to their bottom line. Creative experimentation is the best practice, and the language of ads will continue to evolve. UGC will almost certainly have a role to play, but the trick will be to identify the right message, environment, and timing that truly reflects your audience.

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