What Visa Learned From UGC Efforts

SAN FRANCISCO The marketing world might often seem heady with the prospects of user-generated content, inviting the public to comment, review, rate, make videos, chat, blog and design graphics for its brands.

But the majority of marketers are still trying to find the most effective way to use consumer input in their marketing strategy and are concerned about how big a branding role to give their customers.

Credit card company Visa is facing those issues head-on in its one-year-old “Life takes Visa” branding strategy.

Visa says its research shows the best way to reach the goals of the current effort is to assign consumers a secondary role—at most.

Depending on the campaign, Visa employs real-life customers as the stars of online video, consumers’ travel behavior as the basis for ad copy and media partnerships, and a small group of consumer enthusiasts to provide marketing content.

The company says it’s learned consumer content has its limits when marketing has specific tasks to perform.

The company’s partnership with the 48-Hour Film Project is the most recent example. Each year the film project holds an international competition for amateur filmmakers who create a seven-minute film in one weekend. This year Visa is sponsoring the competition and adding a new contest. For the Visa Invitational contest, the film organization selected 30 teams in a nationwide tour in June. This summer the teams will make short films showing their interpretation of what “Life takes” means to them and submit their films for judging by media and advertising executives in September. Winners will get $2,500 to $10,000 in Visa card credit for future projects. The winning film will be considered for use in TV, print and online ads.

Unlike other user-generated campaigns that ask for entries from the masses, “Visa’s partnership is unique in that it will call upon some of the brightest amateur filmmakers in the country to bring our advertising campaign’s empowerment message to life,” said Kevin Burke, svp of advertising.

TBWA\Chiat\Day, Playa del Rey, Calif., handles Visa’s traditional ads; AKQA, San Francisco, oversees its digital marketing.

Why not open the contest to the general public and have consumers vote on the winners, as marketers such as Coca-Cola and others are doing?

“We want to use people who are skilled in storytelling and have a diverse and a fresh point of view,” said Burke. In other words, they want the content to be more professional looking, yet still original.

He also noted that with many marketers employing user content from the general public, the Visa film project stood out as being unique. “We are trying to be the leader and different than the rest. Using filmmakers differentiates what we do from marketers who are using the work of the end users. We like the freshness and the newness of it,” Burke said. The purpose of the “Life takes” strategy is to enable and empower people, which means “the consumer is involved, but he isn’t in charge,” he added.

Visa’s vp of advertising and emerging media platforms Jon Raj pointed out that Visa experimented with consumer-generated content when the practice first surfaced in 2003 and might continue to use it in the future. But research with other “Life takes Visa” campaigns revealed that professionally created video and content were more effective. For instance, last year’s campaign to promote Visa’s security features, launched in August, uses a microsite with a lineup of professionally made videos of real-life Visa customers telling stories about lost or stolen cards and how Visa helped them.

The site does not ask consumers to share stories or submit their own videos. “We’ve learned that just because you can do consumer-generated media doesn’t mean you should,” Raj said. The goal of the security marketing was to get the message out that Visa has multiple layers of security.

Online user surveys by Millward Brown and Dynamic Logic showed the videos “achieved that objective,” he said. “We didn’t focus on the click-through rate as many marketers do. We tested to see if people who visited the site felt more protected and comfortable about our security layers and if they intended to use our card.”

In Visa’s current signature card campaign, launched in February 2007, the goal is to raise awareness of the product. The campaign’s microsite and ads offer lists of things to do in life, such as “kiss the Blarney stone” and “watch the changing of the guard in London.” The list is compiled by Visa based on internal research about the habits of its target, and includes video tours of the activities, resources and discounts for the activities. Nowhere are consumers asked to comment, vote or add their own dream activities. “We control the list because the activities have to be in line with our high-end target market and our goal is to drive awareness of the card among people in that target,” said Raj. Surveys again showed that the controlled approach achieved the stated goal, he said.

Nonetheless, both Raj and Burke said Visa would keep studying the proper use of content made by average consumers and could change its controlled approach as the marketplace and people’s media habits change.

But for now, Raj summed up Visa’s lessons. “It’s a mistake to use innovations such as consumer content just because they are cool and hip. There is so much zeal in the digital space that brands get lost and do things just because they can.” After four years of experience with online consumer-generated content, “our strategy is to use it only when it helps us achieve clear, measurable objectives.