The UGC Revolution: Opportunities and Challenges in a Dawning Age of Visual Marketing

As the smartphone tsunami continues, users will generate billions more photos, further driving the colossus of the visual web.

As Instagram’s stunning and ubiquitous influence suggests, we’re squarely in the midst of a visual marketing revolution. Thanks to the unstoppable momentum of smartphones—shipments of which topped one billion in 2014 for the first time in history—and the meteoric rise of photo-sharing platforms, pictures are being snapped by the billions.

Instagram’s 400 million active users now post a staggering 70 million photos per day, while 350 million photos are uploaded daily to Facebook. As the smartphone tsunami continues — with experts predicting they’ll account for two-thirds of the world’s nine billion mobile connections by 2020 — users will generate billions more photos, further driving the colossus of the visual web.

The power of visual user-generated content (UGC) as an indispensable marketing tool is rising in step with this profound shift. Visual UGC presents an ideal solution to the “content crunch” that’s been a fast-rising challenge in the marketing industry: how to conquer the almost Sisyphus-ian task of creating fresh, inexpensive and deeply engaging content at the speed of social.

Industries such as fashion and beauty are particularly challenging as trends and content become stale seemingly overnight. According to the Content Marketing Institute, 51 percent of B2C marketers struggle to produce engaging content to acquire new customers and 48 percent struggle to find enough budget, while 45 percent have trouble producing enough content at all.

By harnessing user-generated photos—arguably the most authentic and abundant brand assets available today—marketers have happened upon a goldmine of virtually inexhaustible content.

And better yet, UGC—which by definition captures real people in real situations with a dynamism distinctly absent in stock photography—has proven to turn browsers into buyers: on average, our clients see a 4.6 percent conversion rate when customer photos are displayed on a product detail page, which jumps to 9.6 percent when visitors interact with these images. Clearly, the unprecedented marketing opportunity created by the “selfie revolution” is one most marketers are just beginning to realize.

New Opportunities, New Questions

UGC is unquestionably a game-changing resource for visual marketers. And like any emerging frontier, it is filled with unforeseen challenges: namely, reconciling this new age of consumer engagement on Instagram and other social platforms with the consumer’s right to control the use of his or her content. This is where the important discussion of rights management in reference to visual UGC comes into play.

In recent years (very recent, as Instagram is not yet five years old), many brands have relied on “implied consent”—the end user’s placement of a brand hashtag on a photo to indicate that he or she consents to the brand locating, collecting and using it—as permission to use UGC images on their websites. Savvy brands create and heavily promote unique hashtags in their marketing channels: on television, at events like concerts, even on product packaging.

When a social media user tags a photo with a unique promoted hashtag, this implied consent becomes even more obvious, as the user posts a photo in direct response to a specific call-to-action. When brands collect social media photos based on unique hashtags, they have greater certainty that the consumers whose photos they’ve collected wanted their photos to be discovered, and have opted-in to the brand’s social community.

The combination of unique promoted hashtags and implied consent made a lot of sense in a nascent marketing arena that grew quickly. However, as the universe of potential UGC applications — well beyond web galleries into ads, billboards, catalogs, and email, to name a few — becomes more vivid, it’s crucial that brands devise a rights-management strategy to acquire explicit rights to use consumer photos.

And while methods for acquiring photo rights may vary widely from company to company, gleaning consent can be as easy as commenting on an Instagram photo that features the brand’s hashtag and asking them to reply with a specific hashtag (often the brand’s name followed by “OK”).