The internet has undeniably become more social, visual and viral. But to date almost all of that evolution has occurred on social networks.

In the age of Big Data and ecommerce, where there is a real, measurable business benefit to “owning” your online audience, brands are re-thinking the marketing tactic of putting their social efforts almost exclusively into social networks that control the data, reach and audience.

Today, brands are attempting to lure customers and potential customers back to their websites with rich social experiences, like the photo- and video-sharing that has made networks like Vine and Instagram so popular.

User generated content influences purchasing

The value of these social experiences is clear. Millennials spend more than five hours per day consuming user-generated content (UGC), according to a study conducted by Ipsos and Crowdtap. The study also showed that user-generated content is 20 percent more influential on Millennial’s purchasing decisions than any other type of media, with an average of 59 percent of Millennials trusting UGC.

Websites that leverage these user-generated photos and videos to attract traffic and retain a loyal audience see a payoff in both eCommerce sales and brand loyalty.

Peer reviews create more trust

User-generated content is rising in popularity even as the effectiveness of traditional forms of online advertising is diminishing. For example, only 19 percent of Millennials trusted online banner ads — 49 percent less than trust peer reviews.

Here are five steps companies can take to incorporate a social element into their websites and harness the power of user-generated content to drive sales:

Step 1. Build excitement about your brand

The first ingredient of a successful social website is a highly motivated audience. Just like Facebook or Instagram only work if people are motivated to snap and share photo or write status updates, a social website only works if the customer base of a brand is willing to participate. Use social media to drive customers to your website. Give them friendly tips on what makes a great selfie submission.

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Use email newsletters to advertise your new social capabilities. Build excitement by giving your customers prizes and giveaways as incentives to interact with you online. And consider ways to convince customers to draw their friends into the conversation as well, through campaigns that reward referrals.

Step 2: Unlock “User Generated Content”

Once you build an engaged audience, you want to turn these website viewers into content producers. Your customers have the photos, videos and reviews that can powerfully influence fellow customers. But getting them to contribute content can be tricky. Start off by offering incentives. They don’t have to be prizes; consider choosing content-contributing consumers to feature in email newsletters or pick the customer with the best photo submission as your new fashion cover model. Incentives that tie into the brand message reinforce the marketing strategy. Pick an incentive that you know will mobilize your customer base and watch the content roll in.

Be sure to use a marketing software platform that has a simple and easy way for customers to authorize the photos submission for other uses. This steers you away from the legal landmines of using social content for other marketing purposes without permission, unlocking the full potential of user-generated photos and video.

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Step 3: Ask for submissions by hashtag

Use social media as a content funnel that is activated by hashtag. Ironman used the hashtag #IRONMANTraining to get race participants to share photos of their training swims, runs and rides.

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Using a hashtag, brands can pull together content submissions from across multiple social networks, including Instagram, Facebook or Twitter. The hashtag is both a mechanism for content submissions, and a way for brands to expand their social media footprint at the same time.

Some tips to effective hashtag use:

  • • Promote the campaign hashtag on social, through email blasts and on your website.
  • • Set a deadline
  • • Advertise the prize to build momentum.

Step 4: Turn customers into models

As the banner ad fades and staged, contrived photography loses its punch, user-generated content is being asked to fill in as a powerful brand image source. Imagine browsing a fashion retailer’s website and instead of seeing a bunch of posed models, coming across real photos of real people wearing a brand’s clothing in real-world situations.

UK and Ireland fashion retailer Wallis gathered customer photos through a “#WallisDressedIt” campaign. The campaign inspired social media users to submit high-quality photos of customers-as-models that were then showcased on the Wallis website.

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Brands get value out of this arrangement in two ways. Their website becomes much more authentic and relatable, and brands can save big on the pricetag for photo shoots and video production.

As an added bonus, the consistent use of user-generated content brings brands and consumers closer together in a two-way relationship that makes customers feel like they are a participating part of a brand’s marketing strategy.

Step 5: Re-use customer photos

User-generated content is versatile, and companies should maximize the impact of their customer’s best work by using high-quality photos in as many ways as possible.

Try for a user-generated grand slam by seeing if photos submitted on social can be used on the website, in email newsletters, on marketing collateral and in social advertising.

Some brands are taking the use of UGC one step further by suggesting eCommerce products alongside customer photos, giving website visitors a chance to click through and purchase the items they see their friends, acquaintances or fellow customers wearing.

SoccerPro used photos submitted through their #SoccerPride photo campaign to generate eCommerce suggestions from their online stores. Customers can browse fellow soccer fans photos on, and see clickable product suggestions right alongside the user-generated content.

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Just like social media unlocked the power of millions of everyday citizens to become published writers photographers and videographers, social capabilities on corporate websites will turn consumers into content marketers. The brands that tap into this powerful user-generated content and leverage it to influence a new generation of savvy consumers will reap the rewards of sales driven by consumer content.