How User-Generated Campaigns Go Wrong (and How to Prevent It)
In the wake of Boaty McBoatface (the name of the $3 million scientific research vessel, voted by the UK general public, that now isn’t), I’d like to talk about user-generated campaigns. Many user-generated campaigns are created with the best of intentions – but often go very wrong. I’m going to run through why I believe these campaigns fail, and some approaches we can use to avoid these for our own brands.
Ideas which rely on the general public with user-generated content can be an absolute goldmine for a brand that nails it. It combines fun, shareable content, spawned from the depths of human creativity across the world. It gets people who are passionate about your brand talking with their friends, and their friends to their friends. It’s the ultimate word-of-mouth. Everyone wants to be the Old Spice of their industry – where a campaign which is interactive, has passionate advocates for the brand and spawns new fans – and, even better, new advocates.
However, more often than not, we see examples which are the opposite. See the decimation which followed #QantasLuxury, Woolworths’ Fresh In Our Memory, #YourTaxis, #MakeItHappy and so many others.

But why do these go wrong? Here’s my take:
Many campaigns usually start off with two objectives:

  1. We want to find the key advocates for our brand from the woodwork to speak passionately about our brand.
  2. We want everyone in the world to talk about how awesome we are.

These objectives are, quite simply, at odds: the very definition of an advocate is that they are a few, passionate individuals – there might be 10 people who will spend a dinner party passionately talking about your brand at a dinner party – and they are not the same as the general masses.
The challenge is that to make the cost of running a campaign valuable, a brand expects hundred or thousands of entries – and the only way to get those numbers is tap into the general public.
The trick is, to create something that makes thousands of people talk about it, it needs to be simple and accessible.
In order to get this volume, these campaigns, but their very nature, must have a low barrier to entry in order to get reach. They are framed as personal experiences (to try to get those influencer stories), but so simple that anyone to answer them –  “What is your dream luxury inflight experience?”, “My trip in #YourTaxis was….”, or uploading the user’s own images to a meme generator.
This is where the crucial conflict comes in – you have an easy way to enter to get loads of reach or loads of entries from the general public… but your key influencers are drowned out.
Remember that if you have 10 true advocates, but you’ve got a goal of 10,000 entries – how can the advocates be heard? They won’t be.
On the flipside, if you create a campaign that just targets advocates, it is often by creating something so in-depth that only passionate fans would engage with. Imagine creating a handmade Game Of Thrones costume – not many people would put in the hours to do this – especially without the right incentive. A trip to meet the cast of the show? Might be enough incentive. Winning a DVD boxset? No. way. The prize must be matched (or is greater than) the effort involved in entering. And something that is complex and a deep-dive into your brand – it’s something that the general public are likely to check out of, so you end up with under 10 entries. And that is not what anyone wants to take to their boss.
So this sets up the stage for failure from the outset: you’re selecting an easy entry mechanic so you’ll get the thousands of entries over the opportunity to engage your true brand advocates. And in this, you’re essentially asking the general public to spam your hashtag for entertainment. This is a major problem – and how you end up on the front page of the paper.

UGC Campaign design

Let’s deep dive into what questions we should be asking when designing a UGC campaign.


We already know one of the major problems with this campaign mechanic is the audience. Who are you asking to engage in this campaign? Is it legitimate advocates? Is it fans of your Facebook page? Or is it every man and his dog? The kid down the road who had never heard of your brand?
The second part of this is looking at the community you’re talking to – do they interact this way? Will your audience have an answer to this question? Is it part of their culture to answer in this way? You could ask people what they love about going on cruises and they could tell you a million stories – but if you ask what people love about their accounting software… not so much. Make sure the question you’re asking to engage users can and does have a variety of legitimate answers.
My rule of thumb about posting questions in social media is: ‘if you’re asking a question, you are responsible for the answers people make.’ If you haven’t thought about the way people can and will answer a question, then it’s on you (and it can be on you legally, too).
A good way to test if your campaign will work is conduct a dummy run with a similar question a few weeks beforehand to see how people react and if people engage with that type of question, it’s is one worthy of executing on a larger scale.

Can it be gamed?

The next thing you need to think about is how the system can be gamed. Whether you are dodging professional prize winners, or dodging 4chan, or your neighbours’ 17-year-old teenager with a love of trolling, you need to think – if this kind of person found this out and spread it to their friends, what would they do? What could they do?
Making your entry mechanic or terms and conditions ironclad is the way to protect yourself against this. Consider how much of the UGC content needs to be the final decision – could it be that the public chooses the top 10 and a staff member chooses the final winner at their discretion?
Related: Four Mistakes You Need to Avoid When Running Competitions on Social Media


This leads directly into moderation: is this a free-for-all? Does a human vet any of these submissions along the way? Why not? There are plenty of ways to make a campaign feel large and interactive, without it actually being that way, for example, anyone can submit, but only selected entries are featured on the brand’s social media each day.
One of the key ways that campaigns  can go wrong is the perception gap. This is where it is common for companies to have no idea what their consumers want from them, or how they engage with them – so when they create a campaign, they create it in a way where they are targeting what they think their audience wants… and not what they actually want. Do people want an app to photoshop themselves next to the CEO of your brand? Or do they just want fast service?
In terms of perception gap, sentiment towards your brand is a fluid thing. Do your consumers hate you this week because of an outage last week? Or maybe you’ve been steadily getting more and more complaints about a previous campaign. Keeping your finger on the pulse of how your brand is being seen by the public can mean you don’t launch a campaign in the middle of a crisis – turning the campaign into a dog’s breakfast.
The first few responses to a campaign set the tone for it. One way to increase the chances of your campaign having higher positive responses from the outset, is to confidentially let your advocates know about the campaign coming up. This could be a seperate EDM just to your advocates so they know first and engage first.
You can even create a separate campaign just for your advocates: the person who Instagrams during this campaign time the most has their Instagram featured in our EDM.

What did work?

So let’s look for a minute at a campaign that did work. Old Spice. It’s an oldie, but a goodie. If you remember way back when: you would ask Old Spice guy a question, and he would respond on video, often with wonderful props. Live. For 24 hours.
Old Spice didn’t target advocates. It targeted the general public. The questions they chose to make videos of were moderated.
Was there a perception gap between the brand and the perception of Old Spice? Yes. But that’s what Old Spice were challenging. They wanted to show themselves as a product for the masses – not just something for teenagers to give to their grandparents. This was the second phase of a traditional ad campaign to “Smell Like A Man” campaign which was an attempt to shift consumers perception of the brand.
But the key thing that Old Spice did differently, is that it piggybacked off the brand identity and the message they wanted to convey. It wasn’t about the product at all. It wasn’t “Tell us what you love about Old Spice”. It was highly produced branded content – but it was communally contributed to in a social way.
It was very clever because it felt like anyone and everyone could contribute – and anyone could have the chance of having Old Spice guy make a video for you. On top of that, the video responses were the heart of it: people went to the youtube channel, or the official twitter account to see the result. Any spammy mentions on the hashtag were not the most interesting thing about the campaign, so any attention was drawn to the main event. Behind the scenes, it was very tightly moderated and the final result was just what the brand wanted you to see. Brilliant execution.

The other thing to consider

A few years ago I was working with a multiplatform content agency, and we were chatting about creative interactive treasure hunts across the city and how to make them work successfully – especially with such a high barrier to entry. How do you do get people out of bed to spend a day on your treasure hunt, engage brand advocates and get a shareable brand story for the masses to engage with?
The real question is: how many people do you need to finish the treasure hunt in order for it to become a massive talking point online?
The answer is one.
Because you just need to film one person on their journey. One person’s trials and misadventures. One person crossing the finish line. And turn that into a piece of content.
It is just one story, amplified.
There is incredible power in telling one person’s story. They might be the only person who went to your event. But who would know?
We can see the power of one person’s story in the stunning University Of Western Sydney campaign, Unlimited.

It’s just one story. Amplified.

What do I need to do?

So what do you need to think about when creating a user-generated campaign, whether it’s a competition or an ad campaign?
Make sure you’ve considered:

  • What is your objective? Reach, or advocate stories? Choose one and then work out how to share it with the masses.
  • Have you tested how your fans respond to this kind of question or engagement?
  • How will the general public get involved? Or is it exclusive?
  • How to the Terms and Conditions or game mechanic prevent trolls, prize winners and spammers?
  • At what stage is it moderated? How often?
  • How are you leveraging your advocates on this?
  • How are you recording these stories to create new content out of them?
  • And – the hardest question for any company: does anyone actually like our brand? What kind of responses would we get? If they don’t it might be better to spend that time working on brand sentiment and roll out this campaign in six months.

Do you have any favourite user-generated campaign favourites you’d like to share? What do you think made them succeed or fail? Let me know in the comments!

Want to work with Rachel?

Rachel Beaney is a writer and social media content specialist, helping businesses connect with their audiences.

She’s worked with local, national and global companies, in addition to not-for-profits and government bodies. She loves helping businesses tell their stories with creative and data-driven solutions.

She is based in Sydney, Australia.

Want to work together? Rachel would love to hear from you. Get in touch today.