User Generated Content or Working for Free?

This week, I was trying to explain user generated content to one of my friends, when they asked me something that hadn’t occurred to me before now,

“Isn’t that just getting people to do your job for free?”

She wasn’t entirely wrong. User Generated Content accounts for most of the content seen on social media, with only a small proportion coming from the organisations themselves.

Yet, if a company pays someone to manage their social media for them, does this mean they are getting the public to do their job for free?

What is UGC

In case you don’t know, user-generated content (UGC) is any form of content – editorial, photos, videos, comments, reviews, etc. – uploaded by users and shared on social media.

Some companies use UGC in the form of competition entries, eg. “Tell us about your experience with our product and win XYZ”, or, “Upload a photo using our product with #hashtag”.

UGC can be a great way of increasing your brand awareness and reputation online, and there are many examples of big brands taking advantage of UGC to boost credibility, increase trust and amplify social proof.

Take Burberry for example, in order to increase their social presence they launched The Art of the Trench, a page within their website which features user-uploaded images of their iconic trench coats.


In the year after the launch of the Art of the Trench in November 2009, Burberry’s Facebook fan base grew to more than a million, the largest fan count in the luxury sector at the time.

You can read more here.

While some of the competitions are relatively small scale, and recently have involved more photo entries with the rise of picture sharing platform Instagram, some can be less straightforward involving skills or services usually paid for.

Herein lies the problem.

When does UGC become working for free?

There is a fine line between asking users to submit content for extrinsic reward (like a competition prize), or asking them to work for free.

It’s worth considering that for high-profile competitions that feature marketable skills like copywriting or artistic photography, most of the entries will come from unemployed or freelance creatives that should be paid for their work.

If you’re asking the public to produce something for your organisation to use to benefit your own online agenda it’s important to make sure that the rewards for the users are worthwhile.

While you could argue that it is the decision of the user to submit their work in the first place, it is also worth noting that often organisations receive more in terms of awareness building and increased sales as a direct result of the work submitted.

Another worrying trend as highlighted by Forbes in this article is the collection of ideas from users for appropriation into social media or PR and marketing campaigns.

As well as this being highly unethical, it also runs the risk or repurposing copyrighted material and could end up costing your organisation more than just their reputation.

How to ethically gather UGC

Bearing these things in mind here are a few points to consider while making the most of the benefits of UGC:

  • Don’t ask for too much – running the odd photo competition is fine, but asking for a full video advertisement is not.
  • Make sure the reward is appropriate for the entry – if you run a competition make sure the prizes are set based on their value against the complexity of the entry.  Something that takes more time and effort deserves a bigger prize.
  • Don’t steal other people’s ideas – taking inspiration from other content is fine, but ripping something off completely is not ok and is against intellectual copyright law.
  • Take the bad with the good – asking for reviews opens your product up to criticism. Deleting unwanted comments and reviews will only harm your reputation in the long run.
  • Know when to stop – Sometimes your followers want to hear from you. While running competitions and promoting UGC is fine an over-reliance can damage your social media presence and undermine your authority.


The most important thing to remember when you consider utilising UGC is that if you would want to be paid for doing that, the users probably do too.



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