The marketing dilemma of the new millennium:

  • Problem No. 1: Consumers see thousands of commercial messages every day. They ignore almost all of them. How can brands possibly break through the clutter? How can they entice consumers to listen to their critical messages?
  • Problem No. 2: The need for more online and mobile advertising continues to escalate at a remarkable rate. Repurposing 30-second TV spots for online just doesn't work. Madison Avenue productions are not cheap. How can brands capitalize on the changing advertising landscape without breaking the bank?

The solution: Let consumers help create the messages.

Consumer-generated advertising (CGA) was created as a way to engage consumers, to tap into their insights, to reach new creative talent—and all at a fraction of the cost of conventional advertising.

Since its rise to prominence a few years ago, on the heels of heavily publicized campaigns for Doritos and Dove, CGA has come a long way.

Brands are still actively using CGA, but often in quieter ways than the earlier experimental campaigns. They are less often a pure PR effort (as seemed to be the case with Doritos and Dove) than a way to generate real, usable advertising.

Marketers have recognized the immense creative talent that resides outside Madison Avenue. They've recognized that, with CGA, properly executed, they can generate quality, consumer-relevant content at a fraction of the cost of conventional agency productions. And these commercials break through the clutter with their "real" feel and relevant messaging.

Of course, accomplishing a successful CGA program isn't a slam dunk. It requires a clear understanding of the right and wrong ways to proceed. As someone who's lived through, observed, and participated in much of this commercial development, I offer these lessons learned.

Lesson One

Define your objective: quality content, consumer engagement/PR, market research, some combination? All other initiatives should stem from your main goal. A couple of examples:

Anheuser Busch's Bud Light "Dude" campaign is a great example of having a clear goal in mind, then following through. The original television spots were a success, and A-B wanted to extend the life of the "Dude" campaign online. It tapped creators at XLNTads (my firm) for ads with a very real consumer feel to them, to complement the TV campaign, and ran them on the Web.

The Heinz consumer-generated campaign, buttressed by full-page newspaper ads, seemed to lean primarily toward mass-appeal PR. And as PR, it worked really well. Still, it did not appear to gain any real, usable advertising for TV or online use. The five finalist videos were fun but did not have significant value as commercials. Heinz awarded the winner a huge first prize, but, not surprisingly, hasn't seemed to do much with the ad itself.

Lesson Two

Work with a trusted partner. Experience matters. A partner engaged in the CGA space can alleviate any concerns and advise you on how to reach your consumer base to deliver a strong relatable CGA campaign. By using a third party to conduct the campaign, you have instant access to experienced professionals who can help untangle thousands of entries to weed out the award winners.

YouTube has the audience, but if you want to go beyond teenagers with handheld cameras you may need a different strategy. One surefire way to do that is to move away from the contest approach toward true consumer engagement.

Semi-pros and independent filmmakers are looking for opportunities to showcase their talent, receive widespread recognition for their work, collaborate with others across the Web who share their passions and connect with brands. The most talented creators tend to avoid the mass market cattle calls and opt to work through other channels.

Lesson Three

Be willing to invoke the power of the consumer for good or bad.

The Chevy Tahoe CGA campaign is a classic example. It reminded everyone that consumers have opinions—good and bad—about your brand and will exercise their right to express those opinions. Kudos to Tahoe for not trying to pull the campaign—that would have been a disaster. But they likely gained a deeper insight into widespread consumer opinion of their brand and have been able to carry that lesson over to other aspects of their business.

The key lesson is to construct a creative brief that clearly communicates what the brand is looking for, and in a language that a new, semi-pro community will understand. This would include what's off limits, any "must-haves," legal requirements, etc.

Still, often, less is more. To free up the creative instincts, brands should allow as much flexibility as they can tolerate. Just how much flexibility is a matter of brand comfort and judgment.

Dove, for example, set some very strict guidelines to assure that its CGA message was kept within a well-developed and highly successful brand positioning. The result was some good commercials, but nothing, in our view, that was "out of the box." Brands need to find a balance that fits their needs.

Lesson Four

Don't tinker with the end product too much. Avoid taking a cutting-edge CGA campaign and giving it too much of a Madison Avenue feel. Consumers know the difference, and you risk losing the human element if you edit entries too much.

ProQuo was a great example. It produced 10 spots and distributed them—as is—through a host of video sharing sites (25 each). It monitored their performance to see which one had the most consumer appeal. This unique method also tested whether any of them would be viral in nature. Finally, ProQuo took the best spot for use in a paid advertising campaign. Moreover, it used all 10 spots for online advertising on their site.

Lesson Five

Arm your CGA videographers with the tools they need to succeed (music, guidelines, must-haves in the spot, etc.)

How successful could a "Dude" commercial have been without the telltale music? You as a brand manager know what it takes for an ad to make it on TV or online, and creators are not opposed to having high-level folks provide a bit of "know-how" from time to time. Again, this is where the creative brief is so important. Provide lots of assets, video clips, photos, music, examples of past spots for reference, etc.

The limited but exciting history of CGA reassures us that CGA can indeed work, providing high ROI to marketing budgets. But to succeed, brands would do well to reflect on lessons learned and manage their CGA campaigns accordingly.

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Neil Perry is president and CMO of XLNTads (