The use of social media user-generated content (UGC) has been growing in popularity among marketers, leaving those who haven't jumped in wondering whether the time is right to do so. And so, as with any cliché business pep talk: yes, the time is now!

A UGC campaign is the process of acquiring social media content that marketers then use in their own campaigns. And UGC is on the rise. The most recent point of validation of its effectiveness is Snapchat, which this year enabled users to superimpose corporate logos on their photos.

Often, we see clothing companies, travel destinations, and sport teams using UGC; but, in reality, any type of company with a social following can (and should) partake. As the marketing landscape begins to shift to a more UGC-centric direction, what steps can you take to capitalize on this authentic marketing tactic?

Here is an easy list of eight steps to consider when embarking on a UGC campaign.

1. Decide whether UGC is worth your time

User-generated content campaigns usually work best for companies with some sort of social following. If you don't have certain social accounts, say Twitter or Instagram, find out how many people are talking and posting about you there. Do so by using a social media listening tool, like Hootsuite, to understand the volume of people posting about your brand. Consider the data to determine whether UGC would be worth your time pursuing.

Before planning your UGC campaign, you must understand your audience, or ideal audience. Use your Hootsuite research to understand where they're hanging out and what they are posting about your brand. Have they made up their own hashtag about it, for example, or is the one you publicized the go-to one for your audience? Stick with the popular hashtag—and social platform. You will want to centralize the UGC posts so the content is easy to find. The less time you spend crawling through different social accounts, the higher your ROI will be.

2. Establish your goals and make a plan

Always begin a UGC campaign with a goal in mind. This usually involves increases in engagement metrics, social following, or sales of a particular product.

As with all marketing-related goals, make sure your goals is SMART—specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and time-bound. If you think UGC alone will boost your small brick-and-mortar clothing store to the Fortune 500, you will be disappointed. However, if that goal is to increase your brand's number of Instagram followers 25% over the course of three months, you will likely be pleasantly surprised.

Also, discuss your UGC campaign with your legal team. If you plan to use the user-generated photos and videos for advertisement or brand promotion, it's important to consider the legal implications of using someone else's content.

3. Identify key influencers

Influencers are the people who bring attention to your brand; they're the cool kids of social media. They have dedicated followers and consistently rack up hundreds of likes. They aren't celebrities, necessarily, just popular people who know the social media game. Just as if you were the new kid at school, reach out to these cool users with due respect and admiration.

They should have already been posting about your brand too. When you start asking people to post for your company, the lines between paid advertisements and UGC begin to blur. Be careful of that, or you might receive a letter from the FTC.

4. Create a contest, publicize a hashtag, or do both

After you've established who is talking about what, you'll have a better idea of what direction to take this next step. We see a lot of success with contests specifically. It stirs up a sense of excitement for your community—a chance of recognition, maybe even a prize!

If you are a clothing company, say, trying to publicize a particular line of clothing, such as new bathing suits, then have the campaign revolve around that so your contest has a theme to work with. During the contest, and especially if participation begins to drop off, reach out to users by liking or commenting on posts; that will help keep your audience engaged.

Remember to continually post user pics and videos during the contest to inspire others to participate. Multiple posts a week should be enough.

5. Choose a winner!

This part is the easiest. You have two ways to go:

  1. Whatever picture you feel best represents your brand narrative, style, and goal, that is your winner, and you make that determination.
  2. You are using random selection and you've established that's the case from the onset. (There are tons of online tools that can help with selecting a random winner in a legally permissible way.)

Don't forget to thank all participants, announce the winner on all of your social profiles, and try to reward and mention as many people as possible. Social media users love public recognition.

6. Gather your UGC

This is hands down the best part of a UGC campaign. Reap your fortunes by acquiring the content, which can be done through a variety of tools and methods.

UGC platforms can help marketers gather this content, making it much easier than crawling through social media and manually commenting on posts or pictures. Also, some of those platforms go the extra mile and ensure that you have complete legal rights to use that perfect picture, for example.

Find what tool or method works best for you and will allow you easiest access to legally use the content.

7. Activate your owned and paid media

This is where UGC starts to have a high ROI. Use the content you gathered in your marketing efforts and ad campaigns using UGC for increased authenticity and engagement with your audience.

Then host and display the best images you gather (if you've been focusing on images) on your company's website. Doing so will demonstrate to all visitors that your business interacts with its communities and shares their stories.

(Check out our favorite UGC campaigns.)

8. Look back and plan for the next campaign

Like all marketing efforts, UGC campaigns are cyclical, not linear. When one ends, another should be starting. Begin planning for your next campaign weeks in advance. Learn from mistakes, and improve.

The more you do this, the easier and better it gets.

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image of Kevin Joyce

Kevin Joyce is a marketing analyst for user-generated content (UGC) platform ShareRoot, where he spends much of his time researching and sharing the effectiveness and legal complexities of UGC.

LinkedIn: Kevin Joyce