Like many things that eventually made it to mainstream marketing and technology models, the gaming industry kicked off a concept many, many years ago before it got widely adopted: user-generated content. It’s going to be HUGE in 2020, according to the experts. At the Content Marketing Institute’s Content Marketing World 2019 conference, several key influencers in digital marketing have spoken about what they feel is going to take hold in the new decade to come.
Influencer jay Baer stated that user-generated content is going to make a major splash in the next few years. The reasoning behind this is that it’s not the actual message that’s changing, but the messenger itself. Getting the people who interact with your brand front and center is incredibly effective not just for building a brand itself, but also for fostering trust and community.
Why do people want to share the brand’s story? Why does it resonate with them? How can you harness this, and how can you learn from the first pioneer of this concept: the video games industry?
What is User-Generated Content (or UGC)?
User-generated content is exactly what the name implies. It’s content for, or related to, a product, service, or brand that is created by the people who use it. Initially, this term was popular in the gaming, then software in general, industry in the 1980s and 1990s. Before modding communities were really a thing, people would upload their own maps for turn-based strategy games like Heroes of MIght and Magic onto Usenet groups before fan-made websites dedicated to the franchise like Celestial Heavens eventually rolled out.
This was in the early days of the Internet when people couldn’t just look up what they wanted. It took significantly more legwork to build a map, find other people to play it, then get it out in the world. For Heroes of MIght and Magic in particular, there was even an entire fanmade expansion known as “Heroes 3.5”, the Wake of Gods expansion that completely built on the game itself and revolutionized several key gameplay aspects, and also introduced more mechanisms for fans to use the game maps to tell stories.
User-created content has persisted and evolved since. One of the more prominent independent examples is Stardew Valley, which at the time of writing recently had the long-awaited v1.4 released that contains significant “quality of life” fixes plus new original content. However, prior to this major update and other patches previously released by the developer, this didn’t stop thousands of fans from making their own mods and plug-ins that do everything from expand the game’s map, increase the farm’s productivity, add new inventory items, and much more.
But to truly get an idea of the sheer magnitude that UGC is capable of? Traplight Games released BIg Bang Racing for mobile devices and in the developer’s own words, over EIGHT MILLION levels have been created and uploaded by the users, while less than 0.0002% of the original build’s levels were actually made by the studio.
You don’t need to be an expert level designer or have any game development experience at all to comprehend the powerful potential in UGC. Your brand or product could have absolutely nothing to do with games–imagine having your own in-house team plus a few freelancers creating content. Now imagine getting your customer base to produce several million pieces of content for you. Sounds incredible, right?
How UGC Evolved Outside of Video Games
While video games may have laid the groundwork for UGC to become a powerhouse pre-Internet and in the early days of the web, it took a few tries for brands to really catch on with the concept. After all, the way that it’s done with games is that fans are literally adding their own unofficial, non-canon content to expand the game’s world. Modding tools, map-makers, editors, or legal hacks have been used for decades to make the game even more enjoyable. It’s a little trickier when you have a product that can’t really be expanded and shared in this expanded form, like frozen pizza or car insurance.
But you can still have a digital presence that is rich in UGC today.
Internal UGC is added or posted to directly to the product itself, as the case was and still is with games. It can also apply to internal channels, such as the company website and individual product pages. There may be additional curation from marketing, community management, and/or customer service teams for submissions like reviews and pictures of the product in action.
External UGC is when the users take to other platforms, such as review sites and social media, to talk about their experience with the product or brand. This can encompass everything from customers showing off outfits on Instagram and Twitter, or streaming your game on Twitch. Don’t dismiss that last one: it’s not just gaming gear brands that advertise with streamers, but they’ve also become an integral part of the games industry.
While you have less control over external UGC, “homegrown” content in this vein also helps cultivate trust among existing customers and the general public. While professional reviewers and paid influencers have their role in generating buzz about a brand or product, part of why UGC is so successful is people get to see the actual users discuss the product honestly and without a marketing department’s approval. Of course, you still can have collaborations with influencers as well as professional reviewers and they must comply with FTC regulations as well as local laws concerning how they were compensated, if at all, and if your involvement had any bearing on the review’s content.
What Marketers Should Consider in 2020 with Respect to UGC
Let’s look at Traplight Games’ success with UGC. I’m not going to make your eyes glaze over with dev-speak, but point out the one simple thing they did that will ensure thousands of user-created levels keep being added long after the game’s release. You have to show love to the users creating content for you.
It was difficult for New World Computing to highlight fan-made Heroes of Might and Magic maps when they were scattered around the Internet prior to centralization on Celestial Heavens. They released a game with the ability to play over a network when it was a brand new concept, after all– online aspects of huge and mid-size franchises are practically expected today. However, in the mobile world, Traplight acknowledged the users who made levels and rewarded them with credit as well as directing them to the creators’ social media accounts so that they were lifting up the fans. Take it from someone who’s been in the games industry for almost 10 years now: Twitter is game developer LinkedIn. UGC is also how many people get into level design jobs or their start as indie developers! By combining the two, Traplight may have inadvertently forged a new generation of developers.
Whether your chief product is a mobile game or clothing, acknowledging and rewarding users who regularly contribute is how you’re going to make a UGC strategy win today. Offering ways for users to get financially rewarded is a route that game developers are currently exploring since users can literally add to a game that was already created. However, simply providing social clout or store credits is another way to ensure that UGC is constantly being generated. Given that we live in an “attention economy” today, simply expecting your customers’ money while wanting them to talk about your brand on social media isn’t going to cut it anymore.
When you’re marketing to Gen Z, you also need to think about harnessing the power of streaming because they watch game streams at least twice a day, far more than Millennials and Gen Xers. The games industry may still be seen as this wildly esoteric yonder where we’re so tiny that we don’t even have an industry classification code, yet also overpowering film and music in terms of gross revenues. But you’re pretty much going to have to take lessons from it if you want to be one step ahead of the game (pun intended).
Lastly, social media and internal and external reviews have been the two major powerhouses of UGC for brands if there’s no product or platform for users to add their own creations. But what are other ways that users can contribute?
What kind of content fits the product, service, brand, or platform? Thinking about a platform like Ravelry that awesomely combines technology with knitting, users can submit patterns for free or monetize them. While this monetization aspect probably wouldn’t work with recipes for appliances, it could with a podcast that takes off and accepts guest submissions from customers, plus anything else that takes the “game world” concept and builds on it.
Better yet, do you need an experienced game developer and content strategist to help you take this idea to the next level in 2020? Why not visit my profile page and book a call or talk to an account manager today to get things in motion!
Prior to taking up the game development and writing hustler life, Rachel P. worked as a tax advisor. She still retains an Enrolled Agent license for tax law writing purposes. Rachel has 10 years of tax practice experience ranging from retail tax preparation to white-shoe firm, and solo practice. She worked with Prometric and high-ranking IRS directors in developing the Enrolled Agent exam for three years running, determining minimum competency requirements for Enrolled Agents along with creating and editing exam content. She also worked with Pearson to develop educational tax law content for use in online adult education programs.