Column: User-Generated Media and Brands

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Last year and 2006 will go down as the years that user-generated content stormed the landscape, from the growth of social networking communities whose individual pages look like graffiti to the soaring popularity around user-generated video in all its permutations.

Brands and advertisers have started to absorb and co-opt this growing phenomenon to establish street cred among tastemakers. Most brands understand that a segment of their target market hangs out on social networking and blog sites or watches funny video clips at a video-sharing Web site.

Though the value and reach that user-generated content can project is tremendous, huge obstacles exist to harnessing its influence. The biggest is that user-generated content enthusiasts and arbiters of taste are famously allergic to being marketed to.

Some brands have tried to address this movement by enlisting the consumers themselves to create the marketing message - user-generated content ads or citizen media where the consumer creates the commercial for the brand. A growing number of examples exist: GMC, Converse, Sony and are brands that turned to the online community to create ads for them.

This approach is powerful and creates a pool of marketing messages that double as entertainment, a concept that will take hold with the many online consumers. Many brands will never feel comfortable about letting consumers provide their interpretation of what the brand means to them via a user-generated commercial, but those that do will establish deep credibility and the trust of their customers who are watching.

Another way that brands can leverage the energy around user-generated content involves branded programming, or directing the user base to create specific types of content to participate or compete in a "show" or online contest. This method eliminates the advertiser's greatest fear - inappropriate content being associated with the brand - as participants compete to win notoriety or prizes by creating good content. Brands get access to multiple touch points with consumers (e-mail, ads, in-stream, events), and often the programming can be themed to fit the brand itself.

User-generated media represents one more way that the consumer base is taking control of its media experience. Within these kinds of mass shifts you see underdog brands emerge and many incumbents fall behind as the dynamics of the relationship change.

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