by Eric Yaverbaum

While riding the subway system in New York recently, I noticed an advertisement for a local moving company. Here is the premise: Take a photograph of one of their moving trucks parked anywhere in New York, “like” the company on Facebook, post the picture on your wall as a Facebook update, making sure you tag it with the name of the company.

Facebook provides a useful platform to reach out for user-generated content. (BECK DIEFENBACH/REUTERS)

What is interesting about this particular campaign is the manner in which it invites the audience — potential customers all — to take part in the creative process. More pictures appearing on Facebook translates into more “likes” for the moving company, which in turn becomes a viral campaign with a life of its own. In its own way, this is an example of “user generated content” in advertising.

It is also an exciting and engaging scheme that enables small businesses to leverage a social medium — in this case, Facebook — for free in getting its message out. (The operative word here is “free,” obviously.)

Best of all, the moving company benefits because the costs of creating the advertising are borne by the people who make the content — the contestants. Are they really competing for the $100? Of course they are. But they are also competing with each other, and vying for something more valuable than money: pride of ownership and creative validation.

It’s also fun.

This illustrates an age-old problem for small business: The costs of marketing and advertising can be daunting — so much so that the businessperson may forego any activity as too expensive or too risky. So why not make use of free content?

This approach is tailor-made for social media, which uses content to advertise in a new, perhaps narcissistic, way — for oneself. People use Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest and the like every day to advertise what they do and when they do it. So too can small businesses use social media to self-advertise. It can be accomplished just by creating accounts in the names of their businesses and dedicating some time to creating posts and Tweets.

Still, the effort and the cost of creating this content, minimal as it may be, can still be a drain on the small businessperson — who may not have the resources to hire someone to do it or to outsource it to an external agency.

A practical solution can be to have current or potential customers do it instead. In other words, the users can create their own advertising ideas for the benefit of a business. All the business owner needs to do is figure out how to compensate them.

A good example of user-generated content comes from Zipcar, the car-sharing service that was started in Cambridge, Mass., and has since expanded to quite a few major cities and college towns in the United States. Zipcar asks that you “like” them on Facebook. Immediately thereafter, the registrant is asked to create content or slogans that engage them in the creative process.

One of the more popular items appears to be “What will you do with Zipcar today?” The answers, posted to the Zipcar wall, could be, “visit a relative,” “move into a new apartment,” or anything that can be done with a car. The prize? A genuine Zipcar T-shirt.

Another contest involves a clever quirk of Zipcar branding: creating names for the new cars that go into service. Some examples would be, “Peter Prius” or “Cathy Corolla.” Yes, Zipcar refers to its cars by names, not license plates. It’s a subtle but effective reminder that they value people over things. The prize for this contest? A $25 driving credit, which could pay for two hours of usage on any given weekend. Not bad!

Content can be anything visual or auditory. Videos can be made, pictures can be creatively Photoshopped, friends and family can be recruited to help out.

The effectiveness of user-generated content, or campaigns that feature it, will vary depending on a number of variables. For example, results could vary depending on how many “likes” a small business has on Facebook, or the number of followers it has on Twitter. On the creative side, a batch of submissions may be uniformly disappointing or the number of entrants may be miniscule. But user generated content could be used as a way to boost these numbers and, over time, the results could be pleasing.

Of course, user generated content is no substitute for professional services that are rendered by an integrated advertising and marketing firm for thousands of dollars per month. Not every small business can afford that sum, obviously.

For the small business that must start somewhere in its marketing and advertising, user generated content can be a welcome, low cost solution to an age-old problem. The fantastic ideas and thrilling videos submitted by any number of students and talented amateurs could amaze.

And if luck should hold, the most it could cost the business is a T-shirt. There are worse deals.

Eric Yaverbaum is a best-selling author and cheif executive of Ericho Communications.

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