Of course, user-generated content can sometimes compete with your intended brand image, something, as you’ll see, Nintendo has had to contend with for decades. But when everything aligns, there’s perhaps no better way to light a fire under your brand, drive brand awareness, and build powerful preference.
A brief history of user-generated content in video games
Why user-generated content can’t be beat for building emotional connection
How user-generated content can work for, or against, your brand
eCommerce examples of creative user-generated content campaigns
Full Podcast Transcript
Hello Beings of Earth! I’m your host Neil Verma.
Welcome to eBrandCast, where we decode what branding truly is, so you can build a dominant eCom Brand.
In this episode, we’ll cover some of the best lessons for encouraging and leveraging user-generated content.
The twist? These are all lessons we can learn from the video game industry, where user-generated content has a rich and sometimes troubled history.
But if you want to create an emotional connection with your customers, user-generated content is one of the best ways to do so.
Ready player one?
In June of 2010, car manufacturing giant GM sent an internal memo to its Chevrolet Detroit headquarters.
The memo preached the importance of brand consistency in order to protect the nearly 100-year-old Chevrolet brand.
Brand leadership believed the best way to do this was to stop using the brand’s nickname, Chevy.
Instead, Chevrolet employees were instructed to only say “Chevrolet” when talking to customers and each other.
They even suggested placing “swear” jars in dealerships for employees to pay a quarter anytime they accidentally said “Chevy.”
The memo was promptly leaked to the press, where it ignited public outrage.
Chevy is one of the most iconic brand nicknames, rivalled, maybe, by only Coke.
A brand the memo praised for its consistency by its nickname Coke, with no sense of irony or acknowledgement that it’s the short form of their real brand name, Coca-Cola.
The issue was that Chevy wasn’t just a beloved nickname among customers, it was enshrined in American culture.
From Don McLean’s iconic song American Pie, which includes the lyric “Drove my Chevy to the levy.”
To songs by groups as musically diverse as Motley Crue, Elton John, and the Beastie Boys.
GM was forced to back down and tried to walk it back by claiming the memo was an in-house joke.
Whether or not you buy that line, the most insightful thought arising from the episode came from Dick Guldstrand, a driver in Corvette’s Hall of Fame.
He said, “Once Chevrolet became an American icon, America took it away from GM.”
In other words, the nickname “Chevy” simply doesn’t belong to GM, it belongs to its customers.
So while GM might be able to instruct their employees to refer to the brand by its full name, there was nothing they could do to stop customers from saying Chevy.
And they didn’t.
Brand nicknames are one of the oldest forms of user generated content, and Chevrolet’s cautionary tale highlights its dangers.
On the upside, user generated content signals that customers are emotionally invested in a brand, whether they show it through a nickname or an unboxing video on YouTube.
But user generated content doesn’t always reflect the values the brand intends.
This matters to you because user generated content is quickly becoming essential social proof for eCommerce brands.
User generated content gets 10 times more views than brand uploads on Youtube.
And exposure to user generated content increases brand engagement by 28%.
Which means learning how to manage user generated content is only going to become a more critical skill as your brand grows.
But most brands treat user-generated content like a subcategory of a product review.
Reviews are usually written to let other consumers know if the product met their expectations.
The kind of feedback that’s helpful when you’re calculating whether a purchase is worth it, but user-generated content is all about joy, connection, and inspiration.
In other words, reviews target our sense of reason, but user-generated content is all about emotion.
It’s a reflection of the relationship between the brand and its community.
And emotion is what builds and sustains brands.
If you’re looking for a masterclass in user generated content, there is no better industry to look to than video games, where it’s often the lifeblood of the biggest franchises.
Video games have been pioneering user-generated content for decades, though not always through official channels.
One of the earliest examples is DOOM, the ground-breaking first-person shooter that debuted in 1993.
Almost immediately, its most passionate players started modifying the game.
They created their own levels, designed their own assets for the games, and even changed the sound effects.
Like making Doom-guy swear every time he takes damage, or giving him sound clips from popular TV shows like The Simpsons or the Evil Dead film series.
Changes that transformed him into a familiar character.
Coinciding with the rise of the internet, the DOOM modding scene thrived, and communities began to grow around building and sharing levels.
Later games made modding the game’s central appeal.
SimCity pioneered sandbox-creation, allowing players to build their own sprawling cities with deep customization.
Sandbox games have become their own subgenre,
although throughout the 90’s and early 2000’s it became more common for game studios to release official tools to allow players to create their own adventures.
Neverwinter Nights, released by BioWare in 2002, for example, released the game with the Aurora toolset, which let users build anything from maps and demos, to multiplayer quests and cutscenes.
Most consumer products go through a similar modification process post-purchase.
Whether it’s customers adding stickers to their laptops, or choosing a colorful case for their smartphone, customers often find ways to make products their own.
It’s where personalized becomes personal, and it’s the foundation of building the emotional bond to the brand that will bring customers back long-term.
It’s also the genesis point of all user generated content.
Shoeby, for instance, a clothing and apparel brand, showcases photos of how customers mix and style their products.
Going back to video games, beyond the modding-scene, on the other side of this coin, was the growth of multiplayer.
Although local, or “couch” multiplayer had been around since the beginning of video games, the internet made it possible to play with anyone around the world.
And with the release of the original Xbox console and the Xbox Live service, including a multiplayer experience with your game became an expectation.
Modern multiplayer finds its roots here, with Microsoft’s Xbox exclusive, Halo.
Halo was originally supposed to be a third-person, strategy-heavy shooter, designed exclusively for Apple.
Until Microsoft acquired its parent studio, Bungie, in 2000
They made the decision to re-tool it as a first-person shooter, and planned to release it as a launch title for the Xbox.
Because the single-player experience had to be basically revolutionized, the game was barely completed on time.
Which meant that although Microsoft had lofty ambitions to promote XBox Live with Halo’s multiplayer side, the studio was left scrambling to throw a few game modes together in order to meet the deadline.
That said, the multiplayer was still popular with Halo’s fanbase.
At the time, many first-person shooter fans were used to LAN parties, and having to lug their consoles or entire PCs to a friend’s house in order to play together.
Being able to play online was a revelation, and Halo was the conductor.
As a result, Microsoft focused the marketing campaign for Halo 2 around its multiplayer community.
Halo’s 2 multiplayer aimed to simplify the process of joining a game, allowing gamers for the first time to select who they played with before what mode they’d play.
It was couch co-op, but online.
Not only was Halo 2’s multiplayer scene a smashing success, it led to a peculiar, and intensely influential, bit of user-generated content, called machinima (pronounced: “ma-shin-a-ma”).
The word machinima is a combination of “machine” and “cinema,” and it describes using video games engines to produce animated films.
Machinima has been around in one form or another since the early 80s, but Halo 2’s completely customizable multiplayer modes blew the doors off.
A group of friends began producing an online video series called Red vs Blue, using Halo 2.
It followed the adventures of 2 warring Spartan armies tangentially related to the Halo storyline, stuck in a tedious and increasingly ridiculous stand-off.
It became so popular that a game mode its creators invented called Grifball, was added as an official option in Halo 3.
The team behind the series has even been commissioned by Microsoft to create videos to coincide with special events and game releases.
There are 2 eCommerce lessons here.
The first is the critical importance of building a community around your brand, but that it will only work if the community is supporting relationships between customers.
The bond between the customer and the brand itself needs to be secondary.
Just like how Halo 2 made couch co-op possible online, the advances in multiplayer were all about giving players new ways to connect with each other.
Second, the explosion in popularity of machinima is a reminder that there will always be off-label uses for products.
Sometimes those off-label uses can engage more customers with your brand, like in the case of Red vs Blue.
For instance, there are entire communities online that swear by using Coca-Cola to loosen rusty bolts on car tires, or its apparent multiple uses in gardening.
While some of these off-label uses might be positive, the association between Coke and rust eating might not be the message the brand wants to break through.
It might prompt more customers to ask: if Coke can do that to metal, what’s it doing to your insides?
Either way, it’s important to keep tabs on these potential off-label uses, because your brand name is going to be invoked.
One eCommerce brand, Elvis & Kresse, built their entire brand on this concept.
They make accessories like bags and belts out of decommissioned fire hoses, parachutes, coffee sacks, and boat sails.
This approach not only lends their products a unique look but increases the brand’s claims of sustainability.
This off-label ethos also adds to the brand’s story.
50% of the profits from the sale of products made with decommissioned fire hoses are donated to the Fire Fighters Charity.
But it’s not uncommon for off-label uses to clash with the brand in a way that threatens its image.
The “Tide Pod Challenge” which spread like wildfire online in 2019, wasn’t exactly Tide’s idea of a marketing campaign.
In the video game industry, Nintendo has had one of the most contentious relationships with its content community.
Unlike Sony and Microsoft, Nintendo has mostly bowed out of the struggle to build the faster, most powerful game console.
Instead of trying to compete with hardware that appeals to more serious gamers, Nintendo has always prided themselves on making consoles and games for “everyone.”
They rely on their exclusive IPs, like Super Mario and the Legend of Zelda, as well as innovation in how games are played, opposed to increasing console power and realism.
And precisely because Nintendo has such powerful, legacy IPs, their games inspire deep, emotional investment.
Due to the accessibility of Nintendo games, many gamers grow up with the brand, and so it has the draw of nostalgia as well.
But Nintendo’s ability to create life-long, die-hard fans meant that a good few of them were going to take the games a lot more seriously than the company intended.
The most famous example is Nintendo’s contentious relationship with the Super Smash Brothers competitive community.
True to their brand, Nintendo developed Super Smash Brothers to be a more fun, accessible fighting game than the Mortal Kombats and Street Fighters of the world.
Smash had intentionally simplified controls that didn’t require players to memorize long, complex input chains.
It also added “battle items,” an optional element that randomly generates weapons and other bonuses for players to use.
All characters have finishing moves, called a final smash, but these moves aren’t, like in other games, unlocked when your opponent is at critical health.
Rather, final smashes are a random battle item as well.
Stages add to the chaos with environmental hazards and enemies.
So aside from being simpler, Smash also added an element of luck.
It was designed to be the ultimate party game, and since Nintendo only launched an online multiplayer service in 2018, it was couch co-op only.
Its follow-up, Super Smash Brothers Melee, inspired a widespread, and intense underground competitive scene.
I say “underground,” because even as the scene grew to semi-professional tournaments attended by hundreds of fans, Nintendo refused to sanction any of the events.
In fact, although Melee was released in 2001, Nintendo didn’t host an official Smash tournament until 2018.
This competitive scene had discovered tactics that exploited the controls, allowing them to perform advanced techniques that were never intended by the designer, Sakurai.
Although many of these exploits had been discovered while testing and developing the game, they were left in because Sakurai didn’t think it would impact the overall experience of the game.
But these tactics, especially “wavedashing” and “L-cancelling,” became staples of competitive play.
The game’s most passionate audience had successfully made it their own, but Nintendo wasn’t totally happy about it.
While Nintendo didn’t explicitly discourage the competitive tournaments or shut them down, they did make major changes to the game in its subsequent release, Super Smash Brothers Brawl, in 2008.
Wavedashing and L-cancelling were removed completely, and the game overall was slowed down.
Sakurai felt that these advanced techniques created too much of a gap between experienced and new players, which threatened the intended Smash brand as a pick-up and play game.
And even though a competitive scene did grow around Brawl, it was never as popular with professional players or fans.
Brawl did, however, come with a stage creator, that let players build custom arenas and upload them online.
Nintendo realized that user-generated content, and audience-led innovations, would be the future of gaming.
But the experiment was short-lived.
Nintendo pulled support for uploading custom stages only a year later, in 2009.
The reason was again motivated by protecting the brand.
Nintendo worried about their ability to moderate posts of these custom stages across social media and its impact on the brand’s image as family friendly.
In fact, when the toolset relaunched in 2018 with the release of Smash Brothers Ultimate, within the first week Nintendo was scrambling to moderate the wave of stages built to be memes.
They even had to develop an advanced algorithm to search for, let’s say, inappropriate shapes.
Not surprisingly, there were still creative builders who managed to get not-so family-friendly content, past these security measures.
But Nintendo didn’t abandon their vision of user-generated content as the future.
And in 2015 released Super Mario Maker, a game that allows players to create their own Super Mario levels.
They could share their levels online, or pick a difficulty setting and play random, user-created levels.
It wasn’t long before the streaming community on YouTube and Twitch flocked to Super Mario Maker.
In some ways, this was helped by the fact that there was already an underground community of Mario-devotees creating their own, customized Mario games.
The process is called ROM hacking, and from the mid-2000s, players were taking Super Mario World apart, and rebuilding it.
It led to a game-style called “Kaizo” (pronounced: Ki-zo), the Japanese word for “reorganize.”
In the Super Mario Maker world, Kaizo came to mean “extremely difficult.”
Not unlike the Smash Melee world, Kaizo demands inputs and moves that are not explored in mainstream, Nintendo-published games.
Like jumping off a shell in mid-air.
It also continued Nintendo’s tension with its content community.
Just like the release of Brawl, Super Mario Maker 2 changed many of the game’s core mechanics in order to remove the most difficult tactics.
But in the past few years, as Nintendo has recognized the importance of their online community, they’ve started to make concessions to their most hardcore fanbase.
With the release of Super Smash Brothers Ultimate in 2018, wavedashing was reintroduced, though it no longer provides the same competitive advantages it did in Melee.
And the game is almost, though not quite as fast as Melee.
There’s no question, Nintendo’s official Smash tournaments are still slightly anti-competitive, as their rule set encourages luck, and they’ve had a relatively fraught relationship with the top Smash players.
In fact, there’s still a thriving Melee tournament scene, complete with outdated, 2-foot deep TVs, needed to play on the GameCube.
Just like the nickname Chevy, it’s safe to say that the Melee competitive scene no longer belongs to Nintendo.
And many of those original Melee pros still feel betrayed by Nintendo’s unwillingness to respect the community they built.
Similarly, Nintendo took the middle-way with Mario Maker 2.
While they nerfed a lot of the advanced Kaizo techniques from the sequel, they did add many elements that never made it into the first game, but were staples of the ROM hacking scene.
Like On/Off switches, and sloped terrain.
And Nintendo has continued to innovate, to give their hardcore fans new challenges to counteract the feeling that they’ve outgrown the “for everyone” brand.
Nintendo recently launched a huge update to Mario Maker 2 that allows players to take on Super Mario 1 levels as Link, who brings a totally new set of abilities to the game.
Of course, creators are already inventing Link-Kaizo.
But Nintendo’s often complicated relationship with its most passionate community holds a lot of lessons for branders.
The central struggle for Nintendo is all about their brand.
They’ve tried to find the happy balance between supporting their most passionate community, while remaining approachable by new, inexperienced gamers.
It’s a balancing act Microsoft and Sony have never had to worry about.
The Halo community, its ranked online play and Legendary difficulty settings have always catered to their hardcore audience.
While the single-player, story-driven experience is still a joy regardless of the level of your gaming skills, there’s no doubt that multiplayer can feel intimidating if you’re new.
On Playstation’s network as well, online gaming is known for its generally toxic atmosphere.
And to Nintendo’s credit, although their laissez-faire attitude to their hardcore players can feel careless, they have been able to maintain some of the nicest communities online.
The Mario Maker community is very welcoming to new players.
There have even been ROM hacks created to teach new players how to execute some of the more advanced moves.
There’s a joy to watching Mario streamers get tricked by “troll” levels, and Nintendo’s focus on fun over cut-throat competition has definitely survived.
This is a very precarious balance to hit.
On the one hand, Nintendo needs to protect their brand image as accessible and friendly, especially because this is the most important quality separating them from their competitors.
But too heavy a hand moderating user generated content will lead to resentment, and customers feeling unappreciated.
Studying user-generated content in video games should remind us that, for customers, content creation is how they make the brand their own.
It’s how they express the personal meaning of your brand.
And if you have customers with no personal connection to your brand, you’re going to struggle with loyalty.
If you’re lucky, the trick will be finding the balance between what part of the brand you manage, and what part of the brand belongs to your customers.
But how do you inspire your customers to create their own content?
Another great lesson from the video game industry is that the best user-generated content springs from strong, passionate communities.
And it’s often a translation of emotional investment in a brand, be it a game franchise, or the product and lifestyle you’re selling.
Once you have customers joining your community, you need to nurture the emotional connection they’ll come to associate with your brand.
When you look at video game fandoms, what the brand does is provide the platform, and the content around which the community forms.
And while occasionally you should start conversations and act to keep your community members engaged, eventually the community needs to run on its own steam.
The real job of a community manager is to support the relationships between members.
Of course, you still need to moderate, but you need to give members the space to make it their own, too.
One of the easiest ways to encourage and collect user-generated content is to create a hashtag.
For example, REI, an outdoor gear and apparel brand, created the hashtag #OptOutside.
They then gave their followers a reason to use it.
On Black Friday, the brand made the decision to close in order to give their employees a chance to get outside and have some adventures.
The hashtag was launched to coincide with Black Friday and the initial post encouraged customers to also ignore the mall and send in pictures of what they chose to do instead.
In the campaign’s first year, it got 1.2 billion impressions, and 1.4 million submissions.
And because most of the pictures feature natural landscapes, it helped that many of the submissions were visually stunning.
As a bonus, it was the perfect marriage of the brand’s values, and their customers’ interests.
You can also offer a prize, or run a competition.
One of the best examples of pairing user-generated content with a giveaway is Moosejaw, another outdoor gear company.
Instead of offering a prize after content is submitted, Moosejaw will send anyone a brand flag who’s interested in joining in their #lovethemadness campaign.
Then, they encourage recipients to take pictures of them and the glad on one of their outdoor adventures.
But incentivizing doesn’t have to mean giveaway.
Featuring user-generated content in your marketing material, as your Facebook cover photo, or in newsletter emails, shows your appreciation – as long as you only use the content with permission.
CLUSE, a watch company, features user-generated content on their homepage.
Don’t trap user-generated content on your social profiles, the more places you can showcase it, the more motivated customers will feel to share.
If you’re a clothing company, you can put out a call for images of customers in your products, in order to feature them on product pages.
Not only does this bring a more authentic feel to your pages, it can help you save on costly professional shoots with models.
And most customers love to see real customers in your products, it’s like a visual review, and it feels more relatable, making your brand feel more personal to customers.
User-generated content doesn’t need to be a photo, either.
You can post a photo and ask customers to add their own caption.
Also, think of the online communities built around cosmetics tutorials and tips.
Customers want to share how they use your products if they’re emotionally invested in your brand.
Another option is to create an interactive, or omnichannel game that encourages customers to participate, and get involved with the brand.
One of the earliest examples of this kind of marketing, was actually pioneered by the marketing campaign for Halo 2.
It was called “I Love Bees.”
And it was a part-mystery, part geo-caching game that got fans invested in Halo 2’s narrative before it was even launched.
Let’s just say it inspired at least 1 fan to go outside in a hurricane in search of one of the game’s clues.
It’s worth looking up if you think this kind of thing might work for your brand, but the point is to think outside of the box.
The video game industry teaches us that user-generated content can be more than a review or a snapshot on Twitter.
If you give your customers the tools to express their creativity and make your brand their own, you’ll be richly rewarded.
But in order to get the most from user-generated content, you need to nurture a strong community, and encourage customers to make connections with each other.
Understand that user-generated content isn’t just about getting customers to showcase themselves using your products, but to invite them into your brand’s story and purpose.
Video games inspire so much user generated content because they give players stories they care about, and the nature of the medium is that players then participate in that story.
It makes the story real, and personal.
And this is the dynamic you can tap into by building a brand community and encouraging user generated content.
And one last tip, once you get user-generated content rolling in, be sure to acknowledge it.
Especially if it’s clear a lot of effort went into it.
And look, not every customer is going to be nuts about you, even if they make a purchase.
Some customers will want to buy and move on.
But this is exactly why it’s so important to nurture the emotional connection your core audience does create within your brand.
Not only is encouraging and show-casing user-generated content one of the best ways to do that, it’s also a sign that your branding is resonating on the right level.
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