Content marketing is necessary, yet tiresome. High returning, yet time intensive. It's something that we've all been told we need in order to build strong brands in a digital age, but there comes a point where the thought of developing one more blog post or having one more editorial meeting makes you want to throw your keyboard out the window.

We've all been there. And while there isn't a magical answer that will allow you to reap the rewards of content marketing without sowing the seeds, there is one strategy that can help alleviate some of the pressure in 2017 - it involves letting your customers do some of the work.

What Is User-Generated Content?

"Have you ever thought about the impact that consumers have on your brand's reputation?" asks Morgan McAbee of Revcontent. "Some of the most effective salespeople that you have are your own customers and allowing them to narrate your brand's success stories might just be the spark that your content campaign needs."

McAbee points to a Nielsen study in which 92 percent of customers say they trust peer recommendations above all other forms of advertising.

"Although television advertising will remain a primary way marketers connect with audiences due to its unmatched reach compared to other media, consumers around the world continue to see recommendations from friends and online consumer opinions as by far the most credible," Randall Beard of Nielsen explains. "As a result, successful brand advertisers will seek ways to better connect with consumers and leverage their goodwill in the form of consumer feedback and experiences."

What McAbee and Beard are both alluding to is a concept known as user-generated content - any type of content that's relevant to your brand and created by your customers. Also referred to as earned media, this includes things like social media posts, user reviews, images, and organic brand mentions.

The reason user-generated content is so successful is rooted in the psychological phenomenon of social proof. The classic example of offline social proof is a nightclub in a big city. Most major clubs have a line outside the front door. And while this line is sometimes necessary for fire codes, it more often has to do with maintaining an image.

When people drive by and see a line outside of a nightclub, they assume that it's filled with people. Subconsciously, this triggers the following thought: If so many people are willing to wait outside to get in, it must be a pretty awesome place.

This is social proof at work in the real world. It may look a little different online, but the concept remains the same: When customers speak highly of your brand, other consumers see your value offering as more credible.

Four Tips for Developing a User-Generated Content Strategy

While there are dozens of ways you can leverage social proof, user-generated content is by far one of the most effective. It allows you to reach customers in a new way, while also relieving some of the burdens of creating new content.

Here are some tips for developing a strategy:

1. Listen Up

While it would be nice if customers sent you emails with flattering content, it doesn't work this way. There's a lot of user-generated content floating around on the web, but you have to catch it. How do you do this? By listening, of course.

The Internet may be a vast expanse of fragmented pages and content oversaturation, but there's actually a surprising amount of organization involved. Thanks to social listening tools, you can actually set up "alarms" that go off when someone mentions your brand or a related keyword.

Some of these tools include Hootsuite, BuzzSumo, and Followerwonk. Find one that works for your business and set up a plan for monitoring user-generated content. Think of this as hunting and gathering. While some food (content) can be harvested in your own fields (your website, product pages, etc.), you have to go out and find other food sources.

2. Run Contests

If you don't have a large brand presence, then you probably won't happen upon a ton of good user-generated content. It'll happen occasionally, but it'll be the exception to the rule. In all likelihood, you'll need to proactively pursue user-generated content.

One way you can do this is through the use of contests in which you ask customers to provide you with content in return for a reward or recognition. You can check out some successful examples of user-generated content campaigns to get an idea of what works.

3. Incentivize Customers

Customers need to know that you appreciate their user-generated content. It's not uncommon for brands with larger content budgets to pay customers for good content or provide them with coupons, product samples, and other rewards.

But incentives don't always have to be tangible. If someone posts an image on Instagram featuring your product, don't just repost it without saying anything. Comment on the image and ask the customer if you can repost it. Then, when you repost it, give them credit for the image and follow their account.

4. Collaborate With Top Customers

Once you start conducting some social listening and really begin leveraging user-generated content, you'll start to learn who your top customers are. Consider reaching out to them and building a relationship. If a customer knows they're valued by their favorite brand, they're more likely to be outspoken. If you have enough outspoken customers, you could even launch an influencer program.

Make 2017 a Success

The demand for content in 2017 will be at an all-time high. And while you'll have to create some content of your own in order to reach your goals, you should leverage opportunities to rely on user-generated content as well.

You'll see incredible results - and won't have to spend as many hours pecking away at a keyboard. That's what we like to call a win-win!

Published on: Nov 30, 2016