User Generated Content - The empowerment of consumers

25th August


ritten by Aneta Hoszowska


Consumers empowered by social media

People have always been talking, chitchatting, gossiping. A significant difference between then and now is that 10-15 years ago, most of the time, you had to meet in person or have a phone call to be able to share your news with someone else. You met with your sister for a coffee to talk, she then accidentally spilled too much information to your mother, mother was shocked and talked to her husband, he in turn called his brother and then your uncle talked to his wife, his wife to their daughter and so on it went until, ‘suddenly’, the whole family knew that your ex-boyfriend had a name tattooed on his left butt cheek, and to make the story even more controversial, it was not your name.

One ‘big mouth’ told another, and this way over a period of weeks, maybe months, a number of somewhere around 10 to 20 persons were familiar with your ex-boyfriend’s intimate body parts.  But after that, most of them forgot about it. There was no concrete trace left from the scandal, except for what was left in the memory of your family members, and, of course, what was tattooed on your former boyfriend’s butt cheek.

The birth of the Internet revolutionized the world, particularly the rise of Web 2.0 and social media. This enabled consumers to become empowered on technological, social, economical and legal dimensions (Kucuk, Krishnamurthy, 2007, in Krishnamurthy, Kucuk, 2009).

Postman (2008, in Akar, Topcu, 2011) calls online content, applications and services, the social media. Tuten (2008, in Papasolomou, Melanthiou, 2012) defines it as “synonymous with social networks, wherein consumers can produce, publish, control, rank and interact with online content”. Universal McCann (2008, in Akar, Topcu, 2011), states that social media influence all aspects of the Internet and transforms its role of in people’s lives.

Social media have changed the way we communicate, it changed the balance among the participants: who is speaking and who should carefully listen, who has the power to create, share opinions and shape them. Social media simplified and decreased the amount of effort we need to put into reaching another human being.

Not only the way the world lives has changed, but also the life of the information is different - it appears immediately, is easily accessible, is not geographically limited. The Internet ink has made the information timeless, it can spread faster than a common cold during a rainy, stormy autumn, through its potential auditorium, which is huge and very diverse. “(…) Billions of people create trillions of connections through social media each day (Hanses et al., 2011, in Hanna, Rohm, Crittenden, 2011). Consumers have the power to move from spreading the word, about brands, on a one-to-one basis to even one-to–thousands (Papasolomou,  Melanthiou, 2012).

According to the latest statistics by Digital Marketing Rambling, Facebook, which is the most popular social network, has 1.23 billion registered active users, out of which 50% log in daily (Soares, Pinho, Nobre, 2012).

Consumers continue to become the spheres of the influence, alone or in on-line communities, they are no longer passive, they dictate the nature, the extent and the context of the marketing exchange (Hanna, Rohm, Crittenden, 2011), which previously was determined by the business and marketers (Cova, Pace, 2006). It is the consumers, who now can create positive or negative images around certain brands or companies, their products or services (Roberts, Kraynak, 2008, in Akar, Topcu, 2011). Through the use of social media platforms they create, generate, edit and exchange information online, supporting or suppressing their usage of certain brands and goods (Seraj, 2012). Peer customers opinions shared in social media, are perceived as more reliable than what marketing professionals tell us, which has a direct impact on the buying behavior of other consumers (Constantinides, Amo &Romero, 2010, in Akar, Topcu, 2011) as well as on their brand loyalty, brand recognition and the profitability of businesses.

One of the examples of the expression of consumers’ changing attitudes towards a brand, can be the case of an Italian pasta producer – Barilla.  It became the center of a scandal caused by controversial statement, made by the CEO Guido Barilla, discriminating homosexual consumers. Even though it took place in Italy, the news quickly became an international matter due to the fast sharing of anti-brand content in social media e.g. Facebook Boycott Barilla page.

User Generated Content and the importance of trust.

The new environment, brought to consumers by social media, has twofold repercussions. 

Thanks to the connectivity and the interactions among consumers, new forms of content generation, communication, and collaboration were created e.g. user comments, photo posts, videos, podcasts, rankings, reviews, articles and blogs, which has resulted in a huge flow of electronic Word Of Mouth (Filho, Tan, 2009, in Akar, Topcu, 2011).   Electronic Word Of Mouth (eWOM), which is a part of user generated content (UGC, also known as user-created content), has significant impact on consumer behavior.  According to Cheung, Lee, Thadani (2009, in Akar, Topcu, 2011) it has become a dominant channel that influences buying decisions of consumers in the online environment as well as offline. User generated content can be a positive or negative statement made by potential, actual or former customer, about a product or a company, and is made available to a multitude of people and institutions via the social media. User generated content can take place in many ways and forms e.g. “web based opinion platforms, discussion forums, boycott web sites, news groups (Henning-Thurau et al., 2004,  in Akar, Topcu, 2011), post reviews, mailbags, electronic mailing lists, personal e-mail, instant messaging, or blogs, social media sites etc. (Schindler, Bickart, 2005, in Akar, Topcu, 2011). What is crucial, UGC is owned and controlled by consumers, not corporations, which implies that it often is perceived as being of higher credibility and trustworthiness than what can be learnt from traditional media (Blackshaw, Nazzaro, 2006, in Akar, Topcu, 2011). That makes it a very important factor for establishing and supporting brand authenticity and loyalty. Akar and Topcu (2011) underline that “every purchasing decision is always affected by social influence” and Dhar and Chang, (2009, in Smith, 2012) consider UGC and eWOM, as a predictors or even drivers of sales as written by Ghose and Ipeirotis (2010, in Smith et al., 2012).

It all becomes even more interesting, when take into account the results of Miller and Lammas research, which show (2010, in Akar, Topcu, 2011) that 70% of consumers preceed their purchasing process with a search of information about product/brand/service on social media. 78% of global consumers believe and trust the suggestions of other people over any other data (Akar, Topcu, 2011). Over 60% of consumers believe what they read in the posts from other consumers (Blackshaw, Nazzaro, 2006, in Akar, Topcu, 2011). 49% of them base their purchase decision on the gathered information.

Research made by DEI Worldwide (2008, in Akar, Topcu, 2011) suggests that consumers who used a social media for e.g. brand evaluation, make better purchasing decisions compared to the ones who do not.

Negative User Generated Content (UGC).

Social media allow consumers to manifest their dissatisfaction with the brand/product/service/irresponsible business practices, ideological orientation. 

Anti-brand hate sites (e.g Anti- Wal*Mart), boycotts (e.g. Boycott the Olympic Sponsors), public negative comments, complaint forums etc. provide consumers with information that might be influential and useful while interacting with certain company (Bailey, 2004; Harrison-Walker, 2001, in Krishnamurthy, Kucuk, 2009).  At the same time they are a danger to e.g. a company, brand image and reputation. 

Research shows that, when opinions in social media are very negative, consumers tend to adapt their opinion downwards (Schlosser, 2005, in Vries, 2012), since they want to conform to the opinions of others.  What should be alarming to many businesses around the world is that the number of UGC anti-branding sites gradually increases (Krishnamurthy, Kucuk, 2009).

Roper (2002, in Krishnamurthy, Kucuk, 2009) see social media as a trigger for new level and form of consumer activism and manifestation of their empowerment and sovereignty (Pitt et al. 2002; Urban, 2004; Klein et al, 2004; Smith, 1987, in Krishnamurthy, Kucuk, 2009).

Positive User Generated Content (UGC) – the potential.

Even though Fournier and Avery (2011), say that social media were created for people not for brands, the latter can still benefit from it.

The empowerment of consumers and their increased engagement in brands, create the potential to have a very positive impacts on brands. Among the examples of open source branding (Funnier, Avery, 2011) are products brands like e.g. Nutella, Nike, or Weight Watchers, where loyal, satisfied consumers share with others their personal experiences with the brand. Created by Ferrero, my Nutella The Community web site, is a place where numerous passionate Nutella fans continually display their loyalty, engagement and satisfaction that comes from the product, while at the same time give the brand “leverage to the legitimacy acquired by the Nutella tribes’” (Cova&Cova, 2002, in Cova, Pace, 2006).

Weight Watchers (WW) is not a “(…) weight loss program, but rather a platform for talking about success” (Young, 2011). The brand has around social media, a group of its own advocates, who share stories of their body transformations and the life changing experience that they were provided with by the product and received support. Content generated by brand fans e.g. pictures of people before and after joining WW, positive comments, storytelling, videos (e.g. members of UK WW were featuring in the clip Do It Our Way (Play) by Alesha Dixon), are the vital components and boosters of brand credibility.

High brand credibility and peer consumers’ satisfaction can potentially translate into higher sales. The expression of consumer loyalty (e.g. pictures of Nike products on Instagram, which is the most popular brand on the platform according to Nitogram 50), is considered much more reliable, and persuasive than an ad published by the brand,  even though it  essentially states the same thing. 

Research made by L2 (Dishman, 2014) suggests Instagram to be a platform of high buying power potential.  250 million photos are shared on that social media every day. People post pictures of their new shoes, cars, juices, cosmetics, hotel rooms etc. Consumer-generated ads are comparable to those produced by professionals (Muniz, Schau, 2011) in terms of effectiveness and in addition much cheaper, if not free.

Engaging consumers in communication with brands, about brands and utilizing the UGC, is a great source for product/brand development and innovation, or a tool for redirecting the communication between the brand and its consumers. Often, on social media, in complaints, on public discussion forums, interest groups brand users reveal their opinions, expectations and innovative ideas. That leads to better fulfillment of consumers’ needs, or/and better reflection of consumer values. Von Hippel (2005) claims that users who innovate can develop exactly what they want. According to Antorini, Muniz, Askildsen (2012), passionate fans with deep and specialized knowledge and their own specific expertise, can create symbiotic relationship with brands, and through innovation add value for the brand and the innovator alike.


Consumers want to be heard and noticed. They do not want to be puppets in the hands of marketers anymore. They use the empowerment that social media has given them.

Brands need to engage the consumers in interaction with each other and the brand. Since consumers trust each others’ opinions more than commercial communication, it is important for companies to create an online space for consumers where, through UGC, they can share their experience with the brand. Marketers need to stay in the background, keep distance as not to damage the reliability and authenticity of the shared content in the perception of consumers. They need to be vigilant, and sensitive to consumers feedback. It will allow them to react quickly in order to prevent or minimize the possible damage to brands’ image and reputation. 

Social media, and the way consumers influence each others’ behavior, create potential purchasing power. Consumers’ knowledge, experience and engagement are also a valuable source of innovative ideas, a base for product development and recreation of the brand. 

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