For years, user-generated content (UGC) has suffered from a bit of an image problem.

If you’re a marketer, UGC might only mean reviews on a product page. And that’s absolutely fine. Reviews do work brilliantly at the point of purchase.

But there’s a secret… and it’s getting out.

Manufacturers and retailers (and smart brands in other industries) are starting to realise that well-placed UGC can simplify the snakes and ladders that make up the modern purchase journey. It’s about broadening up our definitions of what UGC is, what it can do and where it can go.

Let’s break it down.

(By the way, when we talk about ‘our research’ below, we’re talking about a survey we did earlier this year in partnership with FlyResearch. Get at us if you’d like to know more)

What does the purchase journey even look like?

As our shopping habits change, the opinions of ‘someone like me’ have become crucial.

PR company Edelman’s Trust Barometer, which looks at consumer buying habits, showed that three in four people said that conversations with peers directly influenced their buying decisions.

This isn’t new news – we all use reviews and opinions from others to make decisions about all kinds of stuff.

But these reviews – and the people that write them – have so much more potential. UGC in all its forms raises awareness about brands, inspires browsers to convert into customers and makes sure that they come back.

We’ve got the research to back it up.

According to a survey we carried out this year, customers want to see UGC from the moment they start thinking about a purchase – not just when they make it. They want to contribute content after they’ve bought too.

77% of people expect to see other customer opinions on a company’s website; while at the other end of the purchase journey, 65% of people surveyed said they had written a review.

UGC has continued to influence more and more people in their purchasing decisions across industries.

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The use of UGC increased this year in every industry we surveyed.

If you’re part of a marketing department, you probably have a roughly plotted out diagram of the purchase journey you keep in your top drawer. But, as Reevoo founder Richard Anson has argued, the journey has become far more complex. As he says:

Brands are now on a journey – learning new patterns of consumer behaviour, being more open with information, engaging across platforms and encouraging engagement from staff, consumers and influencers.

We’ve picked out the ‘big five’ stages of the purchase journey below. We sketched them out based on the brands we work with.

Stage 1: Awareness

When people might hear about you for the first time.

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The expectation:

Customers are open to hearing about how your product fits in with their life, from someone who would actually know.

The reality:

Brands are splashing their cash on flashy stuff like celeb endorsements or big-budget campaigns to grab attention.

A report by the management consulting firm McKinsey & Co stated that ‘Every day, people form impressions of brands from touchpoints such as advertisements, news reports, conversations with family and friends, and product experiences.’ When the impulse to buy is triggered, these impressions become crucial.

Our own research backs this up:

69% of people trust UGC more than brand-created images.

We also hear it a lot anecdotally.

Last year, we asked three over-50s how they buy their car insurance. Gary Williams, a 57-year-old artist and keen cyclist, told us he wasn’t swayed by celebrity endorsements. They don’t seem genuine: “They’ve been paid to say that,” he explains.

What you can do:

Don’t consider UGC and brand-created material mutually exclusive. Think of your customers as your creative department and let them give you ideas.

Vauxhall created an advert for their Mokka based on feedback collected by Reevoo. Turns out customers care about the car’s alarm system – so Vauxhall based an ad around it. The brand still has ultimate control over its message, but gets to harness the voice of its customers.

Stage 2: Research

When the purchase journey really starts.

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The expectation:

Customers are looking for inspiration – they want unbiased information so they can start making a decision. You need to be providing it to get on the consideration list.

The reality:

Branded content tends to offer skewed information – why wouldn’t it? After all, there’s a heavy motive behind it.

This is when the customer goes through a ‘zero moment of truth’ – it is the first reach for information. Customers act on their awareness and start to do some research. They know they want something but which product or service will they eventually choose? Will it be yours?

At this stage, it’s still too early for a like-for-like product comparison. The research period is more about context – adding a layer of information and inspiration onto that initial spark. Real-life examples work really well here.

77% of people that want to see other customer opinions on a company’s website.

Remember that people don’t necessarily do their research where they intend to buy. To be in the right place at the right time, it’s vital to have a good spread of both user-generated and branded content at every touchpoint you control.

What you can do:

Inspire potential consumers with other people’s stories!

Here’s a UGC experience we helped create for cottages.com. 38% of people rely on UGC the most when purchasing a holiday over the advice of friends/relatives, price aggregation sites and expert reviews.

Cottages.com uses UGC to inspire those visiting the site. It’s part of showing people what it could really feel like to stay in one of their properties.

And it’s not all about online – why wouldn’t you want this content everywhere? DEWALT sent this ad out to customers in its 2013 catalogue – a great example of a brand leveraging customer opinion in the research stage.

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Stage 3: Conversion

The ultimate moment of truth. Or is it?

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The expectation:

By the time a customer heads to the place where they’ll transact, their mind has probably been made up for some time. (That means conversion actually happens a bit earlier than most might think.)

The reality:

Brands pin their hopes on the real estate surrounding the ‘add-to cart’ button – which is fine, but not the be all and end all.

These days, conversion is about being everywhere and anywhere with a consistent message. That’s what gets your product picked when a customer is comparing.

Our research shows that for some industries, UGC can be the main influence on a purchase decision. When shopping for electronic appliances, 77% check reviews. For hotels, 72%. And 68% of people said they were more likely to buy a product that uses UGC instead of stock imagery.

67% of people seek advice from other consumers when they are unsure whether they should purchase a product or not. (pullout)

But consumers don’t expect to find their UGC in one place. And brands don’t always realise this.

One area in which we have plenty of interest is manufacturing and retail. The manufacturers tend to see the retailer as the ‘shop front’, and send everything – from product information, reviews and other material – to the retailer. We think that manufacturers and retailers should both be displaying UGC.

Displaying reviews on their website means the client’s site becomes a destination for additional information. And people will automatically go back to it in the future.

What you can do:

Remember that the power of a review depends on trust:

86% of people say they have to believe reviews are genuine if they are going to take them into account.

Seeing different reviews in different places saying different things risks eroding that trust.

So, use a closed review system so you can ensure the people leaving reviews have actually bought the product. We’re experts at making sure your brand avoids fake or unhelpful content.

And here’s a really important one for retailers and manufacturers: make sure you syndicate your reviews so customers don’t see different information on different platforms.

Stage 4: Customer satisfaction

Keeping customers happy after they’ve parted with their cash.

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The expectation:

Customers want to engage with brands even after purchase – both by contributing and consuming content related to their product.

The reality:

Brands aren’t doing enough to maintain the relationship – they’re wasting a bond that could be fruitful for both sides.

Brands should display feedback: one, to show the brand is transparent; and two, because customers now expect it.

Customers write reviews. 65% of people say they have written a review.

It’s all about how you ask them. One of benefits of a closed review system is that you’ll get lots more feedback. Ask your customers to leave a review and keep on asking them for their feedback. Our way works: the average for Reevoo review response rates is over 15% while competitors only manage 1% to 3%.

Reviews are also a way to stop costly returns: if people are better informed about what they’re buying. It’s then less likely that they’ll be dissatisfied.

Plus, let’s not forget, those answers are valuable! Lots of people end up buying stuff once they have their questions answered.

What you can do:

Build a community.

We have almost 4 million people in our Ask-an-owner community across all clients (they’re people who volunteer to answer questions from people about the products they own). They’re proof that it makes customers feel good to help someone with their expertise. You can really get inside customers’ heads – whether they’ve bought the product or they’re at the point of purchase.

Here’s an example of one of these interactions – Raine has asked a question and got a prompt response. This is the email Raine would have recieved, plus his lovely reply:

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Stage 5: Loyalty

Building long-term relationships and life-long customers.

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The expectation:

Customers with a love for their favourite brands want to be heard by both fellow shoppers and the brands themselves.

The reality:

Brands don’t know how to identify and empower their advocates.

62% of people think that companies are poor at engaging people after they become a customer.

Engagement is key to encourage loyalty.

What you can do:

Collect as much feedback as possible to please your brand’s fans and help your marketing department and R&D team.

In the UGC that we’ve been gathering for the Mazda MX-5 (have a look through), the pride and joy people take in their car is palpable. They want to be part of the Mazda community and tell others about it.

For example, Rob from Monmouth posted a photo with this comment:

Recently, I was parked up in my local town, on my return to the MX5 there was a group of guys standing around the car full of admiration. I stood for about ten minutes (with the guys) discussing the cars merits and its great history of continuous development. I have owned four MX5’s in the past.

Isn’t that amazing content if you’re Mazda? That’s what we think!

And not only is it good to publish and promote, it’s good for Rob as well – he has an opportunity to continue his relationship with the brand even if he’s not considering another purchase at that point.

Ongoing UGC collection post purchase also allows you to develop a better product with guidance from your consumers.

Eurocamp, the camping holiday company, has made Reevoo feedback part of its operations:

“Reevoo is a really powerful tool, and the feedback has been very useful for steering the business operationally, allowing us to review performance at a park level on a weekly basis.”

“The information was used to increase the size of the BBQs we have with our accommodation after we discovered that customers thought they were too small. On the flip side, we were ready to invest a significant amount into new outdoor furniture, but found that customers weren’t finding any issue with furniture we already had – allowing us to invest elsewhere.”

If you look at the purchase journey, it’s clear that reviews and UGC are important for consumers at all stages. UGC is key from when they first consider the brand to the moment they themselves turn into your brand advocates.

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The Reevoo guide to the modern consumer purchase journey