Around 70 million pieces of user-generated content (UGC) are uploaded to social media every day. It’s having a real influence on our spending habits – 84 per cent of millennials say that UGC has influenced what they buy. But in the rush to get on board, brands are treading in a legal grey area. We look at the content scrapers, the scandals, and the sureproof way to collect rich, product-focused UGC.

It’s tempting for marketers to view social media – awash as it is with Instagram posts, Facebook ‘likes’ and Twitter conversations about brands – as a sea of opportunity, with free-floating content just waiting to be netted.

Yet the waters aren’t always crystal clear. In fact, in many places they’re downright murky, as US drugstore chain Duane Reade discovered to its cost recently when it used an unauthorised snap of Hollywood star Katherine Heigl on its Facebook page and Twitter feed.

katherine-heigl
image via Digiday

Heigl promptly claimed $6 million damages on the basis that she hadn’t authorised the store to use her name or image. The case has since been dropped, but not before giving social media managers all over the world a pretty good scare.

It isn’t just celebrities who are wary of web intrusion. Consumer organisations and privacy campaigners are increasingly concerned by the way in which companies use stuff they’ve taken from social media content scrapers to sell their products. It’s happening more and more due to the rise of ‘content scrapers’ that use software to dig up data or content from multiple sources.

This is standard practice for, say, online flight bookers, which search through hundreds of airlines’ websites to compile pricing information. So far, so legal – the end result is something we could all achieve at home, if we had days to spare to do the research.

However, using material that is copyright-protected for commercial purposes is more of a grey area.

Getty Images and Agence France-Presse (AFP) were landed with a $1.2 million lawsuit after they scraped a photographer’s photos from Twitter without permission. Media research firm Nielsen hit the news after it scraped data from the site PatientsLikeMe, including messages from the private online forums in which members had shared intimate details about their health problems.

Even if you do your best to steer clear of such heavy-handed tactics, there are always risks involved in using material sourced from the internet.

Let’s say a user posts a picture of herself wearing a particular clothing brand and references the company name in her tweet. Just because the picture is ‘out there’ in the public domain, it doesn’t automatically mean that it can be reused by the brand in question. If the brand reproduces the image for marketing or advertising purposes, it could be in breach of copyright. There’s also a risk that savvy UGC creators who haven’t granted permission for their photo’s reuse may even try to claim damages (and, sure enough, there are agencies out there who specialise in monetising this type of content on behalf of users).

For brands, the attraction of employing UGC in ad campaigns is obvious: it’s current, it costs next to nothing and it really does help to sell products – particularly to a younger audience who are increasingly skipping online commercials and blocking anything that looks like traditional advertising. But while loyal customers are often delighted if the brands they love want to use their photos in ad campaigns and in other ways, seeking consent is vital. There’s no faster way to turn off customers than to be seen to monetise their creative efforts, turning their goodwill and engagement into £££s for your business.

Perhaps the easiest way to avoid trouble is to seek customers’ permission before they post – in other words, opt for 'commissioned' UGC. - Highlight to share -

The most obvious way to avoid any such issues is to approach users through the channel in which they posted the content. That might mean posting a simple “We love your pic!” comment and a link to click if the user gives consent for the image to be used elsewhere.

But if there are two, three or more people featured in the photo, you’d have to seek permission from all of them. And while the person pictured may hold publicity rights to the photo, they may not hold copyright – that may well lie with the photographer. And are there any children in the photo? And what about the people in the background? This is where it gets murky. Even the network where the content was originally posted could have a claim if you’re seeking to use it for monetary gain.

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content scrapers
An excerpt from Olapic's slightly Big Brother-esque terms and conditions

Making sure you’ve ticked all the boxes can be hugely labour-intensive and barely worth the hassle.

The easiest way to avoid trouble is to get permission before someone posts – in other words, opt for ‘commissioned’ UGC. Then you’re completely in control.

When it comes to UGC, you don't have to take what you're given. - Highlight to share -

Instead of looking through social feeds for one picture of a young woman in her twenties by a pool, ask a specific demographic to send a photo of themselves hanging out by the pool. The content will be exactly what you want rather than ‘sort of’ fitting the brief.

When it comes to UGC, you don’t have to take what you’re given. Services like Olapic will help you nick the rights to a few images that happen to carry a certain hashtag, but proactively requesting it from your already-keen customers lets you tell your brand story, your way, slathered in social proof.

If you’ve got a database of people you know own your product, send them an email and ask for what you want. You’ll be surprised how willing people are to contribute – they like the opportunity to be an ambassador for the brand, and they definitely like helping out fellow shoppers.

UGC is a fantastic way to gain insight into your customers, build engagement with your brand and boost sales. That’s why the content scrapers are still in business. But the rules and regulations surrounding social media copyright and privacy don’t seem to be getting any more clear cut, so it’s better to play safe than be sorry.

Find out more about the ‘proactive’ approach to UGC collection.

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The murky world of content scrapers