Crowd-sourced imagery is changing the way people shop. How are brands and retailers adapting?
By Renata Certo-Ware
User Generated Content on the LikeToKnow.it homepage
Fashion advertisers have long played on our desire to keep up with the Joneses with compelling images designed to make us shell out piles of money to look like the models within them. Lately, though, what is just as likely to make consumers spend has shifted from the pipedreams of traditional advertising to the photos other consumers post to their social media accounts or blogs, or submit directly to brands and retailers. As more and more retailers are catching on to the fact that User Generated Content is a powerful driver of sales, it's becoming increasingly common in lieu of conventional ads, and arguably more effective. In a report highlighting the advantages of its services, ReadyPulse, a social media consulting firm, posits that UGC has the advantage of authenticity, as consumers trust content and recommendations from their peers much more than they trust branded content.
The tendency toward User Generated Content likely comes as the result of a perfect storm of consumers' mistrust of branded advertising, obsession with exploitative reality television and the baggage - albeit, designer baggage - that comes with it, and a tendency to overshare. We're more likely than not to publish every detail of our lives and every achievement on our social media feeds, from the innocuous (an #artisanal salad we had at that impossible-to-get-into bistro) to the grand (the birth of a child).
Social media makes it easier than ever to keep the world updated, so from cronuts to custom grills, if we eat, see, buy, or want something, it's likely to make its way to our social networks. Our digital DNA that began in chatrooms and AIM away messages today lives mostly in images that relay to our friends, acquaintances, colleagues, and that girl from summer camp who we are, what we like, and what we have. Basically, we're obsessed with ourselves, and everyone around us is, too. So it's only natural that social media, where civilians can become celebrities with the latest photography app, is the perfect place to source inspiration for styling, shopping, doing, and buying from people who don't appear to gain a whole lot from the sale, and most importantly, aren't paid models in an ad.
Industry newcomers and heavyweights such as Vogue are betting on the social media phenomenon - specifically Instagram, whose users submit 60 million photos each day - to drive sales and generate revenue. A slew of new apps designed with Instagram in mind has been rolled out in the past few months to optimize shopping online by giving it a social edge. RewardStyle's new app, Liketoknow.it, emails its users product pictures and links when they "like" designated Instagram photos from its partners - bloggers, celebrities, magazines, and retailers. Curalate recently unveiled LikeToBuy, which uses an Instagram-like template to display user-submitted images that link to product pages from retailers such as Nordstrom and Target.
At the same time, while social media users are busy projecting their lives to their networks and publishers and retailers are starting to tap into harnessing the power of all this content, traditional advertising is on the decline. According to new findings by Ipsos MediaCT, a global market research company based in Paris, millennials trust User-Generated Content 50 per cent more than other media. This can no doubt be attributed to the fact that consumers have wised up to the notion of how advertising works. Throw anything on a model with a BMI of 16 or less, add the right lighting and a million dollars' worth of photography, editing, hair, and makeup, and everything looks saleable and desireable. Post-recession, loosening our purse strings takes more than smoke and mirrors, and consumers now want to know "How would that look on me? How would this work in my life?" They are finding the answers - and the relatability that brand-driven ads don't provide - in UGC.
The credit for ushering in the UGC trend for fashion advertisers could go to the industry's bloggers, who were the first to successfully position themselves as the civilian spokespersons for brands, with built in readership, tech know-how, and social media skills. Successful bloggers such as Rumi Neely of Fashion Toast and Chiara Ferragni of TheBlondeSalad, who for years have dominated the blogosphere with their enviable wardrobes and travel diaries, don't just wear clothing and take pictures. They also quickly learned to parlay their influence into overtly driving interest - and sales - towards brands and retailers, effectively creating lucrative partnerships in the process.
Aside from pricey contracts that only the biggest bloggers command, what does one stand to gain from submitting content into the arena of fashion-for-profit? Bragging rights notwithstanding, in some instances, brands or retailers will "gift" a blogger or prominent social media user with an item, with the expectation that they will post photographs of themselves wearing it. For others, an appreciative retweet from a designer or brand is payment enough.
“Most brand advocates are motivated by the desire to play an active role as main stakeholders,” Cristina Forlani, an account director at the social media agency We Are Social, tells Business of Fashion in an article called "Black Milk, ‘Sharkies’ and the Rise of a Fashion Fandom."
Forlani later elaborated on this notion in an email to me: "There's also an experiential reward for the user, stemming from the fact that both the brand and the community acknowledge the user's role as an influencer as he positions himself as a 'partner' by helping potential buyers (and consequently the brand) through his own experience and opinion."
Ultimately, it all boils down to credibility: Attractive photos with covetable merchandise means more hits and more followers, which leads to more credibility, which eventually leads to becoming a trusted authority - one that could command generous compensation.
American Apparel imagery is designed to look like UGC.
Retailers such as Asos, via its As Seen On Me channel, have incorporated UGC into their marketing plans by tapping into our desire to see our own images plastered everywhere as a driver for sales; "Buy this now and your picture could be broadcast to our entire network!" American Apparel has been light-years ahead of the trend for years, encouraging shoppers to email their own photos for their Seen and Submitted section. And, aside from including images of actual civilian devotees wearing the brand on almost every product page, American Apparel also styles its campaign imagery to look like amateur photography, complete with bald lighting, minimal editing, and "regular"-looking models - body hair and all.
Then, there's multi-million dollar clothing company Black Milk, which doesn't advertise at all but instead attributes its high sales figures purely to social media. “Selfies, man, our business is built on selfies,” says Cameron Parker, head of sales and marketing, in the Business of Fashion article. “This is what sells the gear, not our models.”
Black Milk includes UGC like this bathroom selfie from a customer who submitted her picture in the Black Milk Cheshire Leggings. *Note: This is a screenshot that has been edited to fit the width of this blog
The genius of this super-simple notion is staggering: Instead of spending millions on a photoshoot and subsequent ad campaign, which would be relegated to a limited number of locations, models, and aesthetic, why not tap millions of social media users for free imagery that could be even more viable than traditional product photography?
Of course, when a new movement in the market leads consumers away, advertisers and their celebrity mouthpieces are quick to follow, mirroring the trend but injecting it with their high-budget brand of magic. Vogue published an entire spread of "selfies" of Kendall Jenner wearing thousands of dollars worth of forthcoming designer goods. Before that, Rag and Bone unleashed it's DIY project, a campaign made entirely of homegrown images taken by models like Miranda Kerr, Lily Aldridge, and Hanelli Mustaparta. "Welcome to The D.I.Y. project, where our favorite girls get into our jeans. No stylist, no hair and make-up, no lighting. Just a girl and her camera."
My own humble instagram account, which also includes images from partnerships and creative collaborations I've done with brands and boutiques.