They're just not that into you.

Be honest: is your brand loved enough for a user generated content campaign?

(A guest post by David Harris, Interactive/New Media Guru.) In the May 26, 2007 article in the New York Times, “Marketers Find That Free Ads Come at a High Price,” Louise Story tells of the ill-fated Heinz campaign, based on user-generated-content (and perhaps inspired by Chevy’s successful UGC campaign for the Tahoe, which I’ll get to later). The problem with the Heinz campaign, according to Story’s experts, is that user-generated content is ultimately no cheaper to produce than a “conventional” ad campaign and runs the risk of inspiring no more than low-production-value amateur content.

She quotes Scott Goodson, of NY agency StrawberryFrog: “(This) only goes to show how hard it is to do great advertising.”

This is a comforting argument to agencies and brands alike, but does it hold water? Is the problem one of user ability or user interest? The Times does a good job of documenting the economics of a UGC campaign from the brand’s perspective, but what of the economics of time and money for the consumer?

If you were in the theater for the premiere of Michael Bay’s Transformers in its opening weekend, you probably saw the commercials for the next likely UGC ad-flop: Nesquik’s “Show Us How You Shake It” campaign. The commercial depicts a not-particularly-cool graffiti artist spray painting a wall in a clumsily-shot montage that seems like a throw-back to rap videos that aired on MTV fifteen years before the target audience for the Nesquik campaign was born. The artist shakes can after can, punctuating the spot with the familiar rattle of spray paint. He concludes his masterpiece and then, to cool off, shakes and drinks a bottle of chocolate milk. The spot pays off with “Show us how you shake your Nesquik, and we’ll show the world,” and drives theatergoers to throw their hat into the UGC ring with their own Nesquik commercials.
At the premiere of Transformers I attended, the audience laughed out loud. It was clear: they weren’t laughing with Nesquik. It may be the one campaign that makes the Heinz campaign look good. You know what they say about sequels.

So, why does UGC fail two times out of three? The truth is, it doesn’t. The Colbert Report distributed a little footage for their special effects contest and had Hollywood professionals working weekends to show off their skills. Modest Mouse announced a music video contest, released their green screen footage and got back many entries as good as their previous professionally produced videos. The lesser known band, Mates of State, had similarly good results.

Why will people go so far for their favorite shows and bands while all-but-ignoring ketchup and chocolate milk? The question answers itself, of course. People love their favorite bands. But, chocolate milk? They might love it, briefly, at lunch time, but they aren’t going the Nesquik logo tattooed on their arms, they aren’t going to serve Nesquik at their weddings, and they aren’t going to pay a scalper exorbitant prices for Nesquik. To borrow from the popular self-help title: sorry, chocolate milk, they’re just not that into you.

Chocolate milk is not alone on this one. People aren’t going to spend weeks slaving over a video about ketchup, life insurance, banking, DSL, Dockers or diapers. This is a real gut-check for advertisers. You may be the first beverage they reach for. You may be the first number they call. But, will they give up their weekends for you? Will they give you their best ideas?

Probably not.

These campaigns will die a natural death as they’re attempted time and again and don’t deliver. Their demise can be delayed by raising the prize money attached to the competitions (enough to effectively lure in professional creatives with spec ideas strong enough to offset the inherent risk of wasting time and resources). The flaws in the campaigns are as apparent as they are sad: brands are looking to take things to the next level, consumers would rather just be friends. But, the problem of UGC campaigns illuminates problems that are inherent to any ad strategy that hinges on interaction.

There’s an implicit contract between entertainer and audience (or advertiser and consumer) in media that are interactive on any level (from live performance to video games): the entertainer will do some of the work, the audience member will do some of the work, and, in compensation for sharing the load, the audience member will have a richer experience than he would have if he’d just sat and watched.

With all due respect to anyone who’s ever made a ketchup commercial, the statement “I made that Modest Mouse video!” represents a richer experience than the statement “I made that ketchup commercial.” So, if you’re less inherently lovable than your consumer’s favorite band (you are), what do you do? You do what you do if you’ve ever had to compete with someone sexier, funnier or more charming: you do more of the lifting.

This is where Chevy got it right. Wired’s December, 2006 article summarizes the campaign: “(it) broke every rule of marketing. The MBAs who populate ad agencies and corporate marketing departments spend years learning the art of control – what their cleverly calibrated messages should (and shouldn't) say, where they should appear, how often they should appear there, and what should appear nearby. Chevy decided to chuck all that and invite people to post their own commercial messages about America's best-selling SUV online, where the ads would be free to migrate to YouTube or anywhere else. Chevy supplied the video clips and music; users could then mix and match the material and add their own captions.”

They encouraged people’s praise and they forgave people’s criticism. They offered more, and put up with more than Steven Colbert or Modest Mouse would ever have to put up with. In the end, the consumer didn’t get the full experience of making a commercial, but they got a lot more out of their interaction with the project than they put into it. The work they were asked to do did make the experience richer than simply watching a car commercial, but it wasn’t so much work that it forced them confront the limits of their affection for the product.

In conventional television advertising, no matter what the message was, it was ultimately the advertiser and the advertisement that was “at risk.” Consumers would respond to the message as intended, or they wouldn’t. Their emotional investment was limited to the efficacy of the commercial. When you ask consumers to make your commercial (and face rejection, disappointment, or just wasting their time), play your online game (and face frustration, the chance of losing, or just boredom), or take part in your slice of social networking (and share their friendships, breakups, and self-expression), you’re asking for a lot.

It takes some nerve to ask for these kinds of favors. If you’re their favorite band, you can get away with it. If you’re chocolate milk, you may be in for some heartbreak.