How user generated content can help online retailers beat the big guys

ecommerce helps retail David's beat GoliathCaution: This article is intended for the little David’s of the ecommerce world.

Goliaths - you might want to leave some marketing goodness for the small end of town while you’re busy spending your gargantuan advertising war chest on your blood thirsty mass media bullying.

Kidding, we love you guys…

Davids - We want to help you find the big guy’s Achilles heel and make it to number one. User generated content is your weapon. Your corporate competitor’s soullessness is the heel.

Listen in...

The internet allows anyone to start their own retail business.

It also gives anyone a genuine chance to compete.

You don’t need a bunch of stores and a couple of million dollars anymore.

The ability to sell stuff online reduces the retail industry’s barrier to entry from a seemingly insurmountable iron-clad gate into a piddly little athletics hurdle.

Flickr Image Courtesy goaliej54

A few grand for a business name and a website, then you’re good to go.

However, there is one key difficulty about online retail that allows the little guys to compete with the big multi-national retailers:

It’s so hard to establish difference with your product range alone.

For decades, the biggest retailers have taken a stranglehold on market leadership with their unique service environments.

These retailing Goliaths used their bulging budgets to keep their competitors condemned to their corner stores for good.

Flickr Image Courtesy William Murphy

Money can buy these critical bricks and mortar retail assets:

  • teams of trained shop assistants
  • breathtaking store designs
  • high rent locations

But the online store doesn't need these costly assets.

Money doesn't dictate ecommerce success.

The one thing that does is just as hard for the big and the small alike:

Your content.

The easiest way to establish difference between you and your ecommerce competitors is through your website content.

For all you niche players with smaller budgets, this is an inspiring opportunity.

Load up that slingshot with helpful, customer-delighting content. Your competitor's Achilles heel is showing.

the David and Goliath of online marketing

Lots of cash doesn’t mean great ecommerce content

Countless content marketing case studies have profiled the successes of little-ecommerce-sites-that-could.

A shoestring marketing budget is no barrier to producing content that delights your audience and persuades your potential customers to buy from you instead of the traditional bricks and mortar warlords that have ruled retail for so long.

“But content marketing is so hard!” you scream. “It takes so much time and money to create great content for your ecommerce site.”

Ah, that’s where you’re wrong little ecommerce warrior.

Firstly, the retail Goliaths haven’t figured this whole content marketing thing out yet. Internetified product catalogues don’t help your customers.

Educational content does.

And you don’t have to be the ones going to the time and effort of creating all of the content you need to meet, greet and keep more loyal customers online.

Get your customers to help you create the content they want!

Encouraging users to generate content about your brand should be part of your Goliath-slaying strategy.

You’re not a soulless corporate monolith. You can show people your genuine care. If you can get your customers to share your passion, you can help them to generate great content for you.

You don’t spend the time or money to produce it. Better yet, potential customers trust other people’s content more than your brand’s.

If your users are passionate (and generous) enough to share content about your brand with their social media communities, you need to make the most of it.

Don’t just sit back and hope that more brand love comes your way. You need to provide the platform and resources your customers need to make user generated content as simple as a button push.

You don’t have to be a social media darling. There’s a bunch of blueprints to help you fight the content battle.

Here’s 7 real world ecommerce examples from some of our favourite brands. Each of them have found a different way to slay their big budget retail tormentors by encouraging user generated content (UGC - I know marketing acronyms are annoying, but so is typing 'user generated content' in full lots of times).

#1. Frank Body

Frank Body user generated content

How Frank Body does UGC - Social Media

Frank is an Australian ecommerce retailer. He’s not your average bloke. Frank has over 590,000 Instagram followers, with customers right across the globe.

What does he sell?

You guessed it. Exfoliating coffee scrub. Of course.

If you’ve never heard of this ecommerce uber success story, you need to get yourself acquainted. We put together a super detailed case study on Frank’s innovative content marketing strategy that has skyrocketed the brand’s growth from its humble Melbourne beginnings. It’s a fun and interesting read. Get on it, you’ll learn some ecommerce lessons.

If you are familiar with Frank’s ecommerce marketing brilliance, you’ll know the brand is a user generated content extraordinaire.

Frank uses his community as unpaid brand ambassadors. Every time they share a photo of Frank with them in the shower, they are sharing their love with hundreds of others. And Frank isn’t even doing the work.

But instead of watching on merrily, Frank shares the best user snaps with the brand’s 590,000+ Instagram followers. Fan photos also make up the majority of Frank’s Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr pages.

Frank knows how to make his lover feel good. He’s not afraid of public displays of affection. He’ll show the world how much he loves you. Cheeky Frank.

By making his fans the hero, they fall in love all over again. And of course they gush to their friends about their exciting dalliance on Frank’s profile.

Here’s a little sample of Frank’s gorgeous user generated content marketing.

Frank Bodys user generated social media

Frank even has a dedicated Instagram profile showcasing before-and-after pics sent in from users that have improved their skin using the coffee scrub. Feedback@Frank gives Frank a chance to pull together the most powerful, genuine and convincing case studies possible.

The Frank Body Feedback Social Media Account

These types of images are much more likely to entice a potential customer to buy than a glossy, professional promo shot.

Work out how you can encourage your customers to share their experiences with your brand. Don’t make it corporate. Don’t make it stuffy and forced. Keep it real.

#2. Budgy Smuggler

Budgy Smuggler's email content marketing

How Budgy Smuggler does UGC - Competitions

Who said content marketing can’t work on a budget? This Aussie start up shows you just how easy it is for an ecommerce brand to start building an audience of repeat customers.

All you need is the following ingredients:

  • some cheap email marketing software
  • one or two social media profiles
  • a hashtag
  • rabid fans with phone cameras
  • clear, differentiated branding
  • a core belief that your audience care about

Budgy Smuggler don’t even blog. The swimwear peddling start-ups make it work with Instagram, Facebook and email marketing. They’re all about jumping in the deep end and showing it all off with not much at all.

Using email and social for user generated content marketing

A simple hashtag is used to encourage customers and fans to snap their own shots of their Budgy Smuggler wearing shenanigans. The marketing team curates the best stuff and reposts it to their Facebook and Instagram accounts with a simple shout out to the helpful unpaid product photographer, who is sure to share, repost and comment on their 15 seconds of fame.

Budgy Smuggler use their website to sign up their customers to regular email updates, allowing for regular communication with their audience.

Email marketing doesn’t require a masters in marketing and a 60 hour work week. The guys just collate the best of the hashtagged-photo bunch and ask everyone to vote on the best. A couple of random fans will get a prize. Simple.

No irritating promotions rammed down inboxes throats.

No Oscar-worthy, bank-breaking articles.

No slick commercial videos.

Just a couple of curated pics, a fun competition and a handy prize to remind the Budgy Smuggler fans of their awesomeness.

How to use competitions in your content marketing

Budgy Smuggler customers who receive these monthly emails are turned into fans, repeat customers and brand ambassadors.

These pics show what it means to wear a pair of Budgy Smugglers. The personality of the brand is explained by the customers wearing the product. If you dig the vibe, you’ll want a pair.

#3. REI

REI community content

How REI does UGC - Mircosite

REI has always been fiercely customer focused, intent on creating a lifestyle around their brand. These guys aren’t just about selling tents and bike lycra. They’re about helping people get outdoors to stay healthy and active. We put together an entire article outlining exactly how REI use content marketing to dominate their ecommerce niche. Read it and learn folks.

REI have a huge advantage in the user generated content department. These outdoorsy types have a predisposition to inexplicable craziness.

You know what I’m talking about. We all have those friends that scornfully over-achieve at life. It’s all 5am kayaks before work and envy-inducing glacier canyoning trips to Iceland.

These folks always manage to complete multiple triathlons a week, then still manage to get to work before you, parent two kids and stop to help the elderly carry their groceries across the street.

And don’t they love telling you allll about their stupendous outdoorsy adventures. (Usually they are super nice as well, which makes you feel even more guilty about seeing their pics on social media and wishing their life wasn’t so exciting). Just like our mate Ali here... 

 What I’m saying is, the outdoorsy type are obsessive. They are ALWAYS being healthy. They also love to share every waking moment of their amazing escapades with their thousands of envious social media followers.

REI know it. So why not help them do it - and show customers how to share their escapades with the whole outdoor fanatics community?

Enter Project 1440.

REI Project 1440 content marketing

REI’s brand mission is to help people enjoy the outdoors. There’s 1440 minutes each day to do so. So why not encourage their fans to share a photo of their outdoors activity and include the exact time in an #REIProject1440 hashtag? Collect all the photos and create a webpage that showcases a different REI brand fanatic for every minute of the day, in all of their outdoorsy glory.

Creative. Original. Genius!

The REI fans want a spot on that website. They share a hashtag and an amazing pic with their social followers, and the word spreads. Another community of friends is introduced to the REI outdoor mission.

Cue website visits, search rankings improvements and maximum REI brand love.

No product plugs, no irritating sales pitches, no interruptive promo’s.

Just unpaid brand fanatics virally spreading the experiences at the core of the REI brand.

#4. Blackmilk

Blackmilk is a master of community sourced content

How Blackmilk does UGC - Events

Australian Spandex clothing retailer, Black Milk, is the perfect UGC poster child. This online retail start up owes a huge chunk of its business success to their innovative user generated content strategy.

Hat tip to Chief Content Officer Australia Editor, Sarah Mitchell, for sharing the story of Black Milk’s success. Her feature article provides a fantastic insight into the practical implementation of a retailer’s content marketing program.

For the details, go check out Sarah’s piece. I don’t want to double back on her work, instead, I’ll just summarise the magic of Black Milk’s UGC.

Black Milk doesn’t, hasn’t and might not ever advertise. The marketing team has never promoted a post, paid for a “like” or sullied the internet with a shamelessly promotional display ad.

Instead the brand relies on the content generated by its customers. Or more precisely, a core community of passionate Black Milk brand fans. These guys have a name for themselves too – Sharkies, so called for their predatory love of Black Milk tights (and no they don't all wear knitted shark mittens).

Blackmilk Sharkies

Sarah explains in her article how the Sharkies group developed:

“Early on, women of different shapes and sizes began posting photos of themselves on Instagram wearing their Black Milk tights. Photos of real-life women wearing Black Milk tights offered inspiration to those concerned about fit. They also provided social proof that their fashion sense was right on the money.

To drive more Sharkie selfies, the brand created unique hashtags for each product. And Sharkies themselves started a trend to include clothing size in hashtags. The result: an always-on runway for women to see form-fitting clothing looking fantastic on any woman, not only waifish models.

Customers are more than fans, they’re Black Milk models — and part of the Black Milk story.” 

Black Milk’s team travel across the globe to attend Sharkie meet-ups — often organised by the fans themselves. These events aren’t just confined to Australia, the Black Milk community has spread across the world, but the brand makes the commitment to foster these relationships in person across the globe.

Blackmilk Sharkie con event AustraliaThese meet ups turn brand fans into passionately loyal unpaid brand ambassadors - something that envy riddled advertising advocates can only dream of.

Sharkies are constantly given opportunities to share ideas with Black Milk designers on social media, at events, or via email. Product collections have been inspired by customer generated themes like Game of Thrones, Harry Potter, Star Wars, or this new Space Invaders collection.

Blackmilk's crowdsourced products

Of course this crowd sourcing creates buzz, demand, social sharing and frenzied brand love.

Black Milk proves that two way engagement with your customers is more than worth the time, effort and risk.

If you can create a tour or holiday that explores the lifestyle behind your brand, you can create your own extra exclusive niche of crazed superfans. If not, just find a way to give your very best, most loyal customers and ultra special experience.

Put one of the younger tech savvy folk in charge of videoing your experiences. If you can afford it, pay a journo and videographer to tell your stories. Take video testimonials. Ask your fans to write a 500 word testimonial about their experience. Then make the rest of your potential customers rabidly envious.

#5. Thermomix

Thermomix user generated content

How Thermomix does UGC tactic - Forums

You might not be the type of person prepared to part with a couple of thousand dollars for a kitchen appliance, but those that are must be fairly dedicated to their cooking. Either that, or they aren’t particularly dedicated to their bank balance.

Regardless, you can be certain that a large chunk of Thermomix customers are passionate amateur chefs. If your potential customers share such dedication to a craft, you need to find a way to allow these people, to meet, share and bond over their passions.

Don’t wait for user generated content to find you, give your community the resources they need to make things as easy as possible.

Thermomix gets it. They sell a serious product. Customers prepared to buy have made a chunky commitment. The target audience for specialty products like this is narrow. Chances are, they have a borderline obsession in a common interest.

So why not get them all together to share their geeky passion?

Enter ‘the forum’.

Thermomix ecommerce customer forum

Nerdy niche experts everywhere love to congregate and talk about their love. Whether it’s a random sub-reddit, a Trip Advisor thread or a Facebook fan group, the internet forum is now a time honoured tradition.

Thermomix knows their audience. They want as much info as they can get to maximise their mammoth investment. So how do you give these home cooking fiends a place to share their passion? A dedicated forum allowing community members to post questions and upload recipes.

This is an ecommerce marketer’s dream.

Your customers are creating informative content for you.

Community members are answering questions about your product. The things that take up the time and money of so many marketing teams are being sorted by people who have paid you for your product.

All Thermomix needed to do was play facilitator and provide the platform to make it possible. Some intelligent user experience makes it easy for the community to engage with the site. By collating recipes into ‘latest’, ‘most popular’ and ‘recipe of the day’, readers find it easy to navigate and browse the site.

A simple search functionality gives the user an ability to categorise and sort past recipes as they please.

Thermomix's ecommerce content UX example

Add a crowdsourced rating system to provide social proof and tack on ‘comments’ functionality to encourage interaction between community members.

Incorporate clear calls-to-action to prompt readers to sign up for email updates and you have the ability to keep bringing your most passionate customers back to your site over and over again.

All of a sudden Thermomix has developed an online clubhouse opened to fans all across the globe.

The Thermomix ecommerce community hub

At last count over 125,000 members have registered. Amidst all the helpful user generated content, Thermomix also happen to sell stuff on their site (cookbooks, cooking classes, accessories). There’s a good chance these registered forum members will have an interest in the products.

But do you think as many potential customers would visit a products-only ecommerce store without the Thermomix forum? Helpfulness is more customer friendly than promotion.

#6. Goulet Pens

Goulet Pens user generated content marketing

How Goulet Pens does UGC - Q&A

When you think ecommerce ‘user generated content’, your mind conjures up Instagram images of hipsters riding bicycles, glamorous 20-somethings with a stylish new necklace, or the 1000th pic of your colleague’s perfectly poured coffee.

This kinda stuff...

food and fashion user generated content

When I speak to online retailers about the possibility of customers creating content about their brand, their thoughts are surprisingly pessimistic. They can see the benefits, sure, but so often I hear the reply

“It’s pretty hard to encourage when we don’t have a shareable product”.

Wrong! User generated content need not be confined to the travel, food and fashion industries. Goulet Pens proves it.

If you missed it earlier, we’ve written an entire article about Goulet’s ecommerce content marketing genius. If you’re selling online and your audience isn’t into gramming, posting and hashtagging your stuff, you need to have a good read.

These guys sell pens. Their customers care very deeply about their stationary. But they aren’t exactly the social sharing type.

So how did Goulet go about nurturing their nerdy pennophiles’ ceaseless need for more pen info.

They asked them to help.

the Q&A content marketing series

Customers and fans are encouraged to send in any questions they have via email. A simple Q&A video series once a week allows Goulet to give super detailed answers.

So simple, so easy, so helpful. The customer generates the content for you. All you need is a camera, a blog, an email address (or a YouTube channel) and some indepth product knowledge to foster a passionate community of loyal subscribers.

If social media doesn’t suit your audience, concentrate on other channels. If you think you can build a community of content creating fans, there’s so many way to make it happen.

#7. Betabrand

Betabrand content marketing

How Betabrand does UGC - Everything!

Straight up - these guys are the standard.

Hand over the user generated content gold medal, Betabrand makes Usain Bolt’s winning margins look like a photo finish – they’re ahead by the length of the straight.

Betabrand’s entire business model relies on user generated content. Without their customer’s input, these guys would be just another online fashion retailer. Of which there are a mind numbing plethora.

Instead, Betabrand is the world’s first ‘online clothing community’. What that means contains the secret to the retailer's user generated content brilliance.

Basically, Betabrand provides a platform for designers and brand fans to submit ideas for new clothing items.They ask their customers, email subscribers and online community members to decide which ideas make the cut. Those with a certain number of votes are prototyped by the Betabrand team.

Betabrand's ecommerce business model

Then ecommerce magic happens…

Betabrand crowdfund the development of these products. Their community are encouraged to pledge their support for the prototype product they want. Those who jump in early receive 30% discount on their order if the funding target is reached. As the product receives more pledges, the discounts gradually decrease to 10% off.

The Betabrand crowdfunding ecommerce model

If enough people fund the product, you get your discount and a nice little surprise delivered to your door. Apart from a few dollars off your innovative new product, you’ll also receive the surging feeling of success that you backed a winner. If you want to brag, you might jump on social media to show off your crowdsourced wearable.

In fact, if you upload a pic of your wearing your Betabrand baby, you get a 24 hour 20% discount (and you might even jag a spot on the Betabrand homepage). Spread the word and refer a friend, and you’ll find yourself with a $25 voucher.

Betabrand's ecommerce referral content marketing

The more you love Betabrand, the more love you get in return.

That’s the Betabrand model:

  1. Submit product ideas
  2. Vote on the best
  3. Fund your favourite
  4. Wear the love and share the love
  5. Reap the rewards
  6. Repeat the whole thing again and again

Here's a GIF of the Betabrand model, explained on their site. You need to check it out for yourself and have a look around.

the Betabrand ecommerce crowdfunding model

This is user generated content at it’s very customer-delighting finest.

Betabrand’s About Us page explains things quite simply:

“Our customers are our models.

Our customers are our designers.

Our customers are helping us build a brand unlike any other.” 

Customers as designers, models, investors, marketers, social media managers, referral partners, affiliates, brand ambassadors… all at no cost.

The Content Marketing Institute have also knocked up a fantastic Slideshare pres that outlines the Betabrand user generated content brilliance.

Have a flick through. You’ll start to realise that Betabrand aren’t just dabbling in this storytelling business, they’re all-in. 

Slide 25 provides some particularly sage advice from ecommerce brands looking to build a community of loyal customers. If you’re going to encourage user generated content, you have to be prepared for reality.

Show your customer’s content in all of it’s raw glory. No photoshop, no fancy filtering, no edits. Be genuine. Roll with the negatives and embrace the positives.

If you show what your brand stands for, what it means, what you believe in as a company, you are showing a human side. That’s the way to build real relationships.

Find a way to encourage user generated content to help you beat the big guys

There's so many different ways to help your customers and fans create content that shares the story of your brand. You don't need a stack of cash to do it.

This is a great opportunity for online retailers. Amazing content can help you overcome the Goliaths of your industry. If you can tell a story with your content, share a belief that resonates with your audience and develop real relationships with your community, you can mobilise your tribe.

Once you have your customers personally invested in your story, they'll be more than happy to share the love with their friends.

Take some inspiration from these ecommerce success stories. Encourage your community to generate content that shares your brand's story.

You'll be rewarded with customer-attracting content that costs you neither money, nor time.

That's the way to take down those soulless retailing giants. 


Time to go and take down those Goliaths. Start loading up your slingshot with some content marketing magic...


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James Dillon

James tells stories for a living. Sometimes they are true. Always they are crafted to help brands delight, educate and funny-bone-tickle their audiences into coming back for more. He’s super passionate (read: obsessive) about ecommerce content marketing. James is dedicated to teaching ecommerce brands how to create their own repeat-customer-generating media empire. Keep an eye out for his online ramblings - you can expect a generous helping of lightbulb moments and cheeky guffaws.