Social media users are a seemingly endless source of imagery that ultimately influences sales. Should they be compensated the way models, photographers and stylists are?
If fashion and celebrity culture in the early aughts were seen through vaseline-covered lenses and heavily Photoshopped, painstakingly perfect pictures, now, amateur mirror selfies are more likely sources of influence and inspiration. An era of oversharing is in full-swing, and consumers are more accustomed to images shot on an iPhone than overly-glossy photography. There’s a genuine thirst for what’s perceived as authentic and attainable, so perfectly coiffed pictures of genetically blessed models are going out of style.
There’s also the expectation of a full brand experience, as well - one that doesn’t end with the purchase of an item; instead, it extends through the item’s life cycle and is well-documented through reviews, shared photos, and tweets between the consumer, their social media networks, and the brand, which is expected to respond to outreach with enthusiasm — and a repost.
On social media, peer-uploaded content springs eternal; Instagram sees a daily rate of about 70 million photos posted each day, and Snapchat users post ten times that amount — 700 million photos — (8,796 photos per second) according to Adweek.
Brands are definitely not shy about not only reusing this imagery for their own marketing, but also commissioning (read: paying for) on-brand social media posts showcasing their wares and services.
BlackMilk, an Australian label that specializes in digitally-printed leggings, features several user-submitted images on nearly every one of its product pages online, which have been gathered from Facebook and Instagram posts that are tagged with the product name. In fact, BlackMilk helpfully provides the appropriate hashtag to use on social media for each individual item right there on the product page. For the more general hashtag #blackmilk, there are over 300,000 tagged photos on Instagram alone, all of which are fair game for the brand to use.
ASOS, a UK-based online retailer, has a heavily hashtagged discovery-based section called “As Seen On Me”, where shoppers can browse uploaded photographs from other site users and shop items that are exact matches for, or similar to, the clothing and accessories in the snaps. Here, users also have the opportunity to submit their own photographs, search and select corresponding items from ASOS.com, and hit “share.”
American e-tailer Revolve runs a similar campaign called #RevolveMe. Photos are not uploaded, but rather culled from Instagram users who use the hashtag. Revolve then curates the photos, uploads cropped versions of them to the website, and tags them with corresponding products — both exact matches and similar items, like ASOS does. Revolve also uses UGC in an early-stage mass email; it sources images for this email from social media posts tagged #RevolveAroundTheWorld.
Anthropologie has a similar upload program, called “Your #Anthropologie,” where users can upload their own photographs, or browse through a “lookbook” of other user-submitted images and shop from the items featured within.
FOR THESE RETAILERS and others, crowd-sourced imagery and galleries are prominently featured on home pages and linked in main menus, not to mention plastered all over social media, and that wouldn’t be the case if there wasn’t some major ROI.
The benefits of UGC for a brand actually begin long before sharing the results; they begin at the first call to action with the mere invitation to make a purchase with the promise of public recognition.
And, it’s been going on for decades now, even before social media. “In previous generations, it came in the form of model contests,” explains Robert Casey, the owner of Maggie Inc., a modeling agency based in Boston. “Brands would promote a competition where the prize would be the opportunity to become "The Face" of the brand, and applicants are so dazzled by the misguided validation of of winning that they didn't realize that their ‘prize’ is to work a modeling job for free.”
“The client is the only real winner, saving on modeling fees with the added bonus of promotion of the brand to their target audience in the form of all the contestants,” Casey says.
When it comes to pay-off, UGC doesn’t only reward brands, it also services recent customers and potential new clients. The reasoning is pretty simple; consumers see content from their peers as more authentic and trustworthy than branded content.
According to social media consulting firm ReadyPulse, which specializes in “Social Influencer Marketing,” it’s all about trust. “UGC is created by consumers, not marketers. Therefore, it drives more trust and social proof by consumers,” it says on the firm’s website. And so, as ReadyPulse claims, UGC “converts and drives traffic more than traditional visuals, such as stock photography.”
And from a brand’s point of view, not only is the content essentially free, it also neatly delivers easily readable, concrete analytics, in the forms of likes, shares, comments, follows and clicks.
Ipsos MediaCT, a Paris-based global market research company, says that the trust-factor millennials have for UGC is as much as 50% more than other media, or 51% according to a survey by Bazaarvoice.
Chalk it up to the stereotypical “Me, me, me” mindset of millennials, but it seems that consumers now care more about is “How would that look on me? How would this work in my life?" 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. So crowd-sourced imagery from peers seems to provide the answers — and the relatability — that brand-driven ads don't provide.
So where does that leave professional models? If a brand can get away with sourcing UGC for free for wild-card product images, only a bare minimum of images shot on professional models is needed, and the pay for this type of shoot is less (and it’s arguably more work) than fully produced, on-location shoots like ad campaigns or lookbooks. Models are expected to perform in a higher number of images, with less down-time spent in hair and makeup, as many retailers now crop out the models’ heads.
While it is making it trickier for professional models, Casey doesn’t think the industry faces a very serious risk yet. “The reason my entire industry exists is that there is a professionalism and experience that represented talent bring that greatly contributes to the finished product,” he says. “While many brands may toy with the idea of more amateur routes and try to cut costs this way, it's never worked as a long term plan for any successful brand. The quality of the production shows in the photography, and effects the image of, and quality associated with, the brand.”
That said, some brands are eliminating traditional advertising - and models - altogether, relying on UGC to sell the product, further reducing opportunities for professional models. That UGC is the best form of advertising is intuited by most, and this notion is proven in the urban legend that baristas at Starbucks purposefully misspell customers names to get them to share photos of the typos on social media.
Other brands are more forthright about skipping ads. Black Milk 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 an article called "Black Milk, ‘Sharkies’ and the Rise of a Fashion Fandom” on Business of Fashion. “This is what sells the gear, not our models.”
Burberry encouraged customers to upload photographs of themselves wearing a Burberry trench coat on the brand’s site “The Art of The Trench,” which featured crowd-sourced images, and sales for trench coats went up by 50%.
And sometimes, brands do well with UGC without even trying; on YouTube, a staggering 99 percent of CoverGirl’s 251 million views, and 99% of Revlon’s views came from user-uploaded videos. That’s over 249 million eyes on CoverGirl thanks to unsolicited, user-submitted content.
IN SUCH AN easily digestible, bottomless format as social media, UGC is simply addictive, (there’s always more to catch up on, and clicking through peer-uploaded images is, frankly, fun) but more than that, it just makes sense for brands.
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?
So brands save a massive chunk of change and reach a wider, more trusting audience. But what is the pay-off for UGC contributors? Unlike professional models who may make a career from allowing brands to use their images, the pay-off for most UGC contributors is simply an opportunity to snag the spotlight. “Tag a photo on Instagram or Facebook for a chance to be featured in our gallery,” Revolve states on its homepage.
“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, says in the Business of Fashion article.
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."
Revolve also has a “Featured Influencers” section, which could be aspirational for many UGC contributors.
Most brands do not provide compensation for the use of crowd-sourced imagery. Both ASOS and Revolve provide social media usernames of people who submitted images, but do not link to their social media profiles, so traffic is not driven off the site and over to users on external social media sites. BlackMilk does link UGC over to the original image on Instagram, allowing some recognition and traffic to land on the content creators lap. (Revolve declined my request for comment and ASOS did not respond.)
Exposure, recognition, and simple connection across the ethers of the internet is rewarding in itself, true enough. But when a brand or retailer uses a customer's image, even one that they submitted voluntarily, to promote the sale of its merchandise, should they be compensated?
Most retailers are more than willing to give shoppers 10% off, simply for signing up for the mailing list. But when it comes to images (which arguably have a much higher conversion rate than a straight-to-spam newsletter), there’s no payout and not even a 10% discount.
But, if a brand is using a person’s likeness to endorse a product, promote the brand, and prompt a sale, isn’t that person technically a model? If someone takes an image, even if that image is a selfie, and a brand places that image somewhere on its website or on its own social media page, doesn’t that amount to the same as what a professional photographer may provide the brand? Is planning an outfit, sourcing each piece and layering it just so more or less what a stylist is paid to do? Isn’t publicity and profit enough to make a distinction between getting dressed in the morning and snapping a photograph and styling a look and photographing it for commercial purposes?
When photographer Richard Prince took screen shots of people’s public Instagram photos, blew them up, displayed them in a gallery in New York City, and sold them for up to $100,000 each, the public was outraged. Granted, Prince did not ask permission to use the images, nor did the original owners of the images submit them for use, but the sentiment should be more or less the same: Why should one person profit from another’s work, especially when the work mirrors actual professional positions - model, photographer, stylist?
The fact is, if a user-generated image contributes to making a sale and results in profit for a brand, the user should be compensated, like any other job.
There are some ways a content creator could profit from offering up images that brands reuse. Betabrand is the only retailer I came across that offers any kind of compensation, in the form of a discount through its “Model Citizen” initiative 10% for “any ol’ photo” (enhanced with some on-brand "B glasses") uploaded to the site, and 20% for a photo featuring an item purchased on Betabrand.
Working with a commission-based affiliate, like RewardStyle, is another way to turn social media or blog imagery featuring shoppable items that are for sale online into profit. The difference is that this relies on your own audience, rather than the likely larger audience or platform that a national or international brand already has; if you don't have many followers or many eyes on your image, you won't see that many sales resulting from your links, which calculates your pay out. And, the brand could still use your image once it's posted on a public forum like Instagram and benefit from your endorsement without crediting you, or paying you out.
Perhaps the solution is to have more agents advocating for content creators:
“If [UGC] is here to stay, we will quickly see it folded into the industry as we have with the Instagram models,” Casey says. “In the past couple of years, we've seen every notable Instagram model get snapped up by the big agencies, and some agencies have even rolled out entire social media divisions. I'm sure we'd see UGC providers treated in a similar way.”