nastygalsequindress_zps742fd19dThe concept of user-generated content has been widespread since the dawn of Web 2.0, but its only been top-of-mind for many brands very recently. That’s because social media, for brands, has evolved from something that lives separately in its own universe to something that’s deeply integrated in a company’s overall digital marketing strategy. Social as a category is demanding increasing resources, content, and marketing spend from brands.

So “engagement” is table-stakes for savvy digital marketing. Couple that with the fact that, thanks to the “Pinterestification” or the “Instagramification” of the Web, images are increasingly the way we prefer to communicate online. Images are cheap now; 500 million of them are uploaded and shared a day, and it’ll be a billion by next year, Mary Meeker says. Why tell when you can show, etc.

The problem is what to do with these user-generated image-based conversations. Pulling in Instagram and Facebook photos from users is the next logical step. It makes perfect sense to let customers see an authentic image of the products alongside their reviews, or in a feed. But as Sarah Lacy described last week, that can also be a turnoff, particularly for aspirational purchases. The issue was particularly acute on Rent the Runway:

I’m sure the founders of Rent the Runway would argue that user photos give me a better idea of how the dress might look on me. But instead they hammered home the less-than-savory aspect of Rent the Runway: You are not engaging in a luxury; you are sharing a dress with complete strangers. The service is supposed to give you consumable glamour, but its user-generated photos sucked all of that glamour out of the experience for me.

Plenty of sites display user-generated photos in their reviews section, including Modcloth, Baublebar, Nasty Gal, HotelTonight, and even brick-and-mortar retailers like Urban Outfitters — it’s becoming fairly standard. Many retailers were reluctantly to add text reviews, but they did so because the reviews will just show up somewhere else on the Web anyways. With photos becoming the new language of the web, the evolution to photo reviews makes sense.

That’s the argument CEO of image-based marketing company Curalate Apu Gupta makes for why brands should include user-generated images on their sites. It’s happening elsewhere on the Web, whether they get on board or not.

To use a bad metaphor, it’s like the argument for comprehensive sex education for teens. You can preach abstinence and ignore the fact that kids are going to have sex anyways, or you can accept that they might and give them the information and tools they need to do it safely.

The benefits of including user-generated images is that it keeps visitors on an ecommerce site engaged for longer. Further, contributing their images on a brand’s site or social stream makes them feel engaged and loyal to the brand.

“It took brands years to get their heads around Facebook,” Gupta says. But Pinterest went from novelty to necessity in a matter of a year. Instagram has shot to the forefront in an even faster time frame. Brands know visual conversations with users and customers is important. But doing it requires the acknowledgement that not every image on their site is going to be perfectly lit, cropped and photoshopped. “As brands become more socially adept, they’re willing to give up more control,” Gupta says.

Super prestige luxury brands will likely never add user-generated content to their sites. And yet, it’s the perfect example of how easily these brands relinquish their chance to participate in and curate the conversation.

For example, in May, I was surprised to read that Chanel is the most-pinned brand on Pinterest. Chanel, the brand that doesn’t even have a Pinterest account… Chanel, which doesn’t even do ecommerce… The company’s website is nothing but a flash video of a runway show — so you can’t even pin images from it, let alone buy the clothes. Chanel’s Twitter account is definitely doing it wrong, too. The company has chosen to ice everyone out on social media, because the only thing it cares about is protecting its brand equity, despite the fact that its fans are clearly hungry for engagement. In these cases, “there is nothing luxury brands can do about it,” Gutpa notes.

But for more forward-thinking brands that do want to speak to customers in their own, photo-driven language, they need to make user-generated images a part of that. Brands struggle to create content as it is, creating images is even more time and resource-intensive. Pulling in user-generated images is one way of solving that problem.

It’s even more of a challenge to do at scale when a brand’s legal department won’t allow the social media department to pin, Instagram, or tweet an image from a user without explicit permission, says Bob Gilbreath, CEO of Ahalogy, a Pinterest marketing service. Companies/startups that do this say it is allowed under “Fair Use” laws but it is a gray area, says Ari Lewine, co-founder of TripleLift, an image-based marketing service.

Further, the images must be monitored and curated for appropriateness and quality. “You can’t just throw up a a hashtag and hope everything that comes back works,” Gilbreath says.

There are services like Crowdtap, will find a brand’s fans on social networks and produce galleries of high quality, legally compliant user-generated images. Olapic, used by New Balance, Nasty Gal, and Pepsi, also offers curation and legally compliant tools.

The next technical issue beyond that, says Lewine, is making user the user-generated images shoppable wherever they appear.

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