Kirsty Marrins: How charities can tap in to user-generated content

A whole range of charities have embraced UGC - and to great effect, writes our columnist

Kirsty Marrins
Kirsty Marrins

As every social media, marketing or brand manager will tell you, user-generated content is gold dust. It’s what is referred to as earned media, meaning that it’s content posted by supporters or advocates that’s not owned by or paid for by the brand. It’s gold dust because 92 per cent of people trust earned media more than owned media, according to the data measurement firm Nielsen. In addition, research from influencer marketing firm CrowdTap shows that millennials believe that user-generated content is 50 per cent more trusted than other media.

The most famous UGC campaigns in aid of charity were undoubtedly No Makeup Selfie and the Ice Bucket Challenge – although they were not started by the charities themselves. Many charities have, over time, tried to replicate the success of these campaigns but getting people to create their own content for you is a tough ask. However, with a relevant concept, simple ask and a bit of planning, it can be done.


For its centenary, Leonard Cheshire Disability launched #100for100. The concept is simple – do something that involves the number 100, tag two friends on social media and challenge them to join in and then text to donate £3.

What’s wonderful about this campaign is that anyone can take part because they get to choose the challenge themselves – whether it’s creating 100 works of art, a 100 second song or standing up 100 times.

The posts on Facebook reached thousands of people and raised around £11,000. What was really great about this campaign is how staff got involved too with around 50 of them taking part, including this contribution from former digital manager David Hunt.

Catherine Lynch, centenary manager at Leonard Cheshire, says: "Keep it simple and fun. The #100for100 challenge allows for flexibility and accessibility: you can do 100 of anything you want over any amount of time. Some people have been competitive and this has spurred people on which helps gather momentum. Primarily, it’s about awareness raising and coming up with something that is not intimidating, but really puts the person at the heart of the campaign. The fantastic stories behind the 100 for 100 challenges reflect that."


One of the most successful and enduring examples is Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust’s Smear for Smear campaign, which started in 2014. It takes place during Cervical Cancer Prevention week in January and the charity asks that women (and men) put lipstick on, smear it, take a selfie and post on social media with the hashtag #SmearForSmear to raise awareness of the importance of cervical smear tests.

This year, 81 celebrities and influencers took part and the reach on social media was 79,402,619.

Kate Sanger, head of communications and public affairs at Jo's Cervical Cancer Trust, says: "Now in its fourth year, the campaign has changed over the years as online behaviour has changed. This year Instagram was the main platform that supporters posted to, whereas in previous years it was Facebook and Twitter. The rise of video and features such as Boomerang has changed how people engage. There's far more competition now as user-generated campaigns are so much more common than they were four years ago."

If you’re looking to start a UGC campaign, Sanger recommends testing your ideas out first with your audience: "What you think will work might have no interest to your target audience, especially if you're targeting different age groups to your own."


By curating supporter stories or UGC in their marketing, charities can amplify their stories, and it serves as social proof that their cause is worth supporting.

The British Heart Foundation recently used UGC to great effect for World Heart Day on 29 September through their #heartforaheart campaign, using the technology platform Stackla.

Renowned photographer Rankin teamed up with the charity to launch an international art project with celebrities and creatives to raise awareness of the fact that heart and circulatory disease is the leading cause of death worldwide. Also on offer was the chance to win a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be photographed by Rankin.

The campaign received 1,717 posts on Instagram and 415 posts on Twitter. Interestingly, the number of new followers on Twitter went up 4x more than their daily average on World Heart Day.

Given there are so many UGC campaigns to compete with, make sure you offer something unique. The opportunity to win a photoshoot with Rankin must have appealed to many people outside of the charity’s usual audience.

Athar Abidi, social media manager at the BHF, offers this top tip: ‘Remove as many barriers to participation as possible. If the campaign is something people can take part in within five minutes of hearing about it, your chances of trending and going viral increase exponentially’.

User-generated content is gold dust, but it’s also a hard ask. Know your audience, research which platform your campaign would work best on – for #SmearForSmear and #heartforaheart the most popular platform was Instagram but for #100for100 it was Facebook – and keep your concept simple. Remember that it needs to be as easy as possible for people to take part and show their support.

Kirsty Marrins is a digital communications consultant and a trustee of the Small Charities Coalition


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