How REI created sustainable user-generated content

REI’s social media team set up a website for photos of their fans’ outdoor adventures. They didn’t realize they were creating a huge storehouse of PR and marketing content for REI.

(This story holds tips and advice from REI’s manager of social and earned media, Lulu Gephart. Her talk at SocialMedia.org’s Brands-Only Summit is here.)

REI isn’t just an outdoor gear store—it’s a co-op.

Its employees love being outside. In her recent session at the Brands-Only Summit, Lulu Gephart, REI’s Manager of Social and Earned Media, recaps one of her own adventures:

“Two lessons: If you get a chance to hike the Spanish Pyrenees, do it. And don’t drink the water, because you’ll get the ‘Spanish Plague,’ and you’ll want to die.”

For every outdoor adventure REI’s employees go on, thousands of their customers do something similar. To capitalize on that, Gephart explains, REI asked them to share photos and stories from those outdoor pursuits.

The goal of REI’s 1440 Project: Gather photos from customers’ outdoor adventures captured at every minute (1,440 of them) of the day.

Gephart’s team created a Project 1440 micro-site about two years ago and promoted the hashtag #REI1440Project on social and display ads. In just a few months, there were more than a half million visits to the site and 10,000-plus photos uploaded.

“We were floored by its success,” Gephart says.

The site collected meta-data from the photos and tagged information from users on the activity, location, and time of day each photo was taken.

Gephart reflects, “It turned out to be really smart. We didn’t realize the repercussions of it when we did it. But the structured way we captured the meta-data and user-generated content (UGC) laid the groundwork for how we use that content.”

Now, if REI needs an image of someone mountain biking in New England in the fall, it can find that. Gephart says it’s been a great fallback during the “content desert” times when there’s no campaign or promotion to support their posts.

And what about legal considerations? Gephart says even that piece of the project has helped them earn advocates.

When users submit material to the micro-site, permission for REI to use the content is in the submission process. But when Lulu’s team finds a great photo on Instagram from a fan who submitted images to #REI1440Project, they ask him or her for permission to re-use it.

They usually say something like “We really like your Instagram photo and might use it in our marketing. If you agree to the terms and conditions, just reply to #agree.”

One Instagram user was so excited to be asked for permission that she offered to send them a full-resolution version of her shot.

“Our fans are really excited to be acknowledged and promoted through our channels, but we also find many deeper stories when we reach out to people.”

Gephart says REI depends on their stories and content—not platforms or campaigns—to reach big audiences.

“So many brands—during something like the Super Bowl—throw a hashtag into their commercial. And maybe there was a spike for that hashtag on that day or that week, but how many people use that hashtag now?”

She believes that to build a sustainable story with your community, you must avoid campaigns on a platform that can be yanked out from under you. She encourages brands to rely on storytelling that works on whatever platform your customers use.

“We’re trying to be thoughtful about our hashtag strategy: We want our hashtags to last. An REI hashtag should make sense every day. It should be sustainable in our community.”

Readers can ask Lulu on Twitter about her latest outdoor adventure.

Bridgette Cude is a writer at SocialMedia.org, where a version of this article originally appeared.

(Image via)

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