At a dinner for our content moderation team this month, the moderators began discussing some of their all-time favorite content stories. Our moderation team reads hundreds of thousands of pieces of UGC every day, but two stories from 2008 are clearly in our hall of fame.

In July 2008, our client James Avery received this story from a customer in Italy:

A particular connection

Hello, my name is Sarah, I’m 22 years old and from Italy. And I think my story is a bit different from all the others here, because there’s a particular reason why I own a piece of James Avery’s jewelry. In April 2008 I had to stay in hospital for a long time, because since 1995 I’ve been suffering from a special and quite rare form of anemia. I was in hospital a couple of times before but this time the therapy was a bit different. I received bone marrow from an allogenic (unfamiliar) donor. That’s quite a “great event” and I was very surprised when my doctor told me, that “my” donor doesn’t come from Italy, not even from Europe, but from the United States, more precisely from Texas. It’s a woman and I got her bone marrow during the night from 17th to 18th of April. But the life-saving donation was not the only thing I got from her. Enclosed there was a card with her best wishes to me and a pendant in the shape of 2 hearts which form upon a butterfly. She explained to me that the butterfly should symbolize my new life and that the 2 hearts stand for our connection…So far the therapy is very very successful and I’m frequently wearing my donor’s gift. Unfortunately I don’t know her name and not even her address, because this knowledge isn’t allowed. Obviously I at least would like to say ‘Thank you’…

In October that year, they received another story from Texas:

Worldly Connection

A year ago on Good Friday I gave blood which I hadn’t given in 10 years. I also signed up for the bone marrow registry after I was done. About four months later, they called me to say I was one of their choices. I had some blood work done and a few months later they said they didn’t need me. On good Friday I got a call from the Bone Marrow organization saying they picked me after all. It was in the middle of tax season which is a busy time for me since I am an accountant but they didn’t need me until about April 15th. I had my surgery on April 16th. They said I could send something if I wanted as long as I did send my name and address. I sent a piece of James Avery jewelry of course. It is my favorite. I had just gotten a necklace for Christmas of the two hearts that make a butterfly but also looks like a cross. I thought how perfect to send that. We are connected forever (the two heats) and she is the butterfly by starting a new life and the cross can be her guide in her new life. The bone marrow and the James Avery necklace went to Italy. I’m still waiting to hear the results.

James Avery has been using customer stories like these to engage their community since March, 2008. Here are three benefits James Avery and other brands gain from using customer stories as part of an overall social strategy.

1. Stories associate your brand with themes customers are excited and passionate about.

Rather than prompting their customers to “Tell us why James Avery is the best!” the jewelry maker asks customers to share stories of life, love, and faith, which are the three pillars of the brand’s mission statement: “To share life, love and faith through the beauty of design.”

Stories let customers discuss things they’re already eager to share with the world, in connection with a brand. PETCO’s “Howl-o-ween” campaign invited customers to upload pictures and stories of their pets’ Halloween costumes. In facilitating this fun online show-and-tell, PETCO further associated its brand with the pet-lover community, strengthening the emotional bond between brand and customer.

These stories don’t always need to involve the brand or a product to build these associations. Client CVS Caremark launched their “For All the Ways you Care” campaign in early 2009, encouraging stories about hospice caregivers and the challenges and triumphs they face each day. The campaign built associations between CVS Caremark – which provides more prescriptions than any other pharmacy – and caregivers, without asking writers to talk about the CVS brand.

2. Stories add a human dimension to your products.

A piece of James Avery jewelry is more than the metal it’s made of. It carries with it a memory, thoughts of loved ones, and a reason for purchase. Stories bring products to life so that they aren’t just spec sheets and product descriptions – they add a human dimension. The human dimension allows companies to sell more than mere physical objects – they’re able to sell the meaning behind them. As Simon Sinek told TEDxPuget Sound in 2009, great companies and leaders sell why they do, not what they do. Customer stories focus on the why – the things that make products more than the materials they’re made of.

And this gets customers engaging. Client La-Z-Boy invited customers to share stories of how the manufacturer’s products had brought comfort to their lives. Stories were told of a grandfather’s favorite chair, of hours spent in a father’s lap, etc. – over 2,700 stories in all. Over 38,000 customers registered to read or vote on stories and enter the accompanying giveaway, and of these, nearly 13,000 (33%) opted-in to La-Z-Boy’s email list.

3. Stories engage fans in the conversational context of social networks.

James Avery pushes the emotional content of their customer stories beyond the campaign into additional marketing activities. In addition to requesting stories in print ads and on in-store signage, the brand also features the campaign on their Facebook page. Customers are encouraged to submit their stories, vote for favorites, and share them with their Facebook friends, all from within the James Avery Facebook page. Two-way syndication allows Facebook submissions to appear on the James Avery website, and vice versa, maximizing the impact of customers’ words.

Two featured reviews from Benefit Cosmetics' Facebook page

Too many brands jump into social media and immediately start selling. But it’s called social media for a reason – people want to be talked to, not talked at. James Avery’s Facebook integration respects the conversational context of the social network, asking customers to tell their stories and others to respond. In other words, they’re playing by the rules of social media – creating a dialog rather than pushing their own messaging.

Incorporating user-generated content into branded Facebook presences turns contributors into brand promoters. Customers can share their own stories and stories they like with their Facebook friends, bringing the James Avery brand to their networks in a meaningful way. Benefit Cosmetics allows users to do the same with ratings and reviews on their Facebook page.

Stories allow customers to establish meaningful, emotional connections with brands. They add an authentic human element to products that product descriptions and marketing copy could never achieve.

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