User-generated content can help bolster your core marketing efforts, from providing valuable social proof to supplying you with gorgeous product shots to use on social media. But when you see an impressive photo that features your products, and the creator has tagged you or used your branded hashtag, do you have free rein to use the photo as you please?
It’s one of the murkiest questions to answer when you’re just getting started with user-generated content, and that’s what we’re addressing today on Ask Shopify.
Being a small business without legal counsel on speed-dial doesn’t give you free rein to ignore the legalities of digital content. To start, sincere kudos to you for bringing this up before diving in.
User-generated content, especially photography, is a powerful asset for your ecommerce business. But just because someone used your branded hashtag doesn’t give you the green light (or permission) to use that image. Michael Chachula is the founder of Foursixty, an app that helps brands manage their user-generated content and secure the rights to use it. He says:
“A lot of brands make the assumption that customers want them to use their content in some way, shape, or form. And brands will say, ‘Oh, well, if we repost them, obviously they're not going to care because we're going to give them exposure and they're going to get more followers.’ And in many instances, that is the case—people don't mind at all.”
Michael went on to say, “But at the end of the day, that assumption is very wrong. You need to get explicit permission from any content creator to repost or use their content, especially as marketing collateral or on your site to sell products.”
There’s a good rule of thumb to get you started: If you haven’t connected with the creator in some way to secure permission, no matter who they are, don’t use that piece of user-generated content on your social media feeds or on your store. Not only will getting permission safeguard your business, it’ll also show your respect for the work they put into creating the content in the first place.
"At the end of the day, you need to get explicit permission from any content creator to repost or use their content."
And if you’re still considering skipping that step, Michael went on to share the real situations he’s seen play out when brands don’t secure permission.
“There are a few brands that liberally feature user-generated content without getting approval and they’ve never had a problem, and their customers are happy their photos are being featured. But I've also seen extreme scenarios where a brand used a photographer's photo, and the photographer shared his story of how the brand used his content without permission on Facebook. The post had hundreds of comments, and the photographer threatened legal action. These kinds of negative outcomes are always just one slip-up away.”
As with all things concerning your brand and reputation, this is where the maxim “better safe than sorry” very much applies. Always get explicit permission before using someone’s photography.
How to get and record permission
When it comes to finding photos to use, your first stop might be checking in with the influencers you’ve worked with in the past. If that’s the case, reviewing your contracts with each influencer can save you some time, because they might cover current and future content rights.
“If you’re a bigger brand and you have relationships with dozens or even hundreds of influencers, you might consider entering into contracts with some or all of them giving you permission to reuse any photos they take of your products,” says Michael. “That’s fairly standard at a certain size, and if you have that in place, there’s no need to ask again for each photo.”
While it is best to have an agreement in place, asking for permission to use a photo doesn’t necessarily need to be a signed-and-witnessed contract. You can reach out directly to creators on each platform by DM, in the comments, or by email if you have their contact details.
“There's not one singular way to request permission,” says Michael. “If you're a small brand, and a person with 200 followers posts a great photo, you can send them a message or a comment, and you can do it manually.”
One way Michael suggests requesting and tracking approvals is using what he calls an approval hashtag. When you ask for permission in comments on social media, you can set up an automated message in your UGC management software like Foursixty, or use a text expander like… well, Text Expander, to save your comment and send it manually. In it, you’d put together something like this.
If you're using Foursixty, it'll pull in and record all of your approved photos using this hashtag automatically. Outside of that, you'd still need to record and track each expression of permission.
However you get consent from creators, and no matter which platform you use, Michael made one thing clear: You need to record that permission for posterity.
“If you get their written approval over email, save the email. If it was a comment, screenshot it. If it was a DM, save the DM and screenshot it. Making sure you have some kind of record is essential, because you’ll need record of approval if any issues or questions come up down the line.”
Permission is an essential part of UGC
There will always be cases where you come across brands repurposing user-generated content without getting explicit permission, but they’re opening themselves up to unnecessary risks by doing so.
Getting explicit permission from creators (and recording it) is the only way to protect your business from that worst-case scenario of legal action or a social media fiasco. On top of that, it’s just the right thing to do—your best UGC will probably come from fans and customers, and even when it doesn’t, asking permission indisputably shows that you respect creators.
And if you think about it, the “cost” of sending a quick comment or email asking for permission is an incredibly small price to pay for what you get. Exchanging a few minutes of your time for the opportunity to use someone else’s carefully crafted photograph is one of the best bargains around.