Gather ’round, my friends!

What if I told you there was something that would lessen your workload, provide an endless supply of articles and other content, and increase your audience’s engagement, all at the same time and at little to no cost to you? You would probably be clamoring for it, and rightfully so. Sound too good to be true? Well, it’s not. I’m talking about user-generated content. It’s real, and it works.

By asking your email subscribers and members of your social networks to submit their opinions, pictures, videos, and more, you reduce the amount of work you have to do and increase engagement, opens, clicks, and comments. Why? Because people love to share, and they love to see what others have to say. According to Chadwick Martin Bailey’s September 2010 Social Sharing Research Report, 75% of people are somewhat or highly likely to share content online. (Case in point, the blog post we wrote last week by asking our customers and Facebook fans what they are thankful for.)

That increased interaction will drive greater loyalty, and will widen your exposure. Get new customers by engaging existing customers; it’s as easy as that. Whether it’s submitting a picture or video, taking a poll, or posting review, ask and you shall receive. Here are three ways to use user-generated content:

1. Photos: Photos are great. Photos of cats are better. But really, photos of any kind capture attention, even in the busiest environments. So yes, ask customers to share photos of themselves using your product, showing off your logo, or attending one of your events. One Constant Contact customer, Fish & Bone, recently encouraged their pet store clientele to submit photos of their pets for a “Howlaween Pet Photo Contest.” Photos were submitted to the business’ Facebook Page, and Fish & Bone used the submitted photos in their emails as well. Whichever channel(s) their audience subscribed to, they were able to participate and share with their friends and family.

2. Videos: Including a video in your email can increase conversion rates by 50%, according to MarketingSherpa. And in a survey by the World Wide Marketing Council, 73% of marketers said that integrating video with their email marketing efforts increased their click-through rates. Imagine what a video submitted by your customers, clients, members, or supporters can do. Videos do not have to be fancy to work. As long as they aren’t too long and are relevant, they’ll attract attention and generate clicks. It’s as easy as starting a video contest. Whether you’re awarding a prize or just bragging rights, give your customers an easy way to demonstrate their creativity and show how much they love your business or organization.

3. Questions: Your customers were talking about you before, but with social media you can actually hear what they’re saying. To get them talking about a specific topic, such as what they think of your latest product, ask! “What would you name our new dish?” “What is your favorite volunteer activity?” You can simply ask a question via Twitter, use Facebook Questions, or insert a link to a survey in your newsletter. How you ask isn’t as important as what you do with the answers, though. You can follow up with respondents to ask them to write a blog post or article, or you can use your customers’ positive reviews to get more customers like our customer Star City Games  did. They used Twitter to ask their customers what they enjoyed most about a new product and then used the responses in their email newsletter. Star City Games doesn’t have to say how great they are because their customers are saying it for them!

How are you using user-generated content for your newsletter or social media efforts? Share your thoughts in the comments below.