The world according to us: user-generated content’s epic rise

As the Coronavirus concerns necessitated the shuttering of creative productions all over the world, content made by non-professionals and UGC quickly became the new norm.

View from inside a tent looking out onto water and mountains.

Image source: Adobe Stock / AILA_IMAGES.

Like many trends these days, the use of handheld footage (also known as UGC, or user-generated content) got its start on social media. But, as the Coronavirus health concerns necessitated the shuttering of creative productions all over the world, content made by non-professionals quickly became the new norm.

“When it comes to handheld, it’s really the pandemic that drove the increase in popularity, production for advertising, television and film was shut down,” said Tom Spota, head of motion and audio at Adobe Stock. “No more complex sets, no more budgets, no more people working together.”

Ever resourceful, content creators have leaned into this method of production — sourcing content from everyday people shooting on their mobile devices. Many creators in television and advertising saw this as a solution to challenges producing content under COVID-19 restrictions. While video production has long been digital, these industries have been further transformed by the possibility of fully remote work, from pre-production to finishing. One of Adobe Stock’s 2021 motion trends, Handheld, aligns strongly with the practice of safe, smart, and remote work.

“UGC has the unique distinction of enabling a wholly remote approach: Both casting and production can be carried out without the in-person involvement of a single in-house professional,” wrote Isabelle Sarraf in Backpage last summer. “It’s clear that remote casting for UGC will reign in the casting world for the foreseeable future. Not only does it widen the breadth of opportunity for actors, but the cost-efficiency for studios and the simplicity of self-content creating are big reasons why the trend might be here to stay.”

But the sheer efficacy of a distinctly homemade feel is what cements the handheld footage movement as a trend — particularly in the way it fosters an immediate sense of intimacy with audiences during a time when opportunities for togetherness remain scarce. Immediate, in this case, also refers to how timely user-generated content allows brands to be.

How the handheld look amplifies feelings of connection

A few examples of emotional and timely content build on a foundation of this video trend stand out. Google’s 2020 ad, “thank you, teachers,” featured homemade footage of children and parents engaged in remote learning interspersed with heartfelt testimonials in support of educators.

Facebook, too, launched a standout ad that addressed the emotional toll of the pandemic. Called “Never Lost,” the ad set homemade footage to a spoken-word voiceover (“People’s Faces,” read by its author, Kate Tempest). These shorts provided moving glimpses of life that people around the world could relate to, right in the moment — while projecting brand support for and understanding of their customer base.

“Handheld footage connects you to other people, and it makes you feel less alone,” said Spota. “It brought that human connection into it. UGC was especially effective in that way. You’re seeing other people in similar situations, and you feel like you’re part of a community of people who are facing the pandemic, too.”

That element of human connection is the key to creating successful handheld content.

A large part of handheld’s appeal is in its inherent credibility — it is, after all, real life. Said content does not necessarily have to be emotional in nature to achieve this — Microsoft’s 2020 ad for its communication platform Teams relied on a simple formula of screenshare-style footage and user testimonials describing how the service has helped professionals pivot to remote-only work. Either way, realism is the name of the game.

“The authenticity of user generated content, it’s unparalleled,” said Ramin Talaie, video curator at Adobe Stock. “It can’t get any more authentic — it’s first-person experience. It’s all there.”

Video shorthand for social proof

The cumulative effect of what Talaie and others are describing has a name: social proof, a term first used by Robert Cialdini, a professor of both business and psychology, in 1984. The concept operates on the idea that, as Cialdini wrote in his book Influence, humans “view a behavior as more correct in a given situation to the degree that we see others performing it.” Handheld footage meets this need perfectly.

“UGC plays into the powerful phenomenon of social proof,” wrote Jasmine Giuliani, in an article for Australia’s Marketing magazine that ran last summer. “As humans, we are genetically hard-wired to learn from the experiences of others — whether that’s from someone we know or a brand that we trust. UGC has become a very important marketing strategy as it elevates a brand’s authenticity through the use of everyday people that are relatable to the consumer.”

Beyond a pandemic-driven need, it’s abundantly clear that the handheld footage trend has some real staying power. Brands and creatives have homed in on the sweet spot of UGC — footage that has a high production value without the studio slickness. Companies are “striving to connect with people whose lifestyles and uses for products closely reflect reality,” Forbes’ Rebecca Kowalewicz wrote last fall. “The idealized and glamorized ‘what could be’ is being replaced with ‘what actually is’ and a look at how a product can make the lives of consumers better and easier.”

The numbers tell the same story. On Facebook alone, as Max Willens reported last fall on Digiday, “video views on content not produced by brands or media companies has grown steadily all year, climbing from 223 billion views in January 2020 to 495 billion in August 2020, Tubular data showed.”

Adding visual depth with stock video

Sourcing handheld footage is where things can get tricky. While some are eager to license footage of their charming pets, tearful reminiscences, or children singing, others are less inclined to let that perfect scene into the broader public eye.

Back in 2017, the Global Marketing Alliance (GMA) reported on the intricacies of intellectual property use. “How a brand uses user generated content can often lead them down a path of potential banana skins, with the laws around licensing and copyright often proving to be a murky area,” wrote GMA’s Simon Banks. “… Many consumers are up to date and are well aware of their rights and . . . if they find out that you have taken their content, expect them to take legal action against you.” Not an ideal situation.

Fortunately, there is stock — and stock creators, with the chops to produce content that meets the demand. And that demand is still rising — while studio productions slowly pick up again, handheld still leads the way.

“I think it’s permanently changed the way broadcast television is going to feature ads,” Tom Spota said. “There’s always going to be a need for high production value, but UGC and handheld have accelerated right into the broadcast format.”

Explore the Handheld motion trend in our curated gallery on Adobe Stock.