Image via liz west under CC by 2.0

3 Ways to Tap into the Hottest Marketing Tactic Right Now

This post was originally published on LinkedIn.

Southern Biscuits and Gravy is one of the more interesting potato chip flavors to hit American snack aisles recently. Last month, Lay’s announced that the unique new taste was voted into production by millions of fans across the country, as part its annual Do Us a Flavor contest. How does it work? Every year, the chip manufacturer invites customers to share their ideas online for new Lay’s flavors. A winner is then chosen from four finalist flavors by public vote via social media and text, with the person who submitted the top idea awarded a whopping $1 million.

So far, the 3-year-old marketing campaign has proven to be an enormous success for the 83-year-old snack manufacturer. In fact, in Do Us a Flavor’s debut year—which saw “Cheesy Garlic Bread” crowned new champion—Lay’s reported a sales increase of 12 percent during the campaign. (The company sold about $14.5 billion worth of snacks last year alone—so you can do the math.)

But Lay’s isn’t the only company that has caught onto (and is reaping the benefits of) the rising trend of “fan-sourced” campaigns, which puts the customer in the limelight.

Apple’s recent “Shot on iPhone 6” promotion is another great case in point. Instead of going the traditional advertising route, the company combed through social media and Flickr, and found 162 photos taken by real iPhone 6 users. Then they blew them up into impossible-to-miss outdoor billboards. The outcome was a highly-acclaimed advertising success, and drew a ton of public attention to the iPhone 6’s superior photo-shooting capabilities.

So how can companies big and small take a page from brands like Apple and Lay’s—and ensure they’re not missing out on the power of engaging fans in this way? Over the years, our dedicated in-house team has worked with customers to launch thousands of social media campaigns, which aim to encourage and showcase fan input. And we’ve just unveiled a new social marketing tool that lets anyone build and launch a polished campaign on their own—for free.

Through it all, we’ve learned some key lessons when it comes to effective fan-sourced digital marketing that might help you get started:

Step back. Let the fans do the talking … and well, everything else

These days people don’t want to be told by corporations what shoes to wear or what ice cream brand to eat. Traditional ads aren’t moving the needle. (In fact, you’re more likely to die in a plane crash, at least according to urban legend, than to click on a banner ad.) Instead, buying decisions are based on what our peers think and share via sites like Yelp, Amazon, Facebook and Google. A recent study found that a staggering 84 percent of millennials—the demographic all brands drool over—are influenced by user-generated content on company websites when making a purchase. Millennials also reported they trust user-generated content 50 percent more than any other type of media out there.

So while it’s key for businesses to come up with the right marketing strategy and infrastructure to help inspire user-generated content, once the campaign is launched it’s critical to step back and let the fans do, well, everything else. The results will be your most effective advertising. (Concerned about content getting out of hand? The right social campaign tools should allow you to monitor and moderate user-generated material, avoiding potential PR mishaps from off-brand submissions.)

A great example of this user-generated campaign approach has been Burberry’s super sleek and popular “Art of the Trench.” The British luxury retailer first created a simple online forum for customers to upload photos of themselves wearing their Burberry trench coats. Participants were encouraged to then share their moment in the spotlight via social media networks, like Facebook and Twitter. The results have been significant: The year following the debut of Art of the Trench, Burberry’s e-commerce sales grew 50 percent year-over-year, a result partially attributed to higher web traffic from the campaign and related social media growth.

When in doubt, go visual

There’s a reason why image-sharing network Instagram has gone from zero to over 300 million (daily active) users in just 5 years: 90 percent of information transmitted to the brain is visual, and visuals are processed 60,000 times faster in the brain than text. In other words, we really like visual content, and absorb it better and faster than other forms of information.

Cathay Pacific is doing a great job of leveraging both the power of image-based networks like Instagram and visual fan content. The airline company recently started an Instagram campaign inviting people to share their travel photos, accompanied with the hashtag #lifewelltraveled. To date, the campaign has generated over 100,000 images. Cathay’s social media manager Dennis Owen—who’s been at the frontlines of this successful new push—knows this trend toward visual imagery isn’t dying soon. He explained to Forbes, “The future is leaning toward the visual, around images and videos, so we see great opportunity with Instagram and Pinterest.”

The takeaway? When in doubt, make sure there is an image or video-based component to your fan-sourced campaign. People are naturally drawn to visual images so they’ll by association also be drawn to you.

Tap into the unique culture your fans and consumers have already created for you

A few years ago at my company, we began to notice an interesting trend. Our employees were uniquely active on social media networks like Facebook and Instagram, regularly posting updates and photos of their experiences on their job, with each other and their friends. On closer look, this trend made a lot of sense.The majority of our employees at the time were in their twenties and we encouraged them to be on social media, even at work (since we specialized in the technology as a business).

Then, we started to notice that many of our best incoming job candidates were actually citing these same social posts as a reason for applying at Hootsuite. The organic, behind-the-scenes content being posted and shared by our staff was bringing hundreds of quality HR referrals directly to us. So, we decided to try something out: We asked our employees to add a hashtag, “#hootsuitelife,” to their future social media posts related to work (if they wanted). Fast forward a few years to now. #hootsuitelife has generated hundreds of posts, images and videos and become one of our most important channels for showcasing company culture to potential recruits, press and more. People respond to it because it’s authentic and bottoms-up. And more importantly, the “campaign” continues to grow in momentum today, because it identified an existing culture and effectively tapped into.

So how can you identify and tap into the community and culture around your business? One way to get started is simply by going on your company’s social media profiles—and looking for recent topics your customers are buzzing about. Maybe they’re already sharing their ideas on a certain hot new product. Or tweeting you about something they’d like to see in the future. Use this kind of authentic, real-world input to inform and inspire your strategy.

In today’s quickly-changing digital landscape many marketers are, understandably, walking on eggshells as they try to find the next big trend. Fan-sourcing campaigns represent a powerful and cost-effective alternative to this guessing game. Instead of predicting what content might or not motivate customers, let them share photos, videos and posts that are already resonating. Once you stop telling customers what you think they want to hear, you’ll quickly realize how powerful the conversations they’re already having can be.

P.S. Have you tried Lay’s new flavor? (This guy has me convinced I need to try them.)