Think about the last time you went to buy something on the internet. Or not even bought an item, but simply did some window-shopping. Did you check user reviews? Probably. Seventy percent of users consult reviews and ratings before purchasing. It turns out that empowering the consumer also empowers the retailer.

User Generated Content (UGC) is defined simply as content generated by users. When you upload a picture to Facebook or write a product review on Amazon you are generating content for others to see. But more importantly (in the realm of sales and marketing), you are generating content for brands to repurpose and utilize as a sales aid. You endorse a pair of pants via a Pinterest pin? Those pants were manufactured by a company, and if that retailer is smart, it will make the most of your contribution to drive trust, loyalty, engagement and ultimately sales.

UGC provides a dramatic lift, and seemingly contrary to logic, offers value even if it’s negative. This week, Bob Moore of RJMetrics and Brendan Lowry of Curalate teamed up to present Fostering Engagement With User Content, a brief webinar that made a strong argument for user generated content as a mandatory aspect of any ecommerce website.

RJMetrics is a hosted business intelligence solution that helps companies collect and sort data from all kinds of sources, including shopping carts and customer relationship management systems to drive better marketing and sales decisions. Curalate is the leading marketing and analytics program for the visual web, driving engagement through both brand-owned and user generated images on Pinterest, Instagram and Facebook. Its new offering, Fanreel, collects and displays UGC in custom branded photo galleries, such as this one for Urban Outfitters.

Customer reviews create a 74 percent increase in product conversion, according to Moore. The effect of reviews may be more effective than consumers realize. It brings the best of social to the same place where transactions occur.

Right now, UGC as a marketing tool is in its earliest stages. The most common forms are ratings and reviews. The conversion lift is substantial, says Moore. People are 63 percent more likely to purchase a product from a site if it has ratings or reviews. Surprisingly, nearly 20 percent of the top 500 online retailers aren’t (yet) offering ratings and reviews. If the reason is fear of negative feedback, it turns out that bad reviews serve a valuable function as well because they build overall brand credibility.

Retailers are only now beginning to take advantage of photos and videos featuring their products for social proof (e.g., if other people are there, it’s worthwhile), merchandising, trust and fan celebration. Lowry says when you display these real world applications, it completes the story of the product and helps the consumer imagine him or herself with the merchandise.

User generated content spawns brand love in a way that traditional advertising and marketing cannot touch. Given these statistics, it is shocking to discover that of the top 500 internet retailers, only 3.3 percent are using UGC photos, and 1.5 percent feature UGC videos curated from the social channels they’re engaged with (like Facebook and Twitter). The logic is obvious. There are a ton of opportunities for brands that bring the social content smack up against their retail offerings. This is just the beginning.