Whether your brand is paying attention or not, the people who love your company are online creating content for you by sharing photos on Instagram or Twitter, using relevant hashtags on social media, leaving comments on your blog, writing their own articles and posts about your brand or creating videos about your product or services.

It’s called user-generated content. And it’s a content marketing strategy you should get on board with, if you’re not already.

Companies can work smarter, not harder, when they take advantage of user-generated content and let their fans do the heavy lifting for them. Here’s why.

User-generated content saves time.

Taking advantage of user-generated content just makes sense; in a world where professionals are being asked to wear many hats, leveraging existing content can save the time and energy of needing to create something from scratch. Much of the content already exists online and through social media; marketers and content creators simply need to gather and repurpose it to create something fresh, new and exciting. Instead of reinventing the wheel, repurpose content to be more efficient.

It creates brand loyalty.

Want to know the simplest yet most effective way to make your brand’s fans love you even more? Ask them if you can share their words, photos or videos! I work in marketing, so I’ve certainly been on the asking end of gathering user-generated content; I find that fans of my company’s brand are always excited and more than happy to let us showcase their work. However, I recently found myself on the receiving end when Carnival Cruise Lines asked if they could share my photo on Instagram- and they did…to the tune of more than 2,000 likes! I felt honored and special when Carnival reached out and told me they loved my photo. You can make your brand’s fans feel that way too!

User-generated content fosters a sense of community.

People love to feel like they are part of something bigger. When a company shares the words or images created by one of their fans, it creates a feeling of community that your fans enjoy being a part of. You’ll quickly see that your fans are creating an amazingly supportive community by liking one another’s pieces of content, leaving comments for each other and start a lasting conversation that can make a big impact. Your brand can be the cheerleader that sets the stage and gives your biggest fans a place to rally around you.

It’s authentic.

User-generated content is more authentic than the content you create on your own because it encompasses that all-important third party endorsement. It’s the same reason why it’s more effective to land a story in the newspaper using PR strategies than by simply placing an ad in that same paper. Instead of talking about how great your brand is, allow your fans to spread that message for you! Newer customers or clients are smart and savvy- they can often see right through marketing messages…user-generated content allows them to see what’s real and true about your company or brand from those who love it most.

Jessica Lawlor is a public relations professional and freelance writer in the Philadelphia area. Her work has been published on Ragan’s PR Daily, Muck Rack, Brazen Careerist, Mediabistro, Business Insider and AOL Jobs. She blogs at JessicaLawlor.com about getting gutsy- stepping outside your comfort zone to reach your goals and live a life that makes you truly happy. Connect with her on Twitter.