According to the famous 1993 New Yorker cartoon, “On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.” Are any of us – brands and individuals alike – really who we say we are? Welcome to the quagmire that is authenticity in social media. Watch your step. It’s a minefield!
“Authenticity” has become one of those marketing buzzwords I love to hate, particularly when discussing social media marketing. Sure, authenticity inspires trust, and brands need to be trusted if their marketing is to be effective. But I do take a perverse pleasure in watching marketers tie themselves in knots trying to explain how authenticity is to be achieved.
I’ve read a number of articles arguing that authenticity must be at the heart of any marketing strategy… while also insisting authenticity isn’t about being strategic. Or that authenticity is not necessarily about being honest or transparent… but is absolutely about being genuine.
My favorite contradiction is that authenticity in marketing is about being more spontaneous, the clear opposite of calculated or strategic thinking. The moment you “plan” to be “spontaneous” is the moment the English language finally snaps under the weight of all that cognitive dissonance and retires to a remote island to reflect on where it all went so terribly wrong.
All of these discussions are really about how to appear authentic – how to create an artificial authenticity, if you will. (English language: “That’s it, I’m outta here!”)
To be truly authentic, your brand – and the people within it – would carry on without regard for whether its actions and messages are aligned with some stakeholder-approved, market-tested brand ideal. There would be no filter, no self-monitoring. Your social media team members would say what they really think, responding in the moment, instead of representing the brand’s more tempered, structured, and commercially sensitive views.
Of course, that’s impossible. It’s our job as marketers to guide perceptions, control the message, and create the best possible impression. So our approach to authenticity must sit somewhere between the genuine and the artificial, and that means first acknowledging the contradiction we’re struggling to resolve.
Strategy or no strategy, all social media is artifice and spin. I don’t just mean marketers and brands either. Every single one of us behaves inauthentically online.
The curated self
“What is drama but life with the dull bits cut out?” said Alfred Hitchcock to The Observer in 1960. Today, the same could be said of social media, as it allows us to conveniently omit and keep private the dull or less flattering bits of our own lives so that our friends and followers only get to see a more dramatic, more sensational, more preferable version of us. From the news stories and opinions we share, to the photos we make public, we choose exactly what the world will see of us and what will be kept private.
Sometimes it can be quite intimidating to scroll through my feeds and see all of these smart, hardworking, talented, fit, and extremely photogenic people leading lives that always seem far more interesting and gosh-darned successful than my own.
When Terry proudly shares his beautifully presented dinner, with the obligatory glass of red held up just in shot and accompanied by a smug “bon appétit,” I’m forced to look down at my beans on toast and glass of milk, and berate myself for not making more of a culinary effort. When Angela shares her new personal best time from the morning run with stats uploaded from her Fitbit, she puts my daily fitness routine of walking to the mailbox to shame.
Yet we never get to see the chaos in Terry’s kitchen, including the three failed attempts to get that soufflé to rise, nor do we see Angela’s afternoon chocolate binge that undid all of her hard work.
(FYI: Terry and Angela are fictional but – be honest – we all know Terry and Angela.)
Of course they don’t share these other moments with us. Reality would completely undermine the impression they want to make. Just like brands, we all indulge in a bit of positive PR and reputation enhancement while concealing the duller, uglier, or less socially acceptable sides of ourselves.
Does that mean everyone in social media is a hypocrite? Well, yes, quite literally so. The word hypocrite is derived from the Ancient Greek for actor, “hypokrites,” from a time when all plays were performed with masks to conceal the true face behind that of the character. Increasingly used metaphorically – to imply someone is wearing a figurative mask that contradicts his or her genuine beliefs or actions – the word eventually gained its modern and more negative connotation.
You might be uncomfortable with the thought of being a social media hypocrite (pesky Greeks). Maybe you prefer to think of your activities in social media as merely a persona, much more in keeping with current marketing terminology. Yet the etymology of “persona” also dates back to classical times – this time from the Latin for, you guessed it, a mask designed to conceal your real self while presenting a fictional character to an audience.
As Shakespeare later might have tweeted if he had but a smartphone and a reliable connection: “All the internet’s a stage, and all the men and women merely avatars.”
Fake it ’til you make it?
Since the arrival of social media, brands and organizations have (often begrudgingly) realized that their behavior is far more public and far more scrutinized than they would like or even acknowledge. That’s not to say their customers and the wider community weren’t always watching how a brand might behave and forming opinions, but the almost instantaneous feedback provided by social media – as well as the 24-hour news cycle – holds up an unforgiving mirror, making it much harder for brands to ignore or rationalize away how they are perceived.
Social media brings brands face to face (tweet to tweet?) with real people, not abstract viewer ratings or subscription numbers. And this has made marketers acutely aware of just how inauthentic brands can be. In the early days of social media marketing this was particularly true. Many brands entered new social environments like a guy wearing a tuxedo to a beach barbecue.
A brand also operates as a mask, designed to present a consistent and carefully constructed public face while concealing the complex and often messy workings underneath. Behind this mask there is usually another – an agency or marketing department operating to a pre-planned strategy. Strip that away and there are still more people underneath, each with their own curated persona.
Each person who contributes to this brand persona is first masquerading as his or her public self, then as an employee, then an agency, then as the brand. In an agency, this may mean switching brand masks many times a day. And each of these layers of persona comes with a different set of rules, different values, opinions, even language. The real people become buried and the result can be a public persona that feels more robotic – more contrived and less human.
No wonder “authenticity” became a thing.
Unfortunately, some marketers try to solve this problem by placing another mask on top: scripted authenticity.
In Australia, Airbnb and bank Westpac were widely ridiculed in 2015 for attempting some brand-on-brand banter. No one bought it. It didn’t read as spontaneous, natural and fun, and was almost universally criticized as brands pretending to be spontaneous with an obviously scripted exchange.
Social Media Mistakes: What Brands Should Do to Avoid Epic Fails
You can’t create authenticity just like you can’t create darkness. Darkness is the absence of light; it only exists when you switch off the lamp or block out any other light source. Similarly, authenticity is only possible in the absence of the calculated or fake. So, instead of planning how to be more authentic, brands should switch off or block out as much of the inauthentic as possible.
Use fewer scripted responses, and trust the team to have the expertise to answer appropriately and naturally. People want to believe the person giving them the advice isn’t just parroting a set of pre-approved responses that might not always fit the individual situation. Your social media team isn’t a chatbot.
Simplify rules and guidelines so that employees don’t feel straightjacketed. Yes, this requires more trust, but social media is one of a brand’s best opportunities to demonstrate it is a business of individuals – while also highlighting their shared values and passions. They should be your advocates, not just your mouthpiece.
Stop overthinking things like tone of voice. Too often language becomes so formal and corporatized that the brand is detached from how your customers and employees really speak. Don’t be afraid of conversational language; ditch the jargon and allow a more human personality to emerge.
And if you can, remove or simplify some of the masks or personas that may be getting between you and the audience. Instead of an outsourced social media team, which may be less able to reflect what it’s like to be a part of your business because of its reliance on policy and strategy docs, work with your agency or marketing department to find ways to give a voice to more people from within the brand.
You won’t be able to eliminate or block out all of the inauthenticity. No one can. But it is possible to reduce and simplify the various masks until your brand’s public persona begins to resemble more closely the reality underneath.
Do You Operate in a Social Media Bubble? 3 Questions to Ask
Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute
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