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It’s common for battles to result in some casualties, whether they be physical or digital. In the digital world, thankfully, these casualties are more metaphoric than tragic, but the effects are quite dire in their own right. In this particular case, the injured party is social media authenticity in both business and in the building of personal brands.
Some cynics might ask, “was social media ever really authentic?” To answer that question, try to recall Twitter’s early days as one small example. There was true community. There were no lists, no scoring and no influence models, even though there was already a strong shift toward using social for customer marketing. People would tweet in real ways, regardless of who they thought was listening, and businesses would demonstrate an earnestness and candor that endeared customers to the brands. All said, this market had to evolve, but some are worried about how it has evolved with contrivance.
“The commercialization of the social web has reduced most communications to simply corporate or marketing initiatives, perhaps written or stated with a little more tongue in cheek,” said Geoff Livingston, author and marketing strategist. “While better written (one hopes), these efforts are still pretty obvious in their intent, sales or branding promotion.”
Consider a corporate social media strategy meeting. The team designated to determine social media strategies has a directive to use the tools and develop ideas that drive. The question then becomes, is it wrong for companies to want to build their businesses, market to their customers and use every trick of the social media trade to meet their corporate objectives? Easy answer is no but it’s more complex than that. The problem with this contrived approach is that customers are not connecting with brands merely to get deals. Most of the time they generally despise having marketing shoved in their faces. They connect because they want to see the human side of the business and feel like they are a true part of the brand, and that people behind the brand truly care about them.
“There’s very little that’s social about today’s social media, and when we sit down with executives to get their take on the opportunity that social media presents, we actually see the lack of authenticity in action as they spin their answer,” said Brian Solis, principal at Altimeter Group and author of “The End of Business as Usual.”
Solis believes the culture of many businesses may not actually support the openness expected in social media. This type of authenticity would require a culture shift for which many companies are aren’t built.
“The idea of authenticity is clear in many intentions driving social media, and I believe that it may one day lead to a spirit of unrestricted authenticity,” he said. “But what we’re really talking about here is the idea that businesses have to change not only their approach, but their vision, mission, and purpose. And, they must also train and empower employees to engage transparently to clearly define the difference between closed and open communication. Both can work, but as long as the company is authentic and transparent about expectations.”
While some brands, such as Comcast and Jet Blue, still do a very good job of treating their customers like people, some of the earlier social media darlings are struggling. There needs to be a balance between in-your-face marketing and the warm-and-fuzzy feel that customers are seeking. In the end, however, the pressure will fall on the companies who may begin to lose business as customers start to lose the human connection to their brands.
“With online social business, if there is no quality product with a popularity play, sooner or later people see that the emperor has no clothes and they stop believing in the brand,” Livingston said. “Sometimes this happens publicly, mostly it happens with their feet. Then to remain popular social brands must constantly attract new sources of customers and readers. That inevitably leads to a downward spiral, a la Sprint.”
The authenticity battle extends beyond businesses and into the world of personal brands, which is a bit of a tightrope walk. On one hand, people are coached to be cautious of what is posted online because it could have long-standing impact, and then, on the other hand, they are told to be themselves. In truly analyzing social media content, there’s a huge delta of authenticity and styles between those who use it just to stay in touch with family and friends (or follow favorite celebrities) and those who have branded themselves as part of their business. For the latter, some have gone as far as to nix the notion of authenticity altogether.
“Recently, Chris Brogan and Brian Clark (Copyblogger) both admitted they are not authentic, instead filtering to optimize sales and marketing purposes,” Livingston said. “Both of these blogs are highly commercialized. In Copyblogger’s case, I think Brian’s done a nice job maintaining editorial value, and it’s still useful and reads like it did a few years ago with some minor changes in style and form. The commercialization feels less intrusive than other examples.”
Livingston believes that the pursuit of personal branding has severely tarnished social media as a whole.
“The personal branding movement has reduced individual communications to a contrived popularity contest,” he said. “I’ve heard all the arguments for doing this right, and while they sound good, personal branding has diminished authenticity, turning it into a fool’s pursuit. What means more is looking good and sales. So, we now have the metaphorical fashion show instead interpersonal interactions dominating the social web.”
Whether discussing social media for corporations or for personal branding, the industry will continue to grow and mature and there will be more battles along the way. Social media strategies, while a hot topic of conversation, are in their infancy and are trying to grow to meet very complex expectations. As businesses mature their programs they will realize the potential of maintaining authenticity as a social media driver and as part of their corporate culture. Currently, right or wrong, it’s still very hard for corporations to build authenticity into a business case and justify spend around it.
So, what can companies do?
“Experimentation is key. I believe that social champions are evolving into champions of change and internal transformation. I actually see businesses changing how they approach social media to deliver value to the consumer,” Solis said. “We’re at the end of decades of moving away from the customer, automating their experiences, and interpreting loyalty by how much they spend not how much they drive business and that’s changing because of the tenets social media encourages. But not of this is possible without the voice of the consumer and employee gaining strength and the voice of change agents who are making a difference internally.”
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