The Importance of Being Authentic

Recently, I wrote a post on social media for Little House Communications, a Boston-area group that helps organizations and non-profits understand the importance of implementing two-way conversations and connections between their staff and their members.  (Full Disclosure: I am a member of the LHC team).

My reasons for doing so lay in the fact that by far one of the most popular remarks LHC hears from clients (and that I myself heard during my tenure as Content Editor for Zeo) is “I want to use Social Media but I have no idea what this means or how to “do” it.”  Quick on the heels of that comment, however, is “but I don’t want to sacrifice my company’s image in the process.”

Now, I understand that some of this panic around the integration of social media in a professional setting owes a debt to the hype generated by both the social companies themselves (like a Facebook IPO) and the way that news media outlets report, edit, and present stories relating to social media use (see The Atlantic’s 2012 cover story, Is Facebook Making Us Lonely? for a good example of this).  When one hears that “everyone is doing something” it instantly raised the question “why am I not doing this?”  This becomes especially poignent when others start asking you if you’re making use of these platforms, especially if they are people who you respect, trust, or want to impress, such as a potential client, a board member, or even a close friend.

How Most People View Social Media

I also get the sense that some of the discussions around social media center on the newness and seemingly ubiquitousness presence these platforms now have in our lives.  It is truly amazing that we can now connect with complete strangers –to say nothing of robots on Mars— by simply using machines originally designed to process data or speak to someone.  Yet it is this newness that causes many to flounder and think social media is something they just don’t understand or don’t know how to do.

Social Media = Human Interaction and Communication

The good news is that much of social media, like other connective technologies such as books, letters, the telephone, and television, is based upon human interactions, networks, and social functions which themselves are in a large part, influenced by notions of trust, honesty, and authenticity–notions that we all have some idea or opinion about. Yes, there is some image control involved, but it’s not the prime mover of social media platforms; a combination of sharing and trust-building are. We as humans like to share and spread information that we not only trust but think is helpful to both ourselves and to others.

Moreover, since we are social creatures, much of what we need to know about how to use social media has already been instilled in us long before we decided to get on that Facebook thing.  Communication and sharing are neither abstract thoughts or processes; if we didn’t learn how to communicate from our parents, we certainly learned it through repeated interactions with our peers and neighbors.  Lots of research has been conducted and published over the decades regarding human and animal communication behavior, illustrating the importance of communication in order to maintain the safety, unity, and cohesion of a group in the face of known and unknown threats, as well as how often we communicate with those who are different from us and how that affects our behavior.  This is how we figure out who are our friends and partners, who are our enemies and competitors, and who cannot be trusted.

For a brand or company, this is frustrating.  Not only do you want everyone to think that your product or service is cool you, but you want them to share it with others as well.  On top of that, you also want people to trust you, to not lump you in with the other big, bad companies or, if you’re a big company with a questionable past, believe that you’re no longer employing 10 year olds to make sneakers in sweatshops.  However, if your message is not convincing or interesting, people just won’t share it.  Or if they do, it won’t be with the enthusiasm needed to convince their friends that your product is worth investigating.  Likewise, if you or your company come off as a complete jerk or if you end up giving someone else’s friend a hard time, then the message that will be shared will not be positive.

So, okay.  If social media is all about cultivating trust to promote sharing, and if sharing information, forming connections and making use of social and familial networks to advance our own goals is what we humans naturally do, then how should organizations go about using social media platforms?

Keep it Real

It’s pretty easy:  use them to share your authentic, believable self.  The use of “believable” here is to underscore the fact that authenticity by itself doesn’t always work.  If you’re an authentic critic of everything, not many will like you. Sorry.   Likewise, if you say you’re an astronaut but work as a dentist, you’ll also be regarded with suspicion.

Oscar’s got a point.

However, if you can believably suppress your tendencies to criticize (or better yet,give them up) and instead focus on listening to others, they’ll reward you with their trust.  It’s then up to you to not betray that trust.  Once this bond has been established, they’ll start to share their faith in that trust with their friends and networks.  For you, this can mean sales, revenue, growing influence, or even the spreading of your ideas to the wider world.  All at the price of not betraying who you are.

The good news is that we already know how to earn people’s trust, be true to ourselves, and be believable in the process; it’s what Mom taught us all those years ago.

In real nuts-and-bolts-company terms, it means not hiding behind your webpage or logo but putting yourself out there front and center. The simple act of posting a company group photo on your site or displaying it on your Facebook page will show others that you’re an organization made up of real people not all that different from the ones your company manifesto says you’re trying to reach.  Signing Facebook or Twitter posts with your name or initials (or better yet, sharing your personal Twitter handle as a means of communication) helps others see that there’s a real human being on the other end, not just a bot.  Making a promotional video with your staff, not with actors, is another way to show your authentic, believable self.  Just don’t use your staff as substitutes for fans, though.

Once you get into the habit of being authentic online, you’ll find that it will not only get easier, but people will reward you for doing so.  You’ll be able to not only grow your followers but nurture the ones who first said “I trust you.”

As a final note, I’ll leave you with this case study on the the importance of authenticity in forming connections and building trust between you and your audience.

Will the Real Mitt Romney Please Stand Up?

For the past 12 months, one of the biggest critiques of Mitt Romney is that no one has any clear idea of who he is.

Despite all the ads, all the soundbites, and posturing, no one really believes that he is anyone other than a wealthy Morman businessman with a keen sense of opportunity and a hankering for  high status.  This wouldn’t be that big of a handicap if he had found ways to leverage that to his advantage, but as far as anyone can tell he and his campaign strategists have done the opposite.

Instead of a socially moderate man and one-time governor of a small, liberal-leaning state celebrating taking ownership of what he’s done and what he stands for, his campaign team and supporters have been working to highlight some very not-believable traits and background, such as foreign policy experience, social conservative bona fides, a deep understanding of American Black History, and knowing what exactly it’s like to pay more than a 15% tax rate on income year after year.  Not only does this produce a very schizophrenic campaign, but it’s also garnered an incredibly unenthusiastic level of support from the Republican base, the very people who they should already be in touch with and trusted by. The only reason why some will now for such a guy is because they hate the other one even more –and look at how that worked out for John Kerry in the 2004 race.

Even worse, those outside of the base–whose support is needed to win the election–are not reassured.  And why should they be?  With a robust sharing network now at their fingertips, they can just as easily pull up competing audio clips, press releases, and articles of Mitt taking numerous stances on the same issue — and easily share it with all their friends. Case in point: Look at all those links in the paragraph above.  Each one of them goes to a not-so-great article that has been viewed, shared, and commented on by many. It’s not a good spot to be in — and you certainly don’t want to be there yourself.

So learn something from Mitt.  As tempting as it is to make yourself over and sweep the embarrassing information under the rug, don’t.  Instead, be your authentic, believable self.  That way, those who trust you can persuade their friends why they, too, should trust you.

And that’s really how social media works.