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Authenticity in social media: Often discussed, less understood, rarely achieved

6th Nov 2012 | Credits to Brooke Hovey

Google “authentic” and “social media,” and in approximately .29 seconds, you’ll see more than 31 million results. Yes, the word “authentic” continues to be one of the most overused and misused words in marketing today, yet in my opinion, it’s perhaps THE MOST important consideration for any brand engaging in social media.

Personally, I like the way Simon Sinek defines “authenticity” in Start With Why as having your WHY, HOW and WHAT in alignment. It’s consistently acting in accordance with your values and core purpose. Contrary to popular writing on the topic, authenticity, in and of itself, isn’t necessarily a good thing. After all, a jerk can be an authentic jerk if his (or her) actions consistently align with his reason for being. That said, I like to believe that most leading brands have noble values, and if they have clarity on their WHY, the real challenge becomes: How do they act authentically through every business decision and stakeholder interaction? This challenge becomes even more complex in a world changed by social media, and here’s why.

Every company employee is a representative of that brand. While this has always been the case, their voices are now amplified through social media, and they’re able to communicate directly with the company’s customers and other key stakeholders. This is true for the employee who posts to a personal Facebook and Twitter account and occasionally mentions work. And it’s even more true for brands’ social media community managers – the employees who publish content and engage brand fans and followers through Facebook, Twitter and other channels. This is a tremendous responsibility! And it’s not one that companies should take lightly.

Now, I’m not talking about the need for a corporate employee social media policy. Companies know this, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a big brand today that doesn’t have a policy in place. I’m talking about something that’s far more challenging: Having a crystal clear understanding of the company’s core purpose, and creating shared meaning across the company (and agency partners) so that every single social media interaction is truly authentic. This is what will separate companies from brands, and good brands from GREAT brands.

Through my experience, I’ve seen several factors that inhibit authentic social media engagement:

      Companies don’t have a clear sense of their “WHY” – their core purpose and reason for being. They’ve lost their way or, perhaps, never had clarity in the first place.
      They’ve failed to create shared understanding of their “WHY” across the company – often, as a result of rapid growth, poor internal communications, and even poor hiring.
      They’ve delegated social media engagement and community management to the lowest level employee (the intern, in some cases), with the misguided belief that it’s a mindless task, and using Facebook socially equips someone apply it in business.
      They’ve delegated social media engagement to an agency without a proper brand immersion and onboarding.


As you can see, the potential for disconnect is present at multiple levels, and large decentralized brands are perhaps the most vulnerable. So what can companies do about this? I’d offer the following advice:

      If you haven’t already, take time to identify and clearly articulate your “WHY.” In most companies, the best approach involves a small core team of senior executives and founding/veteran employees.
      Invest in internal communications so that ALL employees (HQ and field, corporate and franchise, senior and junior) understand the “WHY.” Engage employees often and through multiple communications channels – online and off.
      Hire employees who share the same “WHY” – particularly employees who will be engaging with stakeholders directly through social media.
      Give careful consideration to the employee(s) you place in a social media community management role. Being a Facebook or Twitter power user isn’t a sufficient qualification. This person should have an intimate understanding of the brand, embody its values, possess strong interpersonal skills, and know how to craft engaging content through multiple media.
      Enhance social media training to include a focus on authentic engagement. Illustrate what that means at company X through examples (i.e., Based on our “WHY,” how do we act in social media? How do we talk? What guides our decisions?). Don’t let training stop at policies (what not to do), generic best practices, and the “ins and outs” of social media channels and tools. That’s the easy stuff.
      Recognize employees and celebrate examples of authentic social media engagement as they happen.
      Treat agencies as partners, not just vendors – particularly if they’re involved in the company’s social media efforts (e.g., content, influencer engagement, community management support). Demand a team that truly understands your brand – not just their discipline. And invest in giving them a deep brand immersion so they’re able to provide authentic counsel and ideas, just as if they were employees of the company.

Perhaps most importantly, as companies craft their social media strategies, I’d encourage them to not get caught up in the technology – the latest shiny object – and to lose sight of the fundamentals of brand-building and marketing. At the end of the day, a successful strategy depends on knowing your audience, knowing yourself, and engaging authentically.