The Age of Authenticity Washing

Two x Two Faces
Two x Two Faces by J.D. Hancock

There have been a couple of recent posts acknowledging the decline of authenticity on the social web. In reality, authenticity as it was preached in the mid 2000s for all intents and purposes is a lost art. Today, we have formulaic gestures, and acts and boasts of authenticity instead of people being people.

Authenticity washing is abound. Whether it’s a demonstration of flair, declarations of being the real thing, and even protests of being flawed, one has to wonder what we’re seeing. Many people claim to be nice in the social media blogosphere while they curse out their peers in emails or police contrarian opinions through flash mobs.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. To say more would not be mindful. The real behavior is nothing worse than the scandals we see played out in the media, and is simply a demonstration of the human condition. But what we are told is not authentic.

There are a few reasons for this decline in authenticity. One is the over-commercialization of the social web. The second is the rise of the personal brand movement. No matter how many personal branders claim reputation based on actions, the practice encourages putting forth a contrived image to the marketplace. In the end, authenticity has declined because people are afraid of looking bad. Courage — the ability to act in the face of fear — has and will always be at a premium.

So the authenticity washing will continue. There is no formula for being authentic, folks. Authenticity is simply being you, good and bad and everything in between. Be you.

In the end, talk is cheap on the social web. Actions are not. Watch what people do, not what they claim.

What do you think about the state of authenticity on the social web?

Listening Is Key, But Don’t Forget Your Research

by Heidi Sullivan

Stage actors have an old, if somewhat crude, joke. When they read a script it looks something like this: “BS BS BS BS … I enter … BS BS … My line … BS BS BS … Another line … BS BS … My last line … annnnnnnnnnnnd exit.”

Actor with Script
Image purchased from iStockPhoto

As Geoff discussed here three weeks ago, whatever your influencer engagement strategy may be – Direct Community Interaction with Stakeholders, Top Down Influence, Flanking, or Creating a Groundswell – you need to first “read the tea leaves” to be successful. He rightly spoke of the importance of listening prior to engagement in social media.

But, listening is just not enough; it’s too passive. And to a lot of people, engagement sounds too much like “this is when I get to talk.” Let’s rethink engagement as a process that begins long before you post a comment to someone’s blog or show your face on Twitter. It begins even before you start listening. True engagement means committing yourself to a deeper understanding of your communities – discarding outdated assumptions, re-learning basic drivers of perception and behavior (and identifying possible disruptions), knowing who is doing the talking and where their head is at, and finding the right, real voice that adds to the discourse.

Knowledge should come first. In-depth research can lead to true engagement – knowing how to listen and what to listen for. From this comes a greater intimacy with your online communities, better networking and interpersonal communication practices, and the development of social capital and trust that will be the foundation of a rewarding social media presence.

Step 1: Learning to Listen

Before you can figure out who is talking about you or your industry (or who should be talking about you!) it’s important to understand your keywords so you can identify who’s using them. Because your community might not be talking a lot about you yet, find out who’s talking about your competitors and other topics in your space in addition to your brand itself.

Whether you use an advanced social media monitoring solution or free tools to listen to conversations, it’s important to assess the breadth of the communities you’re monitoring. Search across outposts to discover communities, trends and types of interactions in your space in addition to benchmarking your success within your community. Which blogs are receiving comments and tweets? Who is answering Q&As on LinkedIn? Are there any Web 1.0 communities (like Yahoo! Groups) in your space that are particularly active?

As you dig into the content you identify through monitoring, you’ll start to discover the content producers (whether it be through Twitter, a blog, traditional media or another social platform) who are mentioned most frequently, get the most comments and responses, and are producing content that is being shared by others.

Those producers are the building blocks of your stakeholder list. Quite simply, these digital influencers are as unique as snowflakes, and their influence can be felt in very different ways. By measuring across multiple outposts, you can begin to identify patterns of influence.

Step 2: Deep Dive and Discovery

Then, dig a little deeper: go beyond listening to truly understand your influencers, stakeholders and communities. Read all the blog posts, industry news and general community interaction to familiarize yourself with breaking trends, shifting perceptions and tastes, and begin to understand each individual influencer in your community.

Really “knowing your stuff” will put you ahead of the game just by showing that you are aware of what people are interested in – both personally and professionally. Getting to know the stakeholders in your space are simply the fundamentals of solid business networking – with a social media twist.

Analyze what you’ve discovered to develop a solid strategy before diving in. Identify business objectives and establish benchmarks – these will help you in the future when talking to the C-Suite about the benefits and ROI of your program.

Step 3: Authentic Engagement

The cornerstone of engagement is establishing community trust: You can blind copy dozens of journalists on a canned pitch and be dubbed a “spammer” or you can take your initial discoveries and create story ideas, guest posts, tips, breaking news, etc. that intrigue each stakeholder in your community. Guess which one will garner better results?

Ensure that your community interaction is exactly that – interacting as a member of the community and not just pushing your own content. Read blog posts and leave comments, send a related tweet to join the conversation, watch others’ posts on Facebook and LinkedIn. Think of it as digital karma – what you contribute to the community will be returned in kind.

Lastly, remember to maintain relationships that you’ve built. Engagement is not an in-and-out concept – even after you develop a great relationship or contribute great content, you must nurture the relationship to maintain the trust you’ve developed.

And as for that theatre joke, only the “hams” believe things like that. Great actors through the years, from Spencer Tracy to Meryl Streep, have said the same thing: “Acting is listening, truly listening.”

Heidi Sullivan (@hksully) is Vice President of Media Research for Cision North America and a self-proclaimed social media metrics nerd. Heidi was formerly an editorial manager for a firm that produced regional business magazines, an account executive at a PR agency and an editor and media researcher for a major newswire service. She is a host of the popular Cision Social Media Webinar Series, a blogger for Cision Blog and frequently speaks at industry conferences and events on best practices in social media, public relations and the changing media landscape.