Don’t Be Authentic: Real Social Media Marketing Advice

By: Guest | January 31, 2012 | 


Today’s guest post is written by Eric Wittlake.

Be Authentic.

A chorus of advisors and consultants that have beaten the authentic drum in recent years.

It only takes a brief look at the world around us to realize we really don’t want to see authentic in social media. What we really want is something carefully constructed, with enough personality and individuality to look real instead of robotic.

Before you jump back on the authentic bandwagon, consider what a real authentic social media presence would reflect.

Corporations Serve Shareholders First

Yes, some will say corporations should serve their clients, their community, and their employees. However, beyond ideological arguments, the justification for these positions comes back to creating a profitable long-term business.

Good corporate citizenship is ultimately about good corporate results. If corporations didn’t believe it could serve long-term shareholders, most companies would not respond to customer service complaints on Twitter or develop communities on Facebook.

The bottom line of ROI is the corporation’s income, not our satisfaction.

“Authentic” would tell us discounts are designed to increase revenue, profits, executive compensation, and shareholder dividends by convincing us to spend more. As individuals, we want to believe we are important, that a deal is a great opportunity for us.

We don’t want to be reminded that your business isn’t in business to serve us.

Real People Lie, Cheat, and Steal

People have been criminals and cons for as long as history has been recorded. Turn on the news any night, in any city big or small, and you will see a side of people you don’t want to like on Facebook or follow on Twitter.

Criminals, cons, ponzi schemes, spam bots… There are real people behind every one of these. In social media, we rail against these self-serving manifestations of authenticity at the same time we blindly call for authenticity!

Authentic Means Showing ALL Your Flaws

Companies carefully craft an image for themselves. Today, that image often allows personality and distinction to show through, but that does not make it authentic. It is carefully crafted to project a certain image of your company.

Cindy Crawford proudly displayed her signature mole as part of a crafted image of herself. Her mole created an element of distinction for her, but her entire image was carefully crafted with makeup, hair, lighting, photography and likely, photo touchup as well.

Like your social media presence, this is part of a projected image, not an authentic one.

In Summary

We don’t want to see the authentic you in social media. So put on your face. Project your carefully constructed image. Just never let us see the real spirit behind your activity.

Always remember: Your audience is ruthless. If you are authentic and display your true motives, we will call you a jerk. If you carefully project your image and then slip up, we will call you a fake. So project your image and always stay in character.

Eric Wittlake is an B2B marketer and blogger. You can find Eric on Twitter @wittlake or on his blog, B2B Digital Marketing, when he isn’t working with B2B clients on media and integrated marketing programs at Babcock & Jenkins.

Lead image: Creative commons, commercial use allowed with attribution

Bicycle image: Eric Wittlake

  • Mediameeter

    @ginidietrich @ericwittlake Flavors are authentic, and often careful blends. We can taste the difference, even if we can’t stop to enjoy

  • ginidietrich

    Hi Eric! I was telling Lisa that I spent a bunch of time Sunday morning on your blog. Sunday afternoon I opened our admin to see what was going on for the week and there you were! It’s kismet or something. Thanks for the contribution!

    This idea of transparency and authenticity hit me about nine months ago when I was speaking somewhere (I lost track) and someone in the audience said, “But if you want me to be really transparent, I have to provide proprietary information, such as financials, if asked.” We talked about the idea that you still have intellectual property and the secret sauce you don’t have to put out there, but that makes it not-so-transparent, doesn’t it?

    I think, rather than authentic, we need to be human. This is something maddiegrant and jamienotter talk about in Humanize. It’s rather ridiculous that we can go to a cocktail party and talk about interesting things, but online we act like we have no social skills.

    I say all of this to say, yes, I agree with you.

    • jamienotter

      @ginidietrich maddiegrant For both the conversations about transparency and authenticity, the key is understanding that we do not need RADICAL or EXTREME versions of either. You don’t have to share everything, nor would it be a good idea. But authenticity is a very important part of human organizations if you ask me. Actually transparency, authenticity, and another one that is inherent in this post–truth–are all components of the human element of Trustworthy that we talk about in the book.

      It’s still a choice, though. Many companies can choose to be less trustworthy. To reveal less, tell watered down truth, and only show their good side. A lot of them will continue to succeed. But i think the odds are shifting. I think the power for really amazing success lies in pushing the edges on transparency, truth, and authenticity. It may be messy at first. We may see things we didn’t expect, or get some reactions that are negative. But over time the power of connecting to being trustworthy, that human trait that is so important and aspirational for us…there’s power there and I think we should move towards it.

      • @jamienotter Jamie, you nailed it. Let me add another word to the mix, that I used in my reply to @ginidietrich as well. Believable.

        Companies that only show their good side are no longer believable, and companies that are not believable are definitely not trustworthy. When we talk about trustworthiness, we are still talking about an image we create. What is changing is what we, as individuals, will believe about a company.

        To me, that isn’t authenticity from the companies perspective. When we talk about authentic, what we usually mean is something that seems believable. To us, in the audience, we believe it could be authentic. But when a marketer looks inward, that isn’t actually authentic, it is still a carefully constructed and supported believable image.

    • @ginidietrich Thanks Gini! Wow, what timing.

      As others are pointing out, the definition of authentic is what people are reacting to here. I don’t believe being authentic requires disclosing everything (financials? no). On the flipside though, I do believe it means not lying.

      To me, what this really comes down to is being BELIEVABLE. What has changed is the threshold of what we will believe. We will not believe that you are perfect. We know you have flaws. As marketers, we have to project a believable image and we then have to live up to it. If we don’t, people will see through it very quickly. Is that image authentic? In my opinion, it rarely is. But it can’t be something people readily can see through.

      Thanks for the opportunity to share here at your place!

  • slindenhof

    @roosvanvugt leuk artikel

    • roosvanvugt

      @slindenhof waarom?

      • slindenhof

        @roosvanvugt nog knap lastig om dat in140 tekens te verwoorden, ik vind de hang naar “authentiek” zijn interessant

      • slindenhof

        @roosvanvugt in 2005 een tijd in Austin gewoond, het was daar een trend om op elke menukaart een emotioneel ontstaansverhaal te drukken

      • slindenhof

        @roosvanvugt als je al die kaarten naast elkaar legt lees je in feite steeds hetzelfde verhaal maar de klanten smulden

        • roosvanvugt

          @slindenhof hang naar anders? Vermaakt te worden?

        • slindenhof

          @roosvanvugt ik denk dat het om vertrouwen/geborgenheid/veiligheid gaat. Als iets authentiek wordt ervaren voel je je minder snel belazerd

  • Hey Eric, I’ve been sitting here reading and thinking about your post all afternoon because in some way I disagree with you, though I’m having a hard time trying to articulate my reasons, and perhaps we’re just dealing with semantics. As Gini points out, it might be our definition of authenticity. I don’t believe authenticity is revealing EVERYTHING, i.e. proprietary information, etc. Or even personal information. I don’t believe that authentic is showing all of your flaws. Even if we were to meet in person, we can have a very real and authentic relationship without revealing everything about ourselves including our flaws.

    I think most people understand that businesses are in business to make money, but on the other hand, it is customer satisfaction and service that is going to impact the ROI. So it’s a chicken and egg thing, perhaps.

    I think, in the spirit of this blog, it’s the difference between spin and no spin. It’s admitting you’re wrong when you’re wrong, and not trying to spin it and get away with something.

    Still haven’t fully articulated what I’m struggling with here, but then again, I haven’t been able to fully pinpoint it in my mind. But I understand where you’re coming from.

    i like Gini’s comments on being human, Perhaps it’s being real.

    • @KenMueller Wow, thinking about this throughout the afternoon? Glad it sparked a reaction and thank you for sharing!

      Yes, we definitely get mixed up in the semantics here. Authentic doesn’t mean revealing everything, but the line blurs very quickly.

      There was a TV ad a couple years ago of a guy riding a lawnmower, living the ‘perfect’ life. The punch line: “I’m in debt up to my eyeballs”. His life wasn’t authentic because he was projecting an image that was very different from the reality.

      So where is the line between what we need to share and what we can conceal? And is it a line that, as marketers, we can really say we will never cross? Personally, I don’t believe it is.

      Love the comment, thank you for sharing!

      • @Wittlake Thanks, definitely something to think about. See, I don’t think that commercial is an issue of authenticity. I think we all have things like being up to debt in our eyeballs. It doesn’t make us less authentic in how we live our lives necessarily. I see what you mean, but I’m not sure it’s necessarily what I would call “authenticity”

  • maryhruth

    This viewpoint is so dark … and I’m gonna call it a bit simplistic. Things are not so black and white. The challenge of the internet is to become more ourselves while we become more social. To develop a way of communicating that is more authentic than Madison Avenue glitz does not necessarily imply a radical shift to naked honesty.

    So even though there are definite, early limits to authenticity online, it behooves us to continually test the edges, seeking the best, most effective expression of ourselves and our purposes.

    Our uniqueness combines with social proof to bring us success via the internet, and that’s always a delicate balance.

    • @maryhruth Hi Mary,

      Thanks for the comment. You are right, it is simplistic, but I think anytime a group latches on to a word that represents a principle, the meaning of the word starts to take precedence.

      This post first struck me when I saw the bicycle pictured in the post. That is real, that is authentic, and yet when we see the equivalent in social media, we lash out against it.

      To your point, we need boundaries, and that is what this is about. Those boundaries are what we construct our image within and we each have our own view of where those boundaries are. But almost all of us are projecting an image that isn’t exactly the same as the one we have with our families. Does my family recognize the “me” that lives online? Yes (I think!). But it is a louder, less introverted version of the me with a different set of priorities than they see at home.

      Thanks for adding a different perspective, I appreciate it.

  • Anneli

    @roosvanvugt Comments gelezen? Snijden meer hout dan auteur zelf namelijk.

    • roosvanvugt

      @Anneli jep, jij staat er nu ook onder 🙂 (check blog)

  • ryancox

    I really enjoyed this post — especially for the thought it provoked in me. @KenMueller you beat me to the punch. I’d been here struggling with that same thought. (Side note: I have a tendency to get defensive against my beliefs, and immediately down-play and disregard others…a character flaw I’m working at very hard to better) But that wasn’t my push-back. And like you suggested in your reason Ken, I think we could just be arguing semantics. Toe-mate-o vs. To-mat-o. I like @ginidietrich ‘s comment about being humans too … I mean to error is human after all right? I hate the idea of pulling in another blog but I read a pretty interesting post from Yahoo! Finance today (–pretentious-and-useless-business-jargon.html) and I think this word falls in line beautifully with the premiss of the post. Maybe it’s we’ve changed the business jargon of ‘authentic’ to means something differently than what it actually means. I agree with the extreme points you bring up Eric, and I think that at the root-word level, you’re spot on. So much in business depends on what the words means to both the person using it and the person receiving it. However, with generalities that start to be assumed and use by the masses, I think we start to walk down a very slippery slope.

    I’m rambling, and I’m not sure I’ve got my point across. I think the short answer is: I agree with you, and I didn’t think I would right after reading. But given additional thought, it strikes me as something that can be expanded on. So thank you for that Eric. I’m writing a blog post for tomorrow that highlights your post here and what it caused me to contemplate.

    • @ryancox Wow, thanks Ryan, appreciate it! I would appreciate it if you ping me when your post on twitter (wittlake) when your post it out!

  • ‘Authenticity’ has become sort of a pet topic for me; I find myself reflecting on what it means at a fundamental level. In fact, just about every blog post I’ve written in recent months has authenticity as a subtext woven through it. At its core, I think we need to stop treating ‘authenticity’ as a tactic or strategy. It’s a state of being *as perceived by others*. It’s an outward reflection of the rules that you follow, the core principles you express through actions, the way you relate to others.

    We abused the lexical meaning of ‘authentic’ into oblivion.

    • @jasonkonopinski SM circles have a tendency to abuse a lot of words into oblivion. It’s part of the constant reinventing the wheel that comes from the belief that everything is new and trendy whilst constantly chatting with the same people. Yes, authenticity not an actual “strategy” itself, excellent points.

    • @jasonkonopinski LOVED this line: We abused the lexical meaning of ‘authentic’ into oblivion. — couldn’t agree more!

  • I have a post in the works about authenticity even though that poor word has been done to death (I was talking to @KenMueller about it recently), so when I saw the title of your post, I was like, “Whaa?!”

    I’m in @jamienotter ‘s camp – not everything has to be shared. There is a limit. I mean, no one needs to know you’re tweeting from the loo. Besides which, you shouldn’t BE tweeting from the loo, but I digress. I guess to me, it’s making sure your “face” (and I’m a strong believer in that) and what’s behind the face have similarities. And that is the crux of my to-be-published post… which will now need to link back here!

    • @Shonali @KenMueller@jamienotter Should the gap between who you are and who you represent to be get too wide, well, there’s danger in that.

      • @Shonali Also? + 10 internets for using ‘loo’! 🙂

      • @jasonkonopinski Well said. When the gap is too wide, we see right through it. You will not be living up to the image you are attempting to project and you will get called on it.

        @Shonali @KenMueller @jamienotter

    • @Shonali@jamienotter I think I know when I’m running my post on this as we discussed Shonali, though mine is on a much different…er…level.

      • @KenMueller As long as it’s not typed in the loo… @jamienotter

    • @Shonali Thanks Shonali!

      “Face” is a great way to put it. It is a complete image you project, and one you live up too. If there is a big gap between the real you and the public profile, you won’t be able to keep up the act (stay in character), and you will be called out for it.

      Thanks for the comment and the kind share, look forward to your upcoming post!

      • @Wittlake I have my mother to thank for the “face” reference. Ever since I can remember, she refused to go out of the house without “putting her face on.” So that has stayed with me!

  • nameshapers

    True, too RT @simondouw How ’bout this for some nameshaping 😉 “Don’t Be Authentic: Real Social Media Marketing Advice”

  • Brilliant! I applaud your, um, “authenticity”. 🙂

    Telling the truth doesn’t really get you very far in social media circles, as there are a lot of people who really have bought their own BS. So it goes without saying that the only truly “authentic” people are the ones who confront trendy thangs like “authenticity” itself. There’s a recursion inherent in any arguments on this topic that is rich and lovely, so thank you for being upfront on it.

    The whole point of SM is humanizing our products/services, which is to say branding them. Excessive chattiness doesn’t come across as anything like a normal human, but rather as someone with a serious narcissism problem. So keeping it real, not necessarily “authentic”, is going to be what you aim for anyway – if you want people to actually relate to your product, that is, and do your job well. Customers get enough information thrown at them every day, so what they really want is usually a lot closer to “just the facts” than most SM “mavens” and “gurus” will ever understand.

    • @wabbitoid Um, thanks for supporting my authenticity, I think… 🙂

      Thanks for the great addition to the discussion here!

  • Basically, people have been using the wrong word all along. We want something, but it’s not authenticity. We want people to come out from their corporate closets, but with clothes on. We want people to come down off their pedestals, but without destroying it. We want Disney to be real–and yet still be Disney. We want a better show.

    • @ShakirahDawud You are right, “authentic” is the wrong word (or actually, it is applied from the wrong perspective, it shouldn’t be used from the marketers perspective, but rather from the audience’s perspective). We want them to seem real to us, as the folks in the audience.

      As I said in my response to Gini, to me this is about being believable, and in many ways, it is the same as appearing authentic from your audience’s perspective (although it has NOTHING to do with actually being authentic to who you are!). Crazy how we have learned to abuse the language. 🙂

      Thanks for the comment!

  • mandomando

    #interesante “No seas Auténtico” RT @ginidietrich: Real advice about authenticity by @ericwittlake

  • If I could throw my two cents into this discussion – maybe it comes down to something as simple as this: When I invite you into my home, I’m open to show you what’s in my kitchen pantry to see what foods I bought and what cleaners I’m using. I’m not going to show you what’s in my lingerie drawer.

    • @penneyfox Good point.

      Part is definitely choosing what to share, to take the analogy further, it’s like pushing the whiskey to the back of the cupboard first. It starts to shape the image we give someone, sometimes in subtle ways. I think marketers can, and most should, shape that image somewhat as well.

  • ginidietrich

    @ShakirahDawud I liked @wittlake’s blog post too!

  • wittlake

    @ShakirahDawud wow, thanks! Glad you liked the post, and thanks for commenting as well!

  • geoffliving

    What saddens me about this post is that it’s true. And it’s why I have lost a lot of faith in social media.

    • @geoffliving As a place to engage with companies, I certainly hear you. As a way to meet individuals (like @ginidietrich and lisagerber , who opened the door for me to post here), I find social media to be incredibly valuable. The trick for companies is harnessing that personal value, and their activity as a “brand” isn’t always the way to do so.

      I’ll stop there though, or I will end up writing another full post in this comment!

  • SpinSucks

    @eleanorpie Ha! that’s what I always thought about the BP CEO. He was an authentic JERK. 🙂 (to say the least)

    • EleanorPie

      @SpinSucks RIGHT. Personally, my authentic self is only about 65% suitable for public consumption.

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  • ChristyMcFerren

    Or… be authentic and work on your character so your face is real.

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