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On Social Media? Get Real or Die

For companies on social media, brand trust is the new economic currency. Fake it at your own peril.
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The topic of authenticity in today's social media age fascinates me. If you follow me on Twitter, you'll find I frequently pose questions about determining authenticity (more on my informal findings in a bit). I have a heightened sense of awareness thanks to articles I wrote on the importance of customer service and best practices for customer reviews. So when I heard about a new book by Bob Garfield and Doug Levy, "Can't Buy Me Like: How Authentic Customer Connections Drive Superior Results," I leaped at the chance to do an interview with Garfield.

We're Against Sock Puppetry

If you haven't ever read something from Bob Garfield or heard him speak, to say he doesn't mince words is an understatement. He began our conversation by laying out the premise of his book: "Anything that's sock-puppetry, clandestine, phony, false or subterfuge, we are against."

His rationale is simple: People aren't stupid. If a company tries to exploit social media artificially, they'll eventually be caught and exposed publicly. The consequences could stain their reputation forever.

Social Media ≠ Advertising & PR

"Any company that thinks that advertising and public relations should just be transferred to social media doesn't understand what social media really is," Garfield says. "Most companies with social media programs are doing everything exactly wrong. Instead of trying to build an authentic and real customer experience, most companies' social media efforts are too broadcast, too one-way, too scripted."

Better Run Companies Do Better Social Media

Garfield asserts that companies that run better from the inside out perform better in social media. "When everyone at a company knows why they're there, mistakes in social media occur less frequently." In other words, "A company that runs itself better internally is also more likely to be more authentic externally," and it probably has less to hide.

This is important because Garfield believes that "the image of a company cannot alone be manufactured by advertising, and those that have to advertise their way into your attention have to spend three times more than companies who earn your attention by capturing it authentically."

Over time, "institutions that distill, define and embrace a purpose will outperform those that merely aim for maximizing shareholder value." Those companies will enjoy other benefits, too, including a lower advertising spend and more customer trust. And when customers trust you, they're more likely to forgive if you do make a mistake.

Ironically, "these successes will ultimately provide better shareholder value," claims Garfield.

Garfield's book highlights companies who "get" social media, including  Zappos, Patagonia, Krispy Kreme and Panera Bread .

Authenticity Should be Easy...But It Isn't

When I asked Garfield why he thought something as simple as authenticity wasn't practiced more often, he gave a few reasons:

  1. It goes against everything that senior management at big brands learned at business school
  2. It goes against the kind of mass marketing and mass media that every brand already knows and loves
  3. Change is difficult

Which brings me back to my own obsession with authenticity, and how customers judge it. What are our sniffers, the authenticity filters by which we determine the "realness" of a person or brand on social media? It seems there isn't a singular answer to this question either. Here are some of the responses I've gotten on Twitter:

  • "Genuine interaction and connection.  And maybe a smidge of imperfection," where "genuine" is further defined by "1) [Tweets are] Personal; 2) Depth of Relationship; 3) Non-automated responses" (@McTeamShari)
  • "Your ability to have an opinion on something not related to your core business competency" (@graywolf)
  • "Consistency of content. People who stay true to their brand are authentic. Bios are useful, but more useful is the history of content published." (@adamjbrill)
  • "Face & profile, generosity (helping & participating), personalization of topics and opinions" (@WagLegalEnglish)
  • "Meeting someone in person, having verified contacts in common, talking by phone, chatting online in real-time-in that order." (@caddguru)

How do you judge authenticity and what kind of role do you think authenticity will play in business as we go forward?  Please help with my obsession by adding your comments and thoughts.

IMAGE: AFP/Getty Images
Last updated: Mar 7, 2013

HOLLIS THOMASES | Columnist | President & CEO, Web Ad.vantage

Client advocate, digital strategist, and thought leader Hollis Thomases, founder of Web Ad.vantage, helps companies navigate the complexity of the ever-changing digital marketing landscape and develop digital strategies.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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