Consumers are more discerning than ever. This is driven, in part, by social media platforms that make testing and reviewing brands seamless. It's also a result of brands working harder at making real connections with their customers through social media and other channels. As consumers become accustomed to brands reaching out, making personal connections, and sharing bespoke content, the expectations keep getting higher.

As a result, businesses are scrambling to keep up with consumer expectations for "authenticity" in brand experiences. Like any buzzword, authenticity can mean a lot of things, but when it comes to branding, it generally refers to how well a business connects with real people through effective content marketing. Put differently, do people consider the brand to be honest and engaging.

According to research by Bonfire Marketing, 91% of consumers say they expect brands to be authentic in their communication, particularly on social media. Add that to the fact that 63% of respondents indicated that they'd be more likely to engage with a brand they deemed to be authentic, and it's clear why companies need to rethink their content strategies. The following are some of the fastest and best ways to start marketing your brand authentically.

Authentic Imagery

Visual branding is critical in today's social media driven landscape. Instagram and similar applications have elevated demand for high-quality images to show how products and services fit with consumer lifestyles. Matt Munson, CEO of Twenty20, an authenticity-driven stock photo platform, explains, "Visual storytelling has become a powerful mechanism to help brands create lasting connections with their audience. It's compelling imagery and content that when paired together successfully, invites people into the conversation and creates that bond."

The trouble is, most brands don't have the time to commit to photo shoots and bespoke visual content creation. To make matters worse, stock photo giants primarily offer images that feel manufactured. Munson explains the problem with that approach, "As visual creatures, we connect with imagery that feels authentic and real. Traditional stock photography, while convenient to use, lacks the real human connection smart brands are looking for."

That desire for authentic imagery is giving rise to stock photo services that offer images that feel more like something you'd see on Instagram. Whether you have an in house visuals team, or leverage stock photos, it's critical to make sure that the images you choose to represent the brand have a more human touch.

Authentic Storytelling

Back in the day brands could get away with blatant product placement or invasive advertising, but in today's increasingly social landscape, such attempts to sell without relationship building will be met with skepticism and even scorn. In fact, Elite Daily research found that only 1% of millennial consumers think that compelling ads increase their trust in a company. This is further evidence that organizations that fail to humanize their messaging won't gain much traction with consumers in channels that require storytelling.

It helps to look at brands that have been successful at using content to connect with consumers. GoPro set an example for how to crowdsource content to tell stories and grow a brand. Instead of trying to tell one brand story, the camera maker gathered and elevated its customers' varied interests and hobbies and let each of them tell their own story with the product. Years after their launch, over 6,000 videos are uploaded and tagged #GoPro every day. While not every brand can rely on their customers to create content, every company should be telling stories that create real connections with their customers.

Authentic Influencers

Everyone knows that influencers are an important part of any brand's marketing strategy, but getting authentic influencer engagement is even more important. See Pepsi's recent mishap with "influencer" Kendall Jenner. As people search for honest brands, celebrity endorsements or obvious paid influencer support won't help marketing efforts.

Instead, companies need to partner with influencers and let them honestly engage with the brand in their own voice. The benefit behind working with established influencers is that they have an audience that looks to them for recommendations, insights, and relevant content. The last thing any brand should do is subvert that connection with their audience by controlling the messaging. When people see an influencer authentically sharing a brand, they are much more likely to do the same. Whether a company makes connections with influencers or works closely with an agency, the focus must remain on letting those influencers experience and share the brand on their terms.

Authenticity Takes Time

It's important to note that in most cases being transparent, vulnerable, and authentic represents a significant time investment for any business. Particularly those that don't have teams dedicated to developing new brand assets. This is why it's critical to leverage tools and resources that deliver on authentic branding so you can focus on the parts that simply can't be streamlined, like personal connections on social media, or effective storytelling.

A word to the wise, don't tout being an authentic brand without putting in the requisite effort. Doing so may cause consumers to start sharing where your brand falls short with their friends, and worse, on social media platforms. If you make sure you're doing everything possible to show that your company is authentic, you probably won't even need to say it.

With the number of channels through which customers can be reached growing rapidly, it's important for brands to be omnipresent without losing their soul. As Munson puts it, "As consumers, we're overwhelmed by choice and communications. I want to be invited into a brand experience. I want to be invited into a mission or a lifestyle." Companies that entice their consumers into something meaningful stand to gain customer share, in a market that depends more and more on consumer perception and authentic brand experiences.