Authenticity in our online presence has been a hot topic for the past few years but seems to be gaining momentum as of late. Top of mind for a lot of brands, it’s been tossed about on webinars, conferences, blogs, discussion groups, and in numerous media articles. However, the ability to be “authentic” as we engage with our online audiences and in the content we share, dangerously comingles with the same advice on how we garner more attention, fame, and following from our social domains.

While being authentic is a noble pursuit, my fear is that most are far more concerned with going viral, getting retweets, or increasing their conversion rates than they are with what it really means to be authentic. In the same breath of discussions on authentic engagement and brand trust come questions on how to beat the crap out of the competition. This may be the intended end result, but hardly a driver for authenticity in its purest form.

For corporate or personal brands, simply defined, authenticity is consistently being true to what the brand stands for in every single interaction. This includes online and in person, with clients, consumers, employees, and vendors, in the work we do, and in the communities we live and serve.

So, how can we become more authentic as we communicate via social platforms and web-based tools? How do we build trust and loyalty with our communities online?

Define Your Online Persona

First and foremost, the way to establish authentic clarity is to define your online persona as it relates to your brand identity. It’s critical to get this right and to test and validate so it’s in step with the other representations of your brand.

“To be nobody but myself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make me somebody else-means to fight the hardest battle any human can fight, and never stop fighting.” — E.E. Cummings

The mistake many have made is to mimic or copy what they see other brands doing online. If you’re Marriott, you wouldn’t mimic the W Hotels persona. If you’re McDonalds, your online brand shouldn’t be like Chipotle as you don’t define yourselves the same way. And if you’re a big brand like IBM, HP, or Accenture, your voice won’t be the same as a small tech startup in Chicago.

While there is a knee-jerk reaction to be hipper, younger, or more controversial online to garner new attention, this can backfire if it conflicts with or damages the basic intent of your brand. Establish a clear, concise persona that emulates what you stand for and how you interact with your key audiences.

Clarify Voice and Tone 

Once you’ve defined your online persona, ensure whoever is articulating it on social media, blogs, websites, webinars, podcasts, and so on, is the best at translating it in terms of voice and tone.

Social platforms are still relatively new to the brand arsenal. Many are quick to turn the keys over to a young millennial simply because they’ve lived it 24/7 growing up and it’s become second nature to them. While this may, in fact, be the case, that doesn’t mean they fully understand how to leverage it for your business, or how to professionally engage with clients and customers online. Their interactions have likely been mostly social up to this point with little exposure to brand interpretation.

Take the time to find the right mix of talent to manage your social presence. Leverage youthful team members with expertise in social, but blend that with seasoned communicators, writers, and brand ambassadors who have more experience with filtering and packaging to best represent your authentic voice. Let them learn from each other so that their respective capabilities are strengthened for themselves, and for the brand.

Listen and Learn

Successful brands are attentive to the needs of their clients and customers. The ability to listen to how they experience every aspect of your business and make necessary improvements that serve their ongoing needs is critical in customer satisfaction and longevity of relationships.

Translating that idea into the online world can be challenging, but it’s a vital exercise for sustainability. Ensuring what you share, how you share it, and how, when, and where you engage, must all be aligned with your brand promise and the expectations of your audience.

Authenticity in listening doesn’t mean taking every suggestion or request and implementing it just to say, “we’re listening.” What it means is listening for the cues, hearing what they really mean or where they’re having the most pain, asking the hard questions of your business and how it can be supported, and whether that aligns to the original mission and purpose. It’s not reactionary—it’s purposeful. And hopefully, you begin to anticipate so you can be proactive and stay ahead of the needs of your key stakeholders. If you listen carefully, they will tell you before they realize they’re telling you.

Lead by Example

Be an online brand that others want to emulate. Skip the sales talk and marketing speak and engage honestly with your audience as human beings. Show the best of your brand when and where it makes sense. Try not to make it all about your product or service – no one wants to be sold to all of the time.

Integrate other activities your company is engaged with into your content strategy. Talk about your organization’s philanthropic pursuits. Show how your employees are impassioned to help and serve others. Talk about the great things your clients are doing. Genuinely congratulate other industry players for the good things they have done.

Make this about your many diverse communities as well as your business so audiences get to experience the human side of your brand.

“Hard times arouse an instinctive desire for authenticity.”  – Coco Chanel

On the flipside, while being genuine and honest is part of authenticity, being fully transparent is not. Transparency is important and certainly part of great leadership, however, it must be managed with care. If you’re a publicly traded company, there are certain levels of transparency you simply cannot share online or anywhere else. If you’re posting about a new innovation in development with your organization long before it’s ready to be showcased, you may be shooting yourself in the foot, not to mention providing a leg up to competitors. Showing personal flaws or mistakes of an executive of your business may be too much for prime time as well.

The point is, use the transparency element of your communication with discretion. Be honest with yourself where and when it makes sense, when you’re being true to your customers and employees, and when it’s important that they as human beings and integral to your business and brand, should know about something. Then, be transparent.

Grow and Evolve

The evolution of brands as markets shift and times change is very real. The pace of technology, the commoditization of many services, and the emerging needs of clients and new customers, all dictate when and how we need to grow and evolve the original mission and objectives of our brand.

When these shifts occur, it’s necessary to re-examine how that may alter our online personas as well. What was once considered authentic may soon feel out of sync or fragmented. Building an agile presence that can scale or adapt with a progressive brand is necessitous.

So while using the original brand promise and characteristics as a barometer of online authenticity is generally a solid practice, reassessing whether the brand has shifted and the palatability of the persona still resonates becomes essential.

Authenticity online can make or break a brand. You can build confidence in consumers, or turn them vehemently against you. When we start to cloud or complicate our interactions with marketing speak, buzzwords, sales tactics, or even ambiguity, the value of the message becomes invalid and lost in a sea of empty chatter. Only when we pursue authenticity with honesty, mindfulness, and generosity, can it be apparent in our voice, action, and long-term results.

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Content Strategist, Messaging Pro, Storyteller

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