As a panelist at a FinanceConnect conference sponsored by LinkedIn in New York last week, I found myself referring, unexpectedly, to a 40-year-old series of lectures delivered by the late Professor Lionel Trilling to frame the challenge the financial services industry faces in harnessing the power, and the potential, of social media.
Sincerity and Authenticity is the title of an obscure book based on Trilling's 1970 lectures at Harvard University, as the Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry. Trilling's premise was that Western society has gradually evolved away from a construct of morality he calls "sincerity" to a formulation of morality more admired and respected in the modern era, which he terms "authenticity."
Trilling doesn't do enough to help his readers understand the difference between the two words, but I've always visualized the difference by contrasting my mother and my mother-in-law. My mother was "authentic" -- an artist, daughter of a world-class narcissist, a recovering alcoholic, suffering from anxiety and depression all her life, possibly the most eccentric person I have ever known (living alone on a farm in rural Georgia with 100 goats, llamas, miniature horses, basset hounds, roosters, Vietnamese pot-bellied pigs), but absolutely committed to being true to herself - no matter what others thought of her. My mother-in-law, on the other hand, is quintessentially "sincere" (in Trilling's terms) -- a Midwestern matriarch, traditionally social, active in her community, fiercely family-focused, insisting always on presenting the best possible "buck up" face to the world no matter how she felt or what was going on inside her family.
Authenticity is about being true to oneself (even at the expense of social connection). Sincerity is about connecting with others (even at the expense of personal truth).
What does this have to do with Finance?
What does it have to do with social media, for that matter?
In the wake of the financial crisis of 2008-2009, investors and other consumers of financial services care a great deal about "authenticity." Increasingly, they are screening the individuals and firms they work with through the lens of whether those service providers have values that align with their own, and whether their behavior is consistent with their values.
Authenticity, today, is a differentiator. That's true in business generally, but it's particularly true in financial services... because authenticity has a lot to do with rebuilding and maintaining the trust that was damaged by and in the financial crisis.
Investors and consumers of financial services are also communicating and transacting more than ever before through digital channels, including social networks, although regulatory constraints continue to limit the ability of financial firms to communicate digitally with their clients as much as their clients would like.
The challenge is this: How do you convey or project authenticity through social media channels? How do you project a commitment to being "true to yourself" through channels which are all about connecting, being social, having as many "followers" or "connections" as possible.
Traditional literature is filled with characters who are "authentic" -- Holden Caulfield from Catcher in the Rye comes to mind -- but who wouldn't come across very well to potential followers in the age of social media. Introspection and speaking one's truth in isolation don't translate well into brand value in a digital age.
My LinkedIn panel was only able to address this question in a limited manner... But we did conclude that in order to convey "authenticity" through social media, one's message and intellectual content need to be about helping others -- whether by teaching, informing, enabling, inspiring -- rather than about self-promotion.
Being authentically sincere -- connecting with others out of a corporate mission and sense of purpose that is all about helping others -- that's how to differentiate in social media channels.
Another way to put this is that both authenticity (personal truth) and sincerity (caring about and connecting with others) are required to build the kind of social media brand customers and clients are looking for these days.