Authenticity, one of the most overused words in social media publishing, is promoted as a key tenet of social media engagement for individuals and businesses alike. There's no disputing the mass adoption of social media for information gathering, information sharing, or just plain networking and communications by people around the globe. Once criticized by some as a fad, social media is the preferred method of communication by an ever-growing population, which means we have to pay attention to it and the new rules of engagement that support it.
Augie Ray writes that authenticity was the first casualty in the pursuit of social media connections. He references many examples including a campaign by Einstein Bagels that gave away a bagel to everyone who "Liked" their Facebook page, resulting in a 7,000 percent increase in fans. In another example, he cites a Gerber campaign in which the baby food giant sponsored a baby photo contest that asked friends and relatives to vote for a baby picture after becoming a fan of the brand on Facebook, regardless of whether they ever purchased a product from or had any relationship with Gerber. How authentic is it to coerce consumers into becoming a fan of your business?
Neither of these brands is being truly authentic in their social media campaigns, yet each campaign was successful and each company is thriving.
Recently, I visited a golf resort in Collingwood, Ontario, and experienced a litany of poor service and quality issues. I opened their Facebook page and left a comment reporting the poor service. Within five minutes the post was deleted. When I questioned the management about the poor practice of deleting customer feedback from social networking sites (informing them about how inauthentic this was), they replied: "The reason for this is that we have to protect the investment of other people. By putting negative comments on line the sale and resale value of the timeshares as well as the fractional ownership would hurt."
In other words, their goal is to ensure the value of their property remains high at all costs. He continued with, "We have to protect the interest of our owners and members because we are working very hard to improve and solve the issues that we currently have." Instead of publicly owning up to a problem they recognize having and are striving to solve, (a great example of being truly authentic in social media) they chose to err on the side of financial protection -- authenticity be damned. The protection of a brand and, more importantly, its investors trumps authenticity every time.
We can call out individuals just as easily. How many netizens have become popular or even 'social celebrities' based the presentation of a persona that isn't accurate or based in fact? It's said that social media will call out "fakers" and those who aren't being authentic, yet for each person called out in social media as a fraud, there are 10 who continue to profit from manufactured personas, experiences, and qualifications.
Publicly acknowledging or thanking people in the social forum has become another "rule" that most social media marketers and publishers promote. Businesses are told that you must acknowledge negative remarks and complaints with a sincere "mea culpa" and gush over those that provide positive feedback or recommendations while publicly thanking them. Don't do it because you want to, do it because it's the new social gratitude rule (see "authenticity" above).
Conversely, any mention, share, or acknowledgement requires a swift and public showing of gratitude. Approximately half of my own Twitter stream is made up of people thanking others for re-tweeting their Tweets, for following them, for mentioning them, for replying to them, for listing them in a #FollowFriday Tweet.
Thank you. No, thank you. No, really, thank you.
What would Ms. Manners say about this new social rule? Sure, it's common courtesy to show your appreciation, but how far do we take this? I've seen people shunned and unfollowed because they didn't publicly acknowledge and thank a person who shared their blog post. In fact, it's happened to me. If I were to tweet "thanks" for every mention and share I receive on Twitter, the majority of my content would be social gratitude instead of newsworthy content. Not a bad thing maybe, but what value does that have to those who choose to follow me? Am I not just creating more noise in their social steams?
Passive vs. Active Engagement
The challenge I see is that the rule of expected social acknowledgement and gratitude has created a formulaic engagement process: you did this, and then I do that, in which case you'll reciprocate with this. The rules promoted by social media marketers are creating passive engagement strategies, which are anything but authentic. For example, "Liking" a business's Facebook page is passive engagement whereas posting a picture of you enjoying their product is active engagement. But active engagement is difficult to structure and plan in social media rule books. It requires a focus on superior customer service offline and not planned social media engagement strategies online.
This is permeating many facets of social media engagement. For example, I belong to a very popular blogger community called Triberr, which allows bloggers to form tribes where each member of the tribe can see the others' blog articles as they are published. The expectation is that each blogger will share the posts of their tribe mates on Twitter and various other social channels in order to increase the visibility and readership of each blog in the group. In reality, I've noticed that many -- if not most -- of my tribe mates on Twitter share my blog posts without first reading them. This is a sentiment I've heard from most others in the network. Is this a bad thing? I don't know. Is it authentic? No.
When someone shares an article or blog post on Twitter, is that not an endorsement of the content being shared? Is that not a recommendation for followers to pay attention and read the shared article? Do we not have the expectation that when something is being shared on Twitter that it's an expression of the author's views or information they believe we'd be interested in reading -- and not a contractual or social obligation to satisfy a commitment to a mutual sharing society?
I'm not passing judgement on any of the people or businesses listed in this article, I'm merely pointing out that the principle of social media engagement being based on authenticity has proven to be false. Let's get over it and move on.
What do you think? Too cynical? Is social media really based on authenticity as promised? Does it matter?