Replacing “Authentic” in Social Media

The We Believe Movement.Authentic. You can’t turn around in the social media echo chamber without bumping into this word. The problem is, beyond the social media land of unicorns, authentic isn’t relevant.

As I explored in Don’t Be Authentic: Real Social Media Marketing Advice on SpinSucks, we don’t really want to see authentic in social media. It is an idealized view that for most organizations is as unrealistic as it is attractive. (Aaron Wagner makes some great comments about this in the discussion here on Social Media Today as well).

Authentic is the wrong objective. What is the right one?

Be Believable

The advice to be authentic has been distorted along the way. What is important is how your audience sees you. It does not matter if that image is you with no changes or a carefully refined version of you.

1. Believable is Audience Focused
Authentic creates a conflict. On one hand, you are advised to develop personas and a deep understanding of your audience in order to create an effective social media program. On the other, you are advised to be authentic to who you are. The problem is, authentic focuses on you when you need to be focused on your audience.

Believable solves this conflict. Being believable in social media allows you to deliver value, through education, entertainment or function, based on the personas and audience insight you have developed.

2. Believable Requires Good Social Media Behavior
If you say one thing and do another, you are not believable. Being believable requires being true to what you say you are. It requires identifying a well rounded image you will project and never veering from it.

3. Belieavable Encourages Personality
Today, brands need to engage, not broadcast. Personality creates more memorable conversation, and brands are no different. Being believable requires having a personality (or even lack of one!) that is infused throughout everything you do.

Be Believable

Being believable is about how your connections see you. Believable focuses us on why authentic mattered while acknowledging authenticity often isn’t desirable (if you haven’t yet, read Don’t Be Authentic: Real Social Media Marketing Advice now).

I would offer believable as the word Augie Ray means in his post about Chrysler, Fiat and the Brand Value of Authenticity. Augie doesn’t know if Marshall drives a Chrysler, but he believes it could be true.

This is not about authentic, it is about believable. Chrysler was believable, Fiat was just a thin marketing veneer.

Is Authentic Worth Anything?

There are hints of your authentic business everywhere, and when you deviate too far, you are no longer believable. But as Chrysler did, you can shape the image you project as long as it remains believable.

It’s time to move past authentic and the misdirection it provides and realize social media and modern marketing are about being believable.

Parting Thoughts

Always remember, social media audiences are empowered and can be ruthless in their application of power. Being believable means living what you say you are. Slip up and your audience will call you out. Slip up twice and they may never come back.

Your Turn

Do you agree, is it time to replace authentic with believable? Share your thoughts in the comments below or with me on Twitter (@wittlake).

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  • Interesting take. You may be right, but I’m not ready to give up on “authentic” yet. I believe the world is going to embrace more and more transparency (whether or not companies or consumers want to.)  The pressure isn’t to create something fake but beievable but to BE something. The use of “believable” implies we can craft something we aren’t, but as long as pull the wool over people’s eyes successfuly, that’s okay.Apple “believes” it can convince people it is a green and people-oriented company via its beautiful design, but it may not be able to maintain that if the company isn’t authentically green and people-oriented. Recent coverage of Apple’s environmental policies and vendor relations overseas may prove to be a challenge.

    One other point, being authentic doesn’t mean being just one thing to every audience. You are an authentic friend, an authentic coworker, an authentic child and (I imagine) an authentic parent. This doesn’t make you a fraud, but authenticity is  based on the different needs and relationships with different audiences. As a result, I think brands can be different things to different people–but those different personas cannot conflict and must be based on a set of authentic principles and beliefs.Just my two cents, but I think companies that settle for mere believability will always lose to companies that are truly authentic.  

    • Augie, I certainly don’t want to make the case for companies to lie about what they are. Many that do are ultimately uncovered.

      But there is space between being authentic and focusing on your customer. Today, customer focus still isn’t authentic for some businesses. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t strive to become customer focused. They may be doing it because it is good business, not because it is what they really value.

      The funny thing about believable and authentic? If you live up to the image you project, it becomes the “authentic” version of you from your audience’s perspective. If you do it long enough, hopefully it becomes who you “actually” are. If it doesn’t, the chances that you slip up and the gap between the real you and the image you project is exposed.

      For those few companies that can be authentic (they haven’t had to listen to marketing tell them what they authentically are, it really is completely infused into the culture), they have an advantage. But today, I don’t believe most companies are in that enviable position.

      I really appreciate the comment and prompt to continue thinking about this, thank you!

      • “Authentic means your actions match your words – we call  it “eating your own dog food” – Eric, I love this line of thinking, yet I think you might be beating up a perfectly good word in an attempt to get at the right application of behaviors. Perhaps the word “authentic” has been used too much in the social marketing space, but I agree with Augie, I’m not ready to give up on it either. People can tell believable lies. I’m not interested in that. 

        This is a great conversation. 

        • Thanks Jeff! I’m not interested in believable lies either, but we all do put on a public face at times (yes, I certainly do). This becomes interesting when we truly live it out. Done well, it allows companies to determine what they need to be, by focusing on their audience, and then becoming what they may initially be only pretending to be.

          Done well, I don’t think it is a lie, it becomes part of how a company evolves with their audience, “being” what they need to be (but are not yet) and through continually living that, actually becoming something very close to it.

          Thanks for keeping this conversation going here and with the great post on your blog as well!

  • Authentic means your actions match your words – we call  it “eating your own dog food” in software development; its when the team uses the product they’re developing to solve their own problems, and/or the company implements the solutions they’re selling to others – you’d be surprised how often companies don’t apply their own tools internally!  Its referred to as “biztegrity” here:                         

    How about going further and Instead of “believable” why not use “credible”…

    • Take it a little further? Definitely! Credible… ok. It adds (to me) the idea of not just being believable, but worth believing (a credible source). In B2B marketing, where I spend most of my time, credibility is definitely important. I wonder if that may differ more across markets?

      Great addition, thank you for sharing!

  • Well, what is the truth anyway – an interpretation at most. Whether you are believable or authentic – you still need to be coherent. Some industries require authenticity others not. I think it really depends on, actually, your audience and your cause… 

    Maybe if I’m selling toilet paper I don’t need to be authentic – although it may be an interesting twist to a toilet paper sales pitch… 

    • You are the second person to mention “coherent” as an alternative. I believe the result of focusing on coherent is similar to believable. All the parts had to come together in a way that simply “works”. When that doesn’t happen, we aren’t believable or coherent. I really like though that coherent focuses on the path to believable, it highlights the need for a complete image and does a good job of showing the role personality can play as well.

      A nice alternative, and a welcome departure from authentic, thank you for adding to the discussion!

  • Rob

    This is an instrumental perspective. By being only believable without authenticity, you may gain profit or advantages, but you are deceiving your audience. Lehman Brothers was highly believable before going into bankrupt.

    • Rob, thanks for commenting. Yes, there is a significant risk in masquerading as something you are not. In fact, when you do it, you better do it so well that, from a public perspective (not just a social media perspective), you actually become the thing you were only pretending to be. Lehman is an interesting example. When the gap was finally known, the impact was significant.

      Believable (and coherent, a contribution from others) allows you to shape the image you project. But you still have to live up to it or the image will be quickly shattered.

      Thanks for commenting and adding the risks to the discussion here, I appreciate it!

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  • Comspec1967

    Agree with the thought that “Authentic” is overused buzzword, but concept is solid. Authenticity is about knowing yourself, knowing your limits and definitely expressing that without apology. 

    What’s wrong with ‘authentic’ is that one can be authentically repulsive to an audience, and that’s honest. It’s about brand. I know many people who are authentic, know what they believe, stand up for principles etc. — but I don’t agree with them. I still admire them for knowing who they are and what they stand for. And I can choose to align my choices with theirs or not, but you never create unrealistic or false impressions when you express authenticity, and that’s important for maintaining credibility.

    • I love the addition of “authentically repulsive” here. It is a great point, and it illustrates, to me, one of the problems with focusing purely on authentic and not focusing on what we need to become in order to serve our audience.

      Thanks for the great addition here, I appreciate it!

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  • great point raised, got me analysing – i realized perception is reality – I find in this information explosion, fluidity and ‘flattened’ landscape of communication 24/7 (irregardless timezone or geographically transmitted thoughts, sentiments & ideologies – advertising or word-of-‘mouth’) – authenticity is dependent on source of information. Be it from a recognised institution, a charistmatic speaker, or groups generating messages that ‘sticks’ to its intended audience for the same piece of information generated from the topic – it boils down to status of perpetuator, then, how well it ‘sticks’ to the right influential-info-collector; who then evaluatues that information to hence decide to agree/ disagree

    if org wants to capitalise on this extremely desirable & (almost commoditized intangible asset hence the explosion on talent-scouring for Big Data analytics as part of R&B to ensure continuity/ growth of this asset) publicly conferred ‘realiable’ claim, i personally find that an attribute more reliable than any other yardstick is to aim to look ‘valid’ & ensure the channels the co chooses to connects online to engage its community, is branched out from reliable resources. every dollar counts for IT infrastructure in this wired era of vast & quick information transfer – which also means you either need a great maven to find this deal for you, or have very informed decisions.

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