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  • Writer's pictureJon McBride

What being authentic in social media marketing really means

Updated: Sep 7, 2020

We've been using this term for a while now, in various ways and contexts. I think it's worth breaking it down a little to define what we're really talking about.

So maybe we start with at least one element we can all agree on in talking about what being authentic means, by looking at what it doesn't mean. The dictionary antonym of authentic is: "fake." We can all certainly agree that fake content which is misrepresenting or manufactured in a way to purposefully be deceptive is certainly not authentic.

But here's where I think things get interesting. Authenticity is much less what we as marketers or communicators think is authentic (or fake) and much more about what our audience thinks is authentic (or fake). Authenticity is in the eye of the beholder.

The dictionary definition of authenticity is this: "Of undisputed origin; genuine." Synonyms include original, real, actual, true, veritable, legitimate, etc.

So while a marketer who creates a polished video piece with perfect scripting, lighting and editing featuring the president of their organization sharing a prepared statement is original and real and true and even genuine, it's that undisputed origin thing that weighs on the audience's perception of its overall authenticity. Not just the origin of the kind of content, but even the origin of the reasoning for the content. The audience might think "While who actually scripted this and what kind of agenda is behind this and what is the president being told not to say and why are they choosing to phrase things like that and what are they not saying that they should be saying and why are they not saying it?" and all of the other considerations that go into disputing the origin and reasoning and biases behind the piece.

There's no doubt that audiences are more skeptical than ever now. Even the most truly authentic content is still open to analyzing and disputing, but on the sliding scale for fake to authentic, there are certainly types of content and ways to feature content that can help it feel, and truly be, more authentic.

In my opinion, the most authentic content that brands can leverage on their own social media properties is account takeovers. I've seen a ton of success personally with an Instagram story takeover series that I've run for five years now. We've seen such incredible results from this that the series has become our No. 1 social media focus.

Obviously it's the first-person, peer-to-peer communication that really gets at what makes this kind of content authentic. We've come a long way from a commercial where someone gives a testimonial with small text outlining that they aren't a paid actor. That stuff just does not come across as authentic anymore, especially when you compare it to someone who's able to share their own lived experience, shot and edited by them, from their own device and able to interact personally with the audience through the DMs through a takeover. Can people still dispute the origin? Can people question the amount of oversight or censorship from the account admins? Sure. Have these things happened? Yes. But overall, that type of feedback in responses to takeover content is extremely rare, and as a whole, the authenticity is able to shine through in some powerful ways.

Another element of authenticity from a takeover use case is that it's not just about the type of content, but also about the context the content is being shared in. Authenticity shines through when you're able to facilitate opportunities to speak with your audience, instead of just at your audience.

Some marketers have called for an entire boycott of the term authentic, others advocate that the word authentic should never exist in a brand strategy. While I think they make a lot of very important points, especially in advocating for drilling down and using more specific, descriptive terms when talking about strategy and tactics, I honestly think we're past the point of no return in getting rid of the term in marketing and communications lexicon.

So rather than villainizing the use of the term "authentic" overall, let's try to be better in talking about and knowing what we're really meaning when talking about the term. As a blanket term, I really do think it's helpful in talking about content that feels accessible, real, unfiltered, user-generated, etc.

I think as a community of marketers and communicators we can all do a better job in talking about what authenticity means in the work way do and the way we do it.

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