The Social Capital of Truth & Honesty: 5 Golden Rules for Social Media Success Through Authenticity

Do we still value “truth”?

The most common questions I hear from clients and friends about social media are all related to how they should present themselves or their brand online.

Good advice on this topic — at least for businesses and business-people — generally centers on treating social media like a ‘networking event’ in real life. The best advice strongly emphasizes the nuances of each social network, and highlights how each serves a unique purpose and is used in different ways by various groups of people and industries.

Another good question for organizations and individuals constantly faced with consumer demands for transparency and authenticity online and off is:

Where do we draw the line between online persona or ‘brand’ and reality?”

Often, we see examples of #socialmedia #branding that both look and feel ridiculous and/or contrived. These marketing efforts always seem to fall flat in the public eye, and are either ignored or mocked by consumers (and in the worst cases, the press). Part of this is simply social media growing up — as we become less susceptible to the tricks of online advertisers, marketing efforts need to become more creative, sophisticated, and thoughtful.

The best of these live on social media in an authentic way (though not TOO authentic) — like the long-running and successful YouTube video campaigns mounted by brands like Redbull and GoPro.

Brands and individuals are constantly looking to replicate this kind of success, but many fail to capture the attention they desire. Here are a few simple rules to follow:

1. Be “selectively authentic.”

Selective authenticity is the secret sauce behind the most popular people and brands on social media. People are getting sick of the overly-curated, the tightly controlled and manicured, and the ‘fake’. This is ever-present in the worlds of celebrities, politics, and equally so in corporate branding. People are often told to ‘show a human side,’ but selective authenticity is more than that. People are getting a keener sense of the contrived and the robotic. If you appear either of those things, online or publicly, it will reflect poorly on you.

This principle is behind the rise of “truth-telling” politicians like Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders, and why people love this interview betweenColbert and Joe Biden. Hillary Clinton is struggling with this at the moment — though she has had success with it in the past.

It is also used by people every day on Instagram and Facebook — the mostpopular users are masters at curating content. They court ‘likes’ and comments by giving others small windows into their lives. The content here really matters, but there’s a reason that you see long, diary-entry style statuses (that share just the right amount of personal feeling in the right way) being shared around and going ‘viral.’ The rise of this long-form content actually gave rise to Facebook’s new attempt at Notes.

It should also be noted that selective authenticity doesn’t always create positive chatter, either. The use of controversy and failure in the world of celebrity (and in branding) to generate chatter is also rooted in this practice of authenticity — people will always support the ones they believe are ‘truth-tellers’ — frauds and liars will usually be shunned. This idea of failure and redemption is particularly true in America, where everyone loves the story of the underdog, or a comeback kid.

2. Know when to be quiet.

According to a lot of internet articles, we’ve reached the point ofinformation overload (which I sometimes feel is true), and we in the marketing world have to come to terms with one thing in particular: People don’t care about everything that happens to you or your company, and it’s important to recognize that sometimes, you just aren’t that important. Your story matters, but similar to in real life interactions, you have to know when to shut up about yourself.

Social media is about content and conversations, and great content adds value to a conversation. Make sure what you’re saying provides substance and gives others a reason to respond.

Additionally, being a loudmouth or publicly fighting on social media is not a great way to establish yourself online — though some people have made a living out of it (like Azelia Banks and Donald Trump) we’re better off if we never see anything like the spat between Time Warner and CBS again.

Fights do not need to be public. Your battles and gripes with your competition are best solved offline. If you’re engaged in a battle on social media, you should step back and examine how this might appear to someone outside the situation — your customers or stakeholders (look at what happened to Meek Mill). It is best not to get involved in the first place — don’t let people provoke you into saying or doing something to retaliate.

Keeping calm and poised is particularly essential in the face of ‘trolls’ or belligerent customers (or even other companies, like in this case). You need to keep a firm hand on the wheel while using social media — make sure that the people who are running the accounts know how to handle themselves under pressure and combat criticism properly. Sometimes, even the executives aren’t fit to do this, as WPEngine’s (a wordpress hosting company) co-founder, Jason Cohen, learned when he called an angry customer ‘bitter and hateful.’

3. Promote others first.

In conjunction with not talking about yourself too much, it’s also important to promote the stories of others more so than your own. As reflected in the above point, no one likes a braggart, especially if it’s a brand. This doesn’t mean ‘promote your competitor,’ but if you’re a company working in the Cyber Security field, it doesn’t hurt to weigh in on the latest hacking, or post an article written by another expert. You can also give your own take on the article, and even engage that person in conversation — sometimes, this is how great business connections are made online.

This is also reflected in research data, and many other sets of social media guidelines, you should post about yourself or your accomplishments only once in every 4–5 posts, while the remaining 3–4 posts should generally be devoted to responding to or posting content from other sources.

4. Listen carefully.

People like being listened to, and getting responses — it makes us feel valued.

This may be contrary to popular belief, but many people online actually dowant to interact with and hear from brands (at least the ones they consume or enjoy). There’s a limit to that rule (because people get annoyed easily), but a one-to-one experience is likely more valuable than the promotions you’re running.

Social media users, a group dominated by the “millennials” (including myself) mentioned in the article above, do want to hear from you on a personal level, and connect with you, similar to how they might connect with a human celebrity, public figure, or even a friend — as Dillon Francis has with Taco Bell or Big Sean with Chipotle online.

The individualized attention that customers enjoy needs to carry over into the customer service realm as well. Customers expect responses to complaints. If you don’t have a contingency plan in place for this before entering the world of social media, you’ll get inundated with complaints that won’t be fixed — which will just lead to more and more complaints, and eventually, could snowball into a larger problem. Social media is perfect for customer service. If you let people have access to you online, you need to make sure to give them what they’re asking for.

5. Never cover up your mistakes.

Nothing stays hidden for long these days, so make no mistake — this article is not a recommendation to cover anything up. This is merely a recommendation to stay within the acceptable bounds of interaction over social media, and put your best foot forward.

When under the social media microscope, it’s best not to look unstudied, unprofessional, or childish. Being ‘human’ on social media is a requirement, but you must act like a mature adult online to avoid damaging your brand. If you are caught in a bind or crisis, often, the best responses are ones that go in line with your brand identity and take ownership of the situation in honest way.

For example, when Taco Bell came under fire over a beef lawsuit, it responded in its typical, sarcastic and humorous fashion — with a “Thank you for suing us.” Granted, not everyone has or wants to build this kind of identity on social media, but Taco Bell has found a niche and sticks with it, because it ultimately works for their brand. For example, Taco Bell and McDonalds managed to make a online brand battle work. This is because they did it in a non-venomous, playful manner, and DIDN’T hurt their customers in the process, unlike CBS and TWC. It’s really all about striking the right tone with your audience, not wearing your emotions on your sleeve.

Owning a mistake in a true and honest way is one of the most authentic and powerful things an individual or brand can do. This is often the only way to regain favor in the court of public opinion — take the reputational hit, and then immediately take substantive, honest, and thoughtful action to regain public trust. This kind of action takes maturity, a deep understanding of who you appear to be in the public eye, and who you really are.

The Value of Self-Knowledge:

Much like in real life, knowing exactly who you are on social media has its benefits, and can help you respond to (or avoid) critics the right way. This knowledge is tied into the practice of social media monitoring, so you can begin to understand what the public thinks about you or your organization. Having a outsider’s perspective is a good step towards deeper self-understanding. Online, understanding the perceptions of others can also help you take the temperature of your audience and craft your content and presence accordingly.

Being selectively authentic online is generally a wiser, safer decision to make. To use an analogy from above: when you’re at a networking event, you don’t tell people your entire life’s story — but the best version of it, the one that people will want to interact with and befriend. Like in real life, you need to listen to others and think before you speak. When you do make mistakes, or it is discovered that you have made them in the past, take ownership of them. Be humble when it is called for. Understand that in order to maintain your reputation, it will be necessary to take some criticism. How you respond under pressure will define you in the eyes of others, so ensure that you’re prepared for any situation, know what needs to be said — and what does not.

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