The secret of success in marketing?
I hear it everywhere.
Every marketing conference, every meeting I take with clients, the mantra is repeated:
“We are looking for, above all, authenticity. We want content that will build trust and cut through the noise. “
It isn’t just my industry, either.
In politics, the leading presidential candidates are winning support almost entirely based on how authentic and human they sound.
The Harvard Business School Review recommends that business leaders need to employ “flexible authenticity.”
(Side note: if ever there was an expression to set off alarm bells, it is “flexible authenticity”.)
But I have a few problems with authenticity, especially as far as marketing goes…
1) Authenticity isn’t what we think is…
Do you recall when Vice President Al Gore accepted the Democratic nomination in 2000?
He clenched his wife Tipper and planted that open mouthed, three second, unbearably awkward kiss?
Caryn James of The New York Times declared the smooch to be an authentic moment. “Here was living proof of his humanity.”
But it didn’t ring true to my conception of Al and Tipper’s Gore’s true relationship, which later ended in separation. In fact, to me, it didn’t feel human at all and therefore it didn’t feel authentic.
But…if you believed that Gore was a politician willing to accept external coaching, makeup, bad advice, anything to get elected…well, the kiss was a very real and authentic moment. In fact, it revealed too much.
You can’t get away from authenticity.
And this is why I think this isn’t just a semantic point.
When we say we want to create content that feels “authentic“, our internal guidance is that we should be true to ourselves. This sounds relatively easy to do, because it is.
But as an audience, when we are looking for authenticity, we are seeking something completely different.
2) Authenticity to oneself is a compass that points nowhere
To Al Gore, the idea of the kiss must have felt authentic– like something he would do — because after all, he did it.
But the more Gore chased authenticity, the more inauthentic he became to the rest of us. Authenticity can be a kind of trap.
Shakespeare, I believe, understood this paradox, when he had Polonius (the buffoon) advise at the end of his long list of contradictory tips, “this above all: to thine own self be true.
“Be authentic” to my ear, is the king of bad advice, for people who are looking for advice.
Your content and ideas will always feel authentic to you (and your brand), because they are authentic to you.
That doesn’t mean your content or ideas are necessarily good.
And often you won’t be able to understand why your content isn’t working because it is authentic, the same way your singing voice might sound better to you than it does to others.
Your content probably reflects you and your brand much better than you think. (For example it might authentically reveal you as a person who employs ghost writers on LinkedIn.)
Your content is failing because it is inauthentic to what your audience unconsciously wishes it would do: make them feel like you are their honest, trusted, human, fallible, friend.
Personally I feel, by the way, that this a LOT to ask for from our content creators, but it is apparently the world in which we live.
3) Authenticity is really the art of human connection.
When my agency reviews examples of marketing content that clients claim is authentic and worthy of emulating (say, Ze Frank’s Friskies spots for BuzzFeed) the test seems to be:
Is the creator’s voice original and human? Does it make me feel like I have a human connection?
Make no mistake, this authenticity craze is absolutely necessary to content marketing — people won’t share content that doesn’t connect. No one wants to be a pawn in a marketer’s game. Social distribution and word of mouth are huge parts of content marketing: they are more predictable than search, and much more cost effective than paid amplification.
But content that personally connects isn’t exactly real. Instead it is an artful and artificial (read: inauthentic) bundle of emotional triggers such as candor, personal anecdotes, transparency, body language, tone, humor, and vulnerability all of which, when delivered consistently, create the illusion of human connection.
A very powerful illusion it is. One avid fan describes her wonder at her sense of connection to the artist Rihanna.
We keep on insisting, or at least wanting, a blueprint or a calculable algorithm to justify how she feels as knowable to us as a friend who made it without inspiring any resentment or jealousy. We feel like we’re given a vision of her that is real because she chooses not to portray herself as perfect, which only makes us believe that she is.
Thousands of influencers like Rihanna have developed personas and content that now (ie. it didn’t happen overnight) feel instantly authentic and relatable.
But Brands? Over the past five years of content marketing, the scorecard is very mixed. And this is because brands can’t use the same triggers we generally associate with authenticity in individuals.
Essentially, we are too smart and too jaded to think of brands as our friends. And we also know that brands are artificial constructs in the first place.
Our need for this feeling of human connection in marketing is only going to grow. And the multitudes of individual bloggers and celebrities and influencers are clearly the marketing channel of the future, because they understand how to make us trust them and feel connected.
The better influencers are at connecting, the easier they will make it seem…the way reading a really great author often inspires one to write. But connecting authentically in the way that an audience wants? That is really hard for most of us. (For example, how many of your facebook friends do you feel are both authentic and compelling?)
My advice? Don’t follow advice that tells you to “be authentic” in your content. It won’t help. You are already authentic.
Want your brand to make a human connection with content that feels authentic to an audience?
You will probably have to spend years figuring out a consistent voice that will connect. Or instead, find someone who already connects with your audience, and let them do their thing.