Going Social: How Authentic Are You?

The challenge that associations face in building their audiences on social media is one of authenticity: Beat people over the head with your message too aggressively, and they'll ignore you; try too hard to start or follow a trend and they'll see right through. So where's the middle ground?

Anyone who knows anything about me knows I’m the kind of guy who loves a good pair of Chucks. I’ll gladly tell you about how I listen to Tim by The Replacements on the regular, and that I have a thing for wacky T-shirts and iced coffee.

I try to drop random asides and jokes in my blog posts, and hope that I don’t cause too many eye rolls in the process. And hey, if the mood strikes me, maybe I’ll post a lyric to the song I’m currently listening to on Twitter.

It’s a big part of my natural self, and this is the kind of thing I try to push forward when I’m writing online or elsewhere.

Now if I were dryly posting things I wasn’t passionate about in an effort to keep up appearances online, I wouldn’t be worth reading. A feed full of dull headlines would feel fake. And it’s the same deal with brands. Hiding your personality—your voice—behind a veneer of professionalism on social media can have a huge opportunity cost.

Sorry to say this, but associations generally aren’t very good at being cool.

And I think that this, more than anything else, is a huge challenge that associations struggle to balance when it comes to social media: the idea of authenticity.

I think this issue crops up, for example, when an association tries being overly memetic—for example, taking image macros from elsewhere on the web, or launching a unique hashtag in an effort to prove that they can hang with the cool kids. All of this stuff often is done in an attempt to give a social marketing effort a slightly younger “voice.”

This seems like a good idea from a distance—because on social media, a voice is what makes a feed appealing. It’s the Cheez Whiz to your broccoli. But often, organizations can put it on too thick, drowning that poor stem in yellow goop, or fail to use much at all, ensuring that it barely even has an effect on taste.

Trying Too Hard

But too often, efforts to be hip with the kids backfire. A recent example comes from Australia, where the Victorian Taxi Association had to shut down a marketing campaign focused on the #YourTaxis hashtag when users began to use the hashtag as a way to vent about how much they hated taxis. After getting frustrated, the marketing firm the association was using made an unforced error by attempting to tie its marketing to Remembrance Day—which proved the last straw.

“Unfortunately, the YourTaxis campaign concept and its delivery did not match our intention,” the association stated as it ended the campaign. “We were aware of many of the issues that passengers face but the campaign concept and delivery showed us the true extent of their concerns.”

The taxi story is something of an extreme case—one that many associations won’t find themselves dealing with too often. Nonetheless, it points out what can happen if an association tries to be something it isn’t on social media.

Sorry to say this, but associations generally aren’t very good at being cool.

So, What Works?

That’s not to say it’s impossible to be “cool” on social media.

There are plenty of examples of associations that are good at the whole “cool” thing. A couple I think pull it off really successfully and represent good ideas of authenticity are the American Chemical Society, whose YouTube presence succeeds at making what could be a boring topic interesting enough to share on the regular, and the American Library Association (ALA), which has built a strong tie to both its members and the public, letting it get away with tweets like this:

ALA’s social feeds pull in from a variety of outlets, making a point of not only talking about itself, but about the world of libraries in general. One day, you might get a couple of tweets from a library-related event; another day, you might hear about a local library’s initiative. And yet another day, the group might be sharing a story about a literary staple; on another, a tale of a young boy who 3D-printed his own prosthetic hand.

This sort of understanding of the social audience takes a lot of work, but it comes with some big payoffs. A couple months ago, ALA was able to take a hacking incident in good humor thanks to a strong base of Facebook fans to act as something of a buffer for the group.

Don’t Fear the Quirks

To me, this is what authenticity is: the ability to earn a voice on your own merits on social media, rather than following trends or trying to build an explosive campaign that screams out at people to pay attention to your organization. Followers flock to that kind of thing.

The problem is, this isn’t necessarily easy. It takes time to build authenticity, and it ultimately comes down to the basic idea that you’re not selling out your ideals or cheaply throwing links or images online for a little extra notice. Instead, you’re showing off your organization and what it represents, quirks and all.

Kevan Lee, a popular scribe for the social sharing startup Buffer, puts this idea in a form that I really appreciate:

Share with authenticity on social media, all the time. Share transparently, as much as you’re comfortable. Be vulnerable if you choose.

The first element is required for social media—most folks can sniff an inauthentic account from a mile away. The second, transparency, is required to varying degrees. You choose the level you want to expose. And if you’re comfortable with a degree of vulnerability on social media, all the better.

I think this is why simply slapping your brand’s message into a couple of meme-style images doesn’t really work in the end. It can feel like an attempt to talk up that, in reality, talks down.

And really, everyone’s better off if you’re on their level.


Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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