Digital Marketing

How to Be Authentic on Social Media: For Businesses and Individuals

A recent news piece caught my eye – Snapchat surgeries. People are turning to plastic surgery to make themselves look more like their filtered selfies. More like their Snapchat photos with filters of big shiny eyes, high cheekbones and bunny ears and such (we hope not that bunny ear part). It’s just one of the many ways in which our digital world is affecting our sense of self. More and more individuals are acting like brands, allowing the rules of online engagement to mold their offline actions as well.

So it’s no surprise that authenticity is a super hot topic right now. In business, and in our personal lives (career, friendships, dating) what does being authentic really mean? And does it really matter?

What does being authentic really mean?

The answer that I have to give may shock you. Because if there is one thing you’ll learn about me that’s true, that’s authentic, is that I say it as it is. So stay with me.

In the digital age, businesses are truly struggling with this question – should we be who our audiences want us to be? Or should we be who we truly are and find the right audiences for us? Should we be chameleons changing our messaging to fit in with online trends and the hashtag of the day?

I remember this one time, I was giving a talk, and someone came up to me and said, OMG at first I didn’t recognize you. And I said oh, I’m sorry, we’ve met before? “Your hair is different, you had black hair,” she says. And I’m mortified, how do I not remember this person? So I try to apologize, “I’m sorry I meet so many people.” She says, oh no no no, we haven’t met. I just follow you on Twitter. I remember a picture of yours I saw online…

So here we have it, folks. I am this person, and I’m the person my friends see, and I’m the person you see online, and I’m Lightspan and many other things. Which makes it a bit tricky to be authentic doesn’t it?

How can brands be authentic in the digital age?

A few weeks ago we made a video about mission statements and how to express your reason for being and the change you want to make in the world.

In digital marketing and content marketing, we use the term a lot to say, if you’re authentic you’ll attract more people to you and you’ll get more customers. Ta-da! The magic of authenticity!

Except, if you’re like most people I talk to… you have no idea what that means, do you? Tell me in the comments below what it means to you.

But let’s get to sorting this out.

In business, and in our personal lives what does being authentic really mean? And why should I care?

Authenticity is not just about being sincere, real, and honest. It’s about being reliable, dependable, being true to what you say you will do, acting the way you say you will.

Authentic people are true to who they are and will not keep shifting directions to match someone else’s direction. The opposite of authenticity is being unreliable and inaccurate.

This is important to keep in mind as we talk about what it means in business.

First, let’s talk about authenticity in our personal lives:

Psychologists would say that authentic people possess a number of common characteristics that show they are psychologically mature and fully functioning as human beings. Sounds pretty essential, doesn’t it?

Characteristics of authentic people:

  1. Have realistic perceptions of reality.
  2. Are accepting of themselves and of other people.
  3. Are thoughtful.
  4. Have a non-hostile sense of humor.
  5. Are able to express their emotions freely and clearly.
  6. Are open to learning from their mistakes.
  7. Understand their motivations.

On the flip side, being inauthentic can lead to all sorts of personal and interpersonal problems:

  1. Are self-deceptive and unrealistic in their perceptions of reality.
  2. Look to others for approval and to feel valued.
  3. Are judgemental of other people.
  4. Do not think things through clearly.
  5. Have a hostile sense of humor.
  6. Are unable to express their emotions freely and clearly.
  7. Are not open to learning from their mistakes.
  8. Do not understand their motivations.

Why Are Authentic People So Damn Attractive?

Because authentic people are safe. Authentic people are accepting, are thoughtful, are open. They are self-aware and thus won’t project their problems onto others. Authentic people also are not pleasers to the detriment of their own well being. They will not hold you back and you won’t have to watch the painful process of seeing someone hurting themselves.

Authentic people makes us feel good. They make us feel safe. That’s why they’re so attractive. 

So, how do we become more authentic?

  • Practice mindfulness, listening, seek and gain different perspectives.
  • Be kind to yourself.
  • Fight what scares you so you can learn the positive consequences of being brave.
  • Go to therapy.
  • Get out of your own way.

It’s lifelong work but it’s essential.

When it comes to social media, however, you have 1 of 2 choices:

  1. Try to be the real you, unfiltered. You can show your passions and values as an individual without worrying about growing your following or gaining much out of it.
  2. Look at social media as a stage that you perform on. You can choose to put on a show for your audiences and as part of a show, you can play a role just as an actor takes on a role. You can still do that authentically by bringing your own personality to it. And you can still do it authentically by being open with people that what they see there is just a performance.

Authentic people are self-aware so they will not confuse digital with real.

Let’s talk about the business side of things:

This is where I’m going to disagree with a lot of the advice and tips you get from marketing expertsI commonly see the advice to not have an agenda… That’s nonsense!

Even my cats have an agenda. It’s usually food. Everyone has an agenda: sales, validation, ego-boosts. It’s quite ironic that we tell people to set goals daily, weekly, monthly, yearly, and then we tell them to not have an agenda in marketing.

Every brand, every company, is in the business of making money. Period. And an authentic business will not act against its own self-interest. It goes against the definition of being authentic.

If you have set a compelling mission for your organization, you will have the fuel for an authentic presence in marketing. If you have figured out the change you want to make in the world, and your marketing reflects that mission, you are authentic.

You’re also authentic if you listen to your audiences, if you seek their opinions, if you are respectful, thoughtful accepting and willing to learn from your mistakes. The same definition of authenticity applies.

Seth Godin famously said that:

Authenticity in marketing is telling a story people want to hear, and then making the story a reality.

That’s actually listening, learning and acting. As long as it doesn’t stand against who you truly are as an organization, if it’s not working against your self-interest you can do this and be authentic.

Here’s an example of a company that uses social media as a stage, and puts on an authentic show: Patagonia. Their content takes the form of documentaries. The documentaries show the people who are a reflection of what Patagonia stands for, and their passions. Be they extreme sports or conservation.

The stories all tie back to the mission statement and values of Patagonia.

Authenticity starts with self-awareness which takes reflection. In this world, we just go go go. We rarely take the time to evaluate how we acted.

My recommendation is to take some time at the end of the day and think through your interactions that day. Were you true to yourself? Were you listening to others? Were you dependable and trustworthy? Were you who you are and aspire to be?

What does authenticity mean to you? Leave your tips in a comment.


Mana [Mah’-nah] Ionescu [Yo-nes’-koo] believes in digital marketing done with purpose. Her mission is to bust digital marketing myths and put marketing back in social media marketing.

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