How to be strategically authentic

How to be strategically authentic

By Mark Schaefer

When the subject at hand is about creating content and standing out on the web today, the conversation usually turns to the need for “authenticity.”

Perhaps there is no more misunderstood and mis-used word on the web today. That word actually drives me nuts.

The dictionary says “authentic” means “true and accurate, made to be or look just like an original.”

Is there a single day when you represent yourself on the web in a way that is true and accurate? Of course not. Most people promote their shiny best selves.

In fact, today I am going to make a business case for being strategically authentic.

No, we don’t want you to be authentic

The amount that people share on the web varies greatly from the “full meal deal” which includes addictions, neuroses, and break-ups, to the “stoic plan” which contains very little personal information at all.

The amount of personal information we share isn’t just a reflection of our personality. It’s a reflection of who we want to be and the story we want to tell about ourselves. On a personal level, it can be fun to blow off steam on the web, but from a business standpoint, these details are also being catalogued away as part of our personal brand, and it may even start to become part of what people think about our employer.

Let’s say you’re my accountant. In the name of authenticity, you post about your insecurity, insomnia, and addictions. This amount of disclosure might be appropriate if you’re in the business of inspiring people through your health battles. But it probably works against you if you’re trying to be hired as an accountant, real estate agent, or engineer. All things being equal, I would rather not hire somebody who is a sleep-deprived, depressed, drug addict. That may seem harsh, but alas, the business world is harsh. We have lots of choices.

Despite all the guru-speak insisting on authenticity, nobody really expects authenticity. I don’t want to know if you are gassy or horny or that you have bad breath today.

However, I think people do value honesty. So as a first step, let’s take authenticity off the table. We don’t really want that, and it’s probably not a good business decision any way.

Except when it is.

Strategically authentic

Overall I’m a private person. It’s uncomfortable for me to talk about my personal life but I also realize that some amount of disclosure shows people what I’m made of. People hire those they know, like, and trust … so I want people to know, like, and trust me.

I don’t like talking about my kids but occasionally I say something or post a photo of them because being a proud and involved father is an important part of who I am. It isn’t an “image,” it’s in my core value set.

I don’t like broadcasting about what I’m doing all the time, but I try to post a few photos when I am biking, hiking, attending a concert, or reading a book because it demonstrates the things I like to do. I think that makes me more accessible.

Once in a while I post a picture of me with my wife because I want to send a message that I am a happily married person.

And very rarely, I talk about suffering, or something that goes very wrong in my life. I don’t want to dwell on problems and the negative, but it’s important to me that I show I’m just a human being and we are all equal in our human condition. That is part of my core message.

So I’m presenting a business-oriented approach to authenticity. I think we should be honest. Let’s demonstrate our core values and our humanity. Let’s disclose enough of ourselves that our business colleagues can get to know us, like us, and trust us.

And above all, let’s be congruent … meaning that you’re not “faking it” or trying to live up to some persona. That can be exhausting and it probably won’t work in the long run any way. You should be yourself wherever you show up: in life, in a post, in a meeting.

If you’re on the web for non-business reasons, go for it. Let’s hear about that snotty nose if that’s what’s on your mind today. However, if you’re a business person and social media is part of your business, I think it’s OK to curate a bit.

I know this advice is different than what most people suggest. But I’m all about the business value and I think this idea of strategic authenticity makes sense for most people. Your image is created by everything you say, and everything you don’t say.

What do you think?

SXSW 2016 3Mark Schaefer is the chief blogger for this site, executive director of Schaefer Marketing Solutions, and the author of several best-selling digital marketing books. He is an acclaimed keynote speaker, college educator, and business consultant.  The Marketing Companion podcast is among the top business podcasts in the world.  Contact Mark to have him speak to your company event or conference soon.

Illustration courtesy Flickr CC and Julie Petrova

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