Social Media FAQ #2: What does it mean to be Authentic, Transparent, or Human?

I’m starting a new series, called Social Media Frequently Asked Questions. It’s a collection of the top asked questions I hear over and over. I’m putting them here on my blog is a great place to help everyone quickly get educated, convince their boss, or be able to help their clients get over these hurdles, pass them around.

Social Media FAQ #2: What does it mean to be Authentic, Transparent, or Human?

First, understand the fear of most companies ‘hide’ behind their brand. This means that the collective of all employee contrabiutions are often behind the shield, crest, or banner of a symbol. This is nothing new and goes back to the most primitive of cultures where bands and fiefdoms would form –in nearly every culture.

Things are different now, the internet allows for real people to connect with other real people and have discussions about anything that interests them –void of any shield, crest, or banner. Well to be specific, some people start creating their own individual brands (we see this on many blogs), but it’s at the core individual level.

I’m often asked by clients (part of my role as an analyst is to answer social media questions in what we call ‘advisory sessions’) how far they need to take this notion of transparency. “Can I build a community but outsource moderation?” or “Can I write a team blog but have it created by corporate communications?” or “Can I create podcasts but repurpose brochure content?” The answer I give them for all is “yes, you can…but it won’t be living up to your full potential”.

What does Authentic, Transparent, or being Human look like?

  • Training and entrusting employees to build real relationships using these tools
  • Admitting when you’re wrong
  • Asking the community for help, working with the community to build better products
  • Showing your strengths –and weaknesses –in a public forum
  • Showing more of unique side of the employees (that you invested in) in addition to your products, technology, and services
  • Realizing the brand is actually owned by the community and not just the MarCom brand police
  • Sadly, in most cases, many brands will not go the full distance to show their transparency and humanside –despite that customers are doing this –and will continue to hide behind the crest. But for those that go the full distance and trust employees to build real human relationships, they won’t achieve their full potential.

    Now back to you all, I know there’s a lot of Social Media Strategists that are wrestling with this internally or working with a client: How do you advise your stakeholders to be Authentic, Transparent, or Human?

    35 Replies to “Social Media FAQ #2: What does it mean to be Authentic, Transparent, or Human?”

    1. speak with a human voice ? at times I see responses that are so round about, that it defeats the purpose of responding !

      Secondly, IMHO, I think here is a distinction between brand and product screech.

    2. I’m reminded of a question posed in my LinkedIn network, where a colleague asked “what’s the best way to teach authenticity to marketers?” I riffed on this a bit at

      But the very notion that marketers need help understanding what’s meant by authenticity just goes to show how far we are from personalized experiences, which is what people are looking for now. They see through mass marketing and fake authenticity in an instant.

    3. I think you’ve summed it up pretty well from the standpoint of building a business case for the need to be authentic, etc. From a personal perspective, it’s simply telling the truth even when it hurts.

      There is a great example that has implications for business — the famous discourse of the Skin Horse from the children’s book “The Velveteen Rabbit” where he talks about being real.

      Being real is admitting that you don’t have all the answers or things neatly tied up in a bow. You are willing to show your rough spots… you have nothing to hide. It’s basic honesty, which I believe breeds trust and credibility.

      Authenticity and transparency were the twin bedrocks of business blogging. I hope those qualities extend to all of our interactions in social media as well.

    4. How to advise stakeholders?


      – Building with them, and perhaps even their communities, the guiding principles, on how each community should be (or would like to be) treated. A social constitution, so to speak.


      – Reminding them that their communities are actually composed of intelligent, unique people. Never patronise the community or mask the truth. Take responsibility for your opinions and actions in the community.

      – Understand that the nature of their brand, although it can visually appear solid and immutable from their point of view, is actually a living transient and ever-shifting thing reflecting its community and environment. So… if the shield is no longer a place to hide, what can you hide behind – *should* you be hiding behind anything?

    5. Baby steps…most people/individuals are unable to do those three key steps to being authentic:

      # Admitting when you™re wrong
      # Asking the community for help, working with the community to build better products
      # Showing your strengths “and weaknesses “in a public forum

      The brand and corporation can only do what the people behind are capable of doing themselves. Some have to evolve on the personal level to evolve their companies.

      It’s one of the biggest things I used to run into with clients when I worked as a life and business coach. People are not detached from the corporation…they make up the corporation.

    6. i think the issue of transparency needs to be taken the whole way when it comes to dealing with the world outside the organization. it would appear contradictory if it weren’t so. i think that if they want to truly connect with their stakeholders, they don’t have much of a choice.

    7. I advise to think about all their brand communications and stakeholders, not just online. We all use Apple as an example of a powerful consumer brand, but it’s because they do it right across every one of their channels. Their mission statement is simple: Apple is committed to bringing the best personal computing experience…

      From a consumer standpoint, as a member of the brand community, being authentic, transparent and human means they will:

      1. Enjoy the same fluidity of brand experience online as well as offline, whether it is in a dealership, a retail bank or an insurance agent’s office. I just visited the new Borders concept store with the ‘new media’ upgrades and all I could think was, seriously? This is supposed to reinvent retail? Borders could have (and should have) pushed the envelope much further to humanize and create real transparency between the on/offline experience but instead it’s glorified silo-bridging.

      2. Never receive direct mail from the brand addressed generically or with the wrong name. As an example from my life, I’m a Gymboree addict. Gymboree could be the next Apple as it has all the requisite components (cyber-connected passionate mothers for a start). I’m in their stores at least once/month, I have many Gymboree searches set up on eBay (and I sell outgrown outfits), I’m part of several Gymbo-networks and receive an email from Gymboree about once other month, which is about right with my cluttered inbox. Last week I just received 3 postcards with 2 different offers AND 3 different versions of my name…and none of them were correct! What does this say about how my contribution to the online community is valued by this brand?

      3. Be greeted in real life (e.g. with a salesperson, service technician or livechat operator) in the same way they are connected with the online community. I really wish organizations would throw out their dated sales training manuals and let people be themselves. If companies trust their employees with thousands of dollars (or millions) per day in transactions, why don’t they trust them to say the right things to customers who will buy things from them?

      4. Be invited to meet each other through events organized and hosted by the brand community and paid for by the brand. To extend the Gymboree example — they hold a special clearance sale at least twice a year where they clear out all the old lines (e.g. in April there will be all the ex-holiday lines and early winter lines). Or recognize how strong the ebay Gymbo resale community is and hold eBay workshops in the stores after hours. Talk about a great community builder in real life!

      I could go on…but you get the idea. The business models and fundamental philosophies needed to succeed in the social media economy are diametrically-opposed to those needed in the industrial economy.

    8. I had to laugh when I saw the reference to this post on Twitter. It really is a sad day when we have to turn to “social media consultants” to ask what it is like to be human.

      Thus speaks, moi, the social media consultant. Heh.

    9. I blogged some time back about a research study in which the authors developed a scale for measuring the conversational human voice. The resulting items were:

      1. Invites people to conversation.
      2. Is open to dialogue.
      3. Uses conversation-style communication.
      4. Tries to communicate in a human voice.
      5. Tries to be interesting in communication.
      6. Uses a sense of humor in communication.
      7. Provides links to competitors.
      8. Attempts to make communication enjoyable.
      9. Would admit a mistake.
      10. Provides prompt feedback addressing criticism with a direct but uncritical manner.
      11. Treats me and others as human.

      For more info & citation, see

    10. Jeremiah:

      Microsoft (one example you cited) doesn’t do any of these bullet points as a company as a whole.
      Channel9 is great, but it’s an island in a sea of mediocrity.

      The best thing they’ve done so far was when they hired Scoble, and he did an awesome job but it didn’t last long.
      (I’m sure you can ask him more about it)

      I like @Mihaela’s list, I think she is correct.

      Sad thing: Microsoft as a whole doesn’t follow any of her points either.

    11. People can get scared of the prospect of social media and being “Authentic, Transparent, and Human” instead of looking at what they are already doing that has elements of authenticity, transparency and humanness. “Social media” can have different meanings to different people so being able to specifically relate it to what clients are doing today in a non social media context can help.

      For example companies are familiar with lead user processes, usability studies, focus groups and physical user groups. Companies send product managers, marketing managers, and R&D engineers to meet with customers regularly and are confident they will represent the brand well.

      Some logical steps that might work in this case could be:
      1. Public brainstorming sessions, forums or polls on how to improve a feature or process. You’re asking for help and acknowledge you’re not perfect and what you provided may have some flaws … and your willing to discuss it to address it. You’ll likely start with something low risk so you can get your feet wet and until your comfort level improves.
      2. Employee owned blogs on an area of expertise. There’s a reason the same employees are continually the ones that are trusted and asked to travel to prospective and current customers. Why not extend their audience reach and provide another way for people to engage them?
      3. Taking physical meetings like user groups and going online with them. Enable discussion in a dynamic environment where people can privately or in public ask questions, provide feedback and engage each other. This should broaden the reach and improve community engagement.

      The guidelines already listed in the comments make a great deal of sense. As Ann commented “baby steps”. The concept of social media can be overwhelming so helping connect from what people are doing today to how social media directly relates to those efforts can be a good way to ease the transition to to becoming more “Authentic, Transparent, and Human”.

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