More than a decade ago, Seth Godin published a book on marketing called “All Marketers Are Liars.” You would probably assume that it talks about the deceitful and despicable way brands communicate with customers in the 21st century, in which case you’d be wrong. Actually, the book talks about how brands need to craft a lie, a lie so in tune with a specific audience’s worldview, that they’d accept it totally. And—here’s the kicker—the brands have to be totally authentic about it.
If you’re a marketer, you may be thinking to yourself, “How could I possibly be authentic when I’m lying?” Well, here’s the secret: it’s not a lie if you live completely by it. And that applies to your digital content marketing as well. Social media, blog posts, infographics, videos—all those mean nothing if people see you putting on a fake face. And let’s face it, customers nowadays can see through brands, no matter how much they embellish their products and services. So you might as well embrace that and be authentic in your marketing. Here are five characteristics that you’ll need to develop a credible image.
One thing that people absolutely hate from politicians is when they flip-flop. They say one thing in a press conference, and then do a total 180-degree turn when they go on a national debate, and then they do something totally different when they’re elected. It’s difficult to trust someone when their messages and actions contradict each other so much. And the same goes for brands.
For decades, McDonald’s has had a reputation as a provider of unhealthy fast food. So when they tried to appeal to health-conscious eaters by trying to add low-calorie and vegetarian food options on their menu, customers didn’t buy it. Compare that with Arby’s, whose marketing voice is equal parts silly and unapologetic. One of their most successful campaigns, which has gotten a positive response from millennials, is their “We Have the Meats” campaign, where they proudly proclaim their tasty meat offerings, making no claim whatsoever that they’re trying to be healthy.
The point is this: authentic digital content is consistent. Your brand has a set of core values, a core service, and a core offering that the whole business is built on. If the content you put out is not connected to that identity, or deviates from it significantly, it will just sound like lip service. To project an authentic voice, stick to your core messaging and values no matter what.
Another element of authentic content marketing is candor. When you begin each sentence with a euphemism, you reduce the impact of your communication. It will feel like you’re trying to walk around eggshells all the time, and you won’t reach anybody, much less your target audience. This applies even when there’s something wrong with your product or service: don’t try to hide behind corporate double-talk like “in retrospect, there were several points on which we could have improved, and we’ll redouble our efforts because we are committed to total customer service.” It’s cliché and it’s condescending. It’s better to admit the problem openly and turn it around.
Domino’s was, for a long time, the poster boy for terrible pizza. People would unkindly (but not unfairly) compare it to cardboard. Its 30-minute delivery guarantee wasn’t making people happy anymore. And in 2009, a couple of Domino’s Pizza employees released a video of themselves doing disgusting things with food being prepared for customers (the employees were fired afterward). At that point, the company took a calculated risk: through a YouTube video, the company admitted to its faults, and they later took steps to fix them. They actively took people’s feedback, worked with it, and got themselves back up on their feet, and made the whole journey public through social media. That’s what being candid is about.
In the heydays of television advertising, marketers could expect good customer response from a commercial with a pretty model and a catchphrase. They’d expect people to not flip the channel during commercial breaks because they didn’t want to miss a second of their favorite shows. But now that practically all forms of entertainment can be watched or streamed on-demand and without interruptions, things are totally different. There’s no such thing as a captive audience anymore. Unless your digital assets add to your target market’s preferred worldview, they’ll just get blocked or ignored.
Content marketing is not just about stories; it’s about conversations. This is especially true in social media. Brands shouldn’t use banner ads that rudely interrupt their customers’ conversations. Instead, brands should participate in them. Find a way to talk about the things that matter to your customers, what they love and what they loathe—you’ll connect much more easily. It’s like what Coke, Pepsi and other major brands did with their “Love Has No Label” campaign—they connected with people’s widely held and strongly expressed conviction that love should go beyond boundaries like gender or race. You can even use more mundane points of connection, like “don’t you hate it when…” type commentary. Connecting with customers is no longer about claiming emotional territory and planting your brand’s flag on it. Now, it’s about finding common ground that you can share.
Authenticity in a digital environment is like stage magic: it’s most effective when it involves audience participation. Now that everyone and their dog has a social media account, customer word-of-mouth (or word-of-mouse) has a bigger impact on brand reputation. You can see it as an adversarial relationship, where you have to control people’s perceptions about your brand through aggressive media blitzes, or you can develop a collaborative relationship, where actual people can act as ambassadors for your brand. Of course, authentic marketing calls for the latter.
Again, social media is an ideal platform for this. Positive testimonials and reviews can earn big bonus points for your brand. You can also invite feedback and get people’s opinions about your brand through surveys and polls, or ask for suggestions for new products. Of course, you can take the idea of participation to the next level, like how the Swiss Tourism Board put up interactive posters that allowed a gruff but amiable mountain man to convince commuters to visit him in Vrin for an afternoon (it sounds totally random, but that campaign, named “The Great Escape,” is a piece of feel-good genius). The point is that if you’re going for content marketing authenticity, you have to invite real people up to the stage once in a while. It’s not all about you anymore.
Of course, you can’t rely on customer testimonials, press releases, and curated content alone to buoy up your marketing efforts. You’ve got to have something original to say. Otherwise, you’ll be no different from your competitors or from any other noise-making machine spewing words out onto the Internet. Plus, if you don’t come out with something new and fresh for your audience to consume, then your digital channel’s traffic will dry up faster than you can say “epic fail.”
Content marketers have to be (or work with) content creators, people with unlimited passion to come out with better and better work. That’s a natural prerequisite: people’s attention spans are limited, and they get desensitized to repeated exposures of the same stimuli. The only way to sustain truly awesome content marketing is to churn out quality content that consistently and continuously improves. This means putting together an awesome team with the right skills and awareness. Digital natives, those who eat, breathe, and sleep at a social media pace, are the best talents to tap for this purpose. Not only do they have a finger on the pulse of your desired online audience, but they’ll also have an appreciation for the different online platforms you can use to get your messages out there.
Customers have always wanted brands to be honest and upfront, but it seems to be just now that companies are taking notice. It’s hardly surprising, since with increased access to information, it’s harder to put up false facades. So don’t fight the tide: stop pretending, and start marketing with digital authenticity. Doubters will be disarmed, customers will be charmed, and you’ll take the world by storm.