Authenticity isn’t a new term in marketing. Communicating authentically with your audience has always been important. Customers are savvy people, and sooner or later they uncover when companies are pretending to be something they aren’t.

With the explosion of social media, authenticity has become even more crucial. The perceived personal connection established through social media is very different from the somewhat faceless, one-way communication of traditional media. The personal, direct format of social media comes with the expectation of an honest, sincere exchange.

“I’m not a real customer, but I play one on my company’s Facebook page”

Ok, I should probably win a prize for being the one-millionth writer to include some version of the old line “I’m not a doctor but I play one on TV” in a blog post (quick trivia — do you know the commercial that launched that line?). But, trust me, it’s relevant to the point I’m trying to make.

As consumers, when we watch TV commercials, we do so with a certain understanding. We know that, for the most part, we are seeing actors delivering scripted lines. The same applies to other traditional media, like radio and print advertising.

When it comes to social media, there is a different set of expectations.

Consumers engage in relationships with companies through social media. They expect an honest, transparent, authentic dialog with a real person, in the same way that they use social networking in their personal lives. They trust the voice on the other end of the communication.

There are numerous examples of organizations abusing the power of social media:

  • Companies “buying” Facebook fans.
  • A politician issuing a “personal” tweet while simultaneously delivering a speech.
  • Corporate-produced video presented as consumer-generated content.
  • And, possibly the most unethical, and dangerous example: company “plants” posing as regular consumers and defending their products in threads.

Negativity can be viral, too

Consumers have become more and more savvy at determining when a company isn’t being authentic. And when their trust has been violated, consumers revolt.

This, too, isn’t new. For years, angry consumers have called customer service representatives or written letters when they feel let down by a company.

Today, however, when consumers feel lied to, their dissatisfaction is posted for everyone to see. Those very same social media tools that companies use to engage consumers can become infested with negative feedback, exposing the company as disingenuous. This feedback steamrolls and can cause long-term damage to a brand. It’s tough to get consumer trust back once it has been violated. Even if you win back that one customer, the damage has been done.

Be real

There is a very easy litmus test to use to ensure that you are being authentic in your social media. Before posting, tweeting or commenting, ask yourself one question: “If I were in a one-on-one conversation with the consumer, face-to-face, would I still present it this way?” If the answer is “yes,” go for it. If the answer is “no,” then it probably isn’t a good idea.

Don’t be afraid of social media. Just be real.

For some insight into how to find authenticity in your brand, see Michael Endy’s post, The Advantage of Authenticity.