- June 13, 2009
- 25 Comments
© Tyler E Nixon (This is a striking photograph)
While I was traveling in NY for InternetWeek and DC for the Vocus conference recently, Mark Olson sent a note inviting my thoughts on a post he was authoring on the subject of authenticity versus authority. I immediately replied, “I’m in.”
This is a subject that is garnering much of my attention and contemplation as they are among the key words that orbit the social media marketing universe and are in danger of spinning off course and into a black hole of obscurity.
We stand at a crossroads where the language of social media either matures and develops or depreciates and decays.
In his post, “Authenticity vs. Authority,” Olson featured an industry-leading ensemble of leading minds and voices in the new media marketing landscape including, Seth Godin, Chris Brogan, David Meerman Scott, Mike Volpe and yours truly.
“If it’s a word game, then authority wins, because authority is about the perception of the consumer. If they believe you an authority, you are. In the long run, of course, authenticity will trump it, because your authority fades without it. The converse is not true. And yes, it’s a word game.”
I remember in college there was a professor who had tons of authority. He was tenured, had written books, and was the head of the department. Although he had authority, he was not a popular teacher and his classes were empty. I recall other teachers who were young and dynamic and had no authority. Barely older than the students, they had an authentic love of their subject and of teaching. Their classes were packed. In the always on, one-click-away world of the Web, authenticity wins every time because unlike a college class, people can immediately leave the sites that don’t capture their interest. That’s why a lone blogger can be more popular than a stuffy old trade journal both on the same subject.
Authenticity and Authority in the Age of Trust
From around 1950 until maybe as late as 2006, organizations have been able to get away with mass communication and one-sided blurting. No longer. We are ALL the media. We all have networks. We all have cameras and video and newspapers at our disposal. We have the memory of Google on our side. How do companies succeed in this environment? They do what probably should have always been done: be human. It’s not a vast reworking. It’s not throwing out all that’s come before. It’s doing what we know in our guts to be right. How do you build authority? By being human. Be fallible. Be apologetic. And communicate in both directions. Listen, and build trust by responding and interacting. You’re still the leader, but you’re now a responsible leader who cares about your constituency. Try it. You’ll like it.
I think authority and authenticity are related but different. Authority is a measure of importance, impact or influence. You can measure authority by your ranking in Google and tools like Twitter Grader or Facebook Grader. Marketers should work to improve their authority in their market – today’s marketing goal is to turn your own web presence (website, blog, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, etc.) to the leading authoritative source for your market. The overall numbers don’t matter as much as the relative authority of your company vs. your competitors’ authority.
Authenticity is a measure of openness and lack of “marketing speak”. One way to measure authenticity is to run some of your content through Gobbledygook Grader and see how much corporate-speak you use. As the web has moved our society to more of a two way communication and given everyone more control over content, outbound marketing and advertising has become less effective. Marketers are embracing inbound marketing, which is more interactive and authentic by nature. I think most people will find that it is hard to achive a high level of authority without being authentic. However, being really authentic does not get you much without authority.
Marketers need to be authentic, but the primary focus for marketing should be on building authority. Authority is a marketing asset – you can use it to drive more people to your events, content, thought leadership, and products. Authority is far more important to driving leads and sales, which is what we marketers should care about most. Building an authoritative presence on the web is part of inbound marketing. You can use your blog, website and social media presence to attract more customers to you, and this effect is stronger as your authority grows.
“How are you doing?”
“I’m fine. How are you?”
“I’m fine. Thank you for asking.”
What started out as an authentic gesture to understand how someone was feeling eventually dissipated into an almost meaningless exchange to ease into a conversation or simply acknowledge someone’s presence. Authenticity is the minimum requirement in any exchange, online and in the real world. Authority however, is earned with every exchange where those involved are enlightened as a result of their participation.
Relevant information, consistency, and insight are the attributes of those who build credibility among their peers. The transparency that facilitates genuine and sincere interaction helps us build meaningful relationships with those who value each other’s contribution. It’s how we earn trust, loyalty and establish significance. Perhaps what we learn is that it’s not a case of authenticity vs. authority, but authenticity + wisdom + engagement = authority.
Framing authenticity and authority in opposing positions insinuates resistance or competition when they are in fact, interrelated and entwined.
But nowadays, authenticity and authority join the likes of other social media buzzwords that serve as anthems for the social communications revolution including but not limited to, “transparency,” “engagement,” “conversation,” “human,” “listening,” and “relationships.”
The essence and usefulness of each important and distinct word is slowly migrating into a hollow of obsolesce as we attach them to all things social media, without truly stopping to reflect and observe their intent, definition, weight, and opportunity.
Before we veer astray, it’s now imperative to associate these words with sincerity, purpose and action. It’s not just a matter of Authenticity vs. Authority nor is it a race to listen and forge relationships by engaging through transparency, it’s about transcending the ideas behind the words into something of significance, trustworthiness, education, and remembrance. In the end, we are defined by our actions, not words.
By way of stated illustration, what if we embraced:
Believability vs. Transparency
Contribution vs. Engagement
Participation vs. Conversation
Hearing vs. Listening
Connections and Collaboration vs. Relationships
Humanizing vs. Being Human
Suddenly there’s a deeper resonance and significance associated with each word, almost as if each sung individual instruction, direction and motivation – sparking imagination and ingenuity in the process. It’s education through inspiration…
Authenticity + Wisdom + Reinforcement through Participation = Authority.
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