Social Media Transparency or 50 Shades of Translucency?

Social Media Transparency and AuthenticityThe issues of transparency and authenticity in social media have been rattling around my brain of late. Perhaps it’s because I’ve been creating a bunch of sponsored content for a client.

I’m torn.

On one hand, there’s my ethics-driven obligation to be clear that these are paid placements. On the other, I don’t want to put up too much of a “billboard” and risk turning away readers and letting down the client. I want my client to be authentic and transparent — I also know that, by themselves, these virtues are not sufficient to generate conversions.

What’s a marketer to do?

One is hard pressed to find a major social media author who does not advocate transparency near the top of his or her “best practices” list. This is also true for transparency’s kissing-cousin, authenticity. It’s tough to keep those two separate when going down the list of engagement “essentials” because the behaviors to accomplish those two goals are so closely intertwined.

In real-world practice, though, acceptable levels of transparency and authenticity are scalable. There are citations of companies and individuals acting with notable transparency and/or authenticity — and with a notable lack of them, too. However, most social media content sits in a grey middle ground, very much like content on other media platforms.

For example, the manner and frequency of disclosure of material connections between an author and a company can vary as widely as the blogged advice on the subject. And automated tweets/posts/updates keep up authors’ “rolling thunder” of self-promotion, even when other messages indicate they are engaged in other activities, like sleeping.

Hello, Social Media Robots – Inauthentic to the Max

Ian Urbina wrote last week in The New York Times about Socialbots.

Social Media BotsThese automated charlatans are programmed to tweet and retweet… Some have even been souped up by so-called persona management software, which makes them seem more real by adding matching Facebook, Reddit or Foursquare accounts, giving them an online footprint over time as they amass friends and like-minded followers.

Researchers say this new breed of bots is being designed not just with greater sophistication but also with grander goals: to sway elections, to influence the stock market, to attack governments, even to flirt with people and one another.

Indeed, these are extreme, but the bot-like features of many social media applications appear to have huge appeal to both companies and one-man brands. And those features are generally available using automated and assisted software.

Many companies active on social media have developed more “human” social personas to help them reach their commercial objectives, while the most visible (dare I say, “influential?”) individuals on social seem to be increasing their use of aided means to achieve their goals.

Did we get it wrong?

Sam Fiorella of Sensei Marketing wrote a Huffington Post piece earlier in the week entitled, Social Media Authenticity and Other Lies. Fiorella explores a range of “inauthentic” social media behavior and comments:

I’m not passing judgment on any of the people or businesses listed in this article, I’m merely pointing out that the principle of social media engagement being based on authenticity has proven to be false. Let’s get over it and move on.

Agreed! And far be it for me to cast dispersions or throw stones from my glass house. (Disclosure: If you came to this page from one of my tweets/posts/updates, it was very likely scheduled in advance.)

Yes, social media offers wonderful, new opportunities. But its inevitable commercialization requires us to modify our early expectations and, regretfully, ideals. Transparency and authenticity may no longer be prerequisites for social media engagement; after all, they were never required for success on other media. While lack of transparency and authenticity on social media may subject “violators” to very visible criticism, most companies survive those episodes intact. (“Really,” I hear you thinking. “What about the time that…?” In his post Social Media Crises Aren’t Crises, Augie Ray sets the record straight.)

On social media, everyone knows when you’re a shareholder-beholden, customer-targeting profit seeker. Perhaps they also know that you’ve left your authenticity at the door when they choose to engage with you.