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Communications in the Social Media Age: Yearning for the Authentic Voice Online

For this week’s blog post, I’ve asked long time colleague, friend and community expert, Rachel Medanic, to write about the challenges companies face keeping an authentic voice in today’s “always on” world.  Rachel has been a marketing pro for over 14 years and currently is a Community Manager for the Cisco Learning Network.  For more insights into marketing from someone who always “keeps it real” you can read Rachel’s personal blog.

cartoon: honesty as a policyThanks to social media and the power of the searchable web, the era of the authentic voice has arrived and our customers are demanding it publicly using their voices.  In his blog post, Keith Ferrazi apologizes and speaks honestly about his overly aggressive marketing campaign to which his customers responded negatively. Their responses all told him he’d failed to use an authentic approach in his communications campaign. The authentic voice is a proactive approach companies can choose as they embrace all the new realities social media is exerting on customer relations and the practice of marketing.

I recall first feeling the need for an “authentic voice” in 2001. After 7 years in technology as a marketer describing customer “solutions” “platforms” and “implementations,” I longed for something more authentic, but I wasn’t sure how to achieve it. In truth, these words (sterile and impersonal as they are) have become a tried and true way of communicating. They have a place and serve a function. But with the turn of the Millennium, the new social mediums such as blogs/micro-blogs, wikis (online communities and collaboration), podcasts and video have quickly expanded the number of channels with which we must engage to reach our target audience. The din of competitive messages and voices is now a roar of billions of voices around the world.

As marketers this more than triples the amount of work we must do and as a result (intentional or not), some of us have let the unthinkable happen:  we have allowed these sterile messages and this impersonal tone appear in our company blog posts and in communications with our online communities. We’ve told ourselves that if it doesn’t have a voice or a persona, or that if it is vague and doesn’t tell the customer what is really going on, it must be a safe investment for our brand. Perhaps some of us are ignorant about using social media in business, we have stifling corporate communications policies or we anticipate and fear negative consequences for using a more genuine and human way to communicate.

But what masquerades as safe and sanitized messaging now no longer is as credible with customers because it lacks authenticity. In addition, social media demands interactive communication, participation and upkeep. The fast-paced, highly interactive social media driven world is truly an exciting circumstance for us to thrive in professionally as marketers. We get instant feedback, but along with that comes the need to be able to respond quickly and to accept that we may have failed and will be told so directly by our customers rather than by a bad click through rate. As Lorraine wrote in her blog post, Keeping it Real: Marketing Success Tips for 2011 and Beyond, “…it’s always better to be honest about mistakes…” Mistakes or even just bad marketing choices don’t have to be something we hide.

In 2007, I began working with online communities. What I have learned most from community work is it that honesty (especially where policy and practices that pre-date social media proliferation are concerned) has the ability to earn respect from customers who know businesses are still evolving to align social media practices and expectations into the way they do business. Customers who have embraced and who use social media at the speed it allows for sharing information work quickly, expect a lot and can often effect change faster than businesses can create solutions.  In community work we can match them by bringing our real selves and company policies to the table—openly—even if it is just to say, “Please be patient, we are working to revise our policies to your expectations, but this will take some time.” Show your customers that your company is making the effort and keep communicating. For those customers who haven’t embraced social media, they are also still adapting to all the new possibilities it presents.

Keeping up in the social media world is a fast-paced game, but if we invest early on in an authentic voice and honest communication, we will be protected when bad situations arise.