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6 Secrets to Corporate Authenticity

25 08 2010

[tweetmeme]“Authentic” is undoubtedly one of most echoed words in the Social World nowadays – applied especially liberally when explaining to companies the means by which they should be conveying themselves to the broader world in order to be heard.

The term seems seldom explained more than that, and yet the implications are deep.  It amuses me to no end that the word “authentic” has staged such an emergent come back into our vocabulary – not least of which when used to describe a media and communication form so recently embraced for its ability to allow people to engage in an almost schizophrenic array of multiple online personalities.

Ironic then, that in the current online world that we’ve created, where it’s so easy to be anyone or anything you can imagine, it’s never been so important to simply be yourself. That in a world of Avatars, Second Lives, and Virtual Worlds – we want to know that we’re communicating with real people who are being their real selves.

Maybe it’s a sign that the Social World is growing up – moving from a prior youthfulness happy to live in a world sporting fake Rolexes and toting counterfeit Louis Vuitton bags; to a decidedly a more mature mode preferring to spend their newfound wealth buying the real thing on 5th Avenue.

The formula for being “authentic” as an individual must surely be simple then: Be yourself, communicate from the heart and be consistent. But how do you achieve that in an enterprise setting?  How does a company made up of thousands of voices come across with the same effectiveness as one? Here are some guidelines for your internal “social champions” to follow:

1) and 2) “Know Who You Are and Live It” – Earlier this year I had the good fortune to go to the Front End of Innovation Conference in Boston where Bert Jacobs, one of the founders of “Life is Good” was speaking. In his speech, he relayed the story of how the two brothers started their fledgling business on a street corner selling t-shirts and how they were able to translate that into the marketing empire that Life is Good is now.

During his session there was a comment – one that he repeated during his speech, and then signed along with his name on the Frisbee he flung into the audience and pinged me squarely on the forehead with (there was a ricochet involved from a nearby audience member – honest!).

The comment was “know who you are, and live it”. Now Bert’s no social media guru, nor is he making money from his insight (I believe he donates a lot of his speaking fees to charity – He’s a quiet, down to earth, and confident guy who’s simply figured out the secret to his success.

That secret has helped him translate a feeling, an emotion, and a mission from his heart to his products – and onwards to his customers.

This effect though is multiplied in the social world and the necessity to “know who you are” with ultimate certainty and to consistently live out those values in the social worlds is the real key to success for corporations in what has to be one of the ultimate brand challenges of the modern business world.

Why the “ultimate” brand challenge? Because the Social World has an incredible memory – infinite actually.

What you say, what you do, how you do it, and who you do it with is preserved along with people’s opinions of your actions from the moment it happens, until the end of time. Like an elephant on steroids, your image in the social world is established by your actions, and remembered forever.

If “Knowing Who You Are” is number 1) on the list of things companies must do – then “Live It” has to be number 2).  Consistency is a key element of authenticity  – people want to know that you not only “talk the talk”, but also “walk the walk”.  One communication effort can set an intention, but it takes consistency to set an image.

A positive Social Image is a fragile entity and is re-enforced or recast depending on your actions, engendering strong levels of customer loyalty and advocacy to those who get it right – and equally strong negative reactions to those who trip up on the path. Never mind women, hell hath no fury like a customer scorned in the social world – where one negative voice can sound like hundreds online.

The need for consistency in your actions is then further exaggerated in the current Google-centric world where information is omnipresent and easy to access. In this world, it’s not just your actions that matter, but those of everyone you associate with too.  Nestlé’s well publicized controversy regarding the source of Palm Oil  used in some of their confectionary is just one example of this in action.

3) Be Real – The Social World is made up of individuals – not corporations. Talk to them in the same formal way you approach your PR campaigns and you’ll find the same level of interest and disengagement you probably got from journalists when you sent them that Press Release announcing your new six sigma process (yaaawwwwnn).

Interactions with actual people and personalities are simply more “sticky” than formal corporate approaches. Whilst it’s important to institute guidelines and rules for those interactions, you should, whenever possible,  make sure that your company’s interactions come across as being made on a person-to-person basis and not on a corporate entity-to-whomever-will-listen basis.

4) Be Transparent – Part of the potential poisoned chalice that can be connecting to thousands of people is that you’ll find it very hard to hide information – so don’t bother doing so! Treat your social world as if they’re an integral part of your company. Let them know early when good news is underway, and apologize early when you screw up.  Open up to your community and they’ll reward you with understanding, forgiveness, and loyalty.

5) Cultivate Relationships, not Transactions – Treat the communities you interact with as if they were integral partners in your company’s success and not just simply a transaction source. Care about them, ensure they get value out of the relationship then have with you, and make sure the flow of information and value goes both ways.

6) Do it yourself – This last one is the simplest – you want to be yourself? You want to be “real”? You want to cultivate lasting relationships with your social community? Then do it yourself – don’t hire external partners to do it for you.

Partners have their role in all this – as teachers, thought leaders, and general resources – but you shouldn’t rely on them for execution – that’s just lazy, and in an age of transparency, it won’t take long for the social world to see through you.

Invest in the internal capabilities and expertise to drive and deliver value to and from your communities and the returns will be hundred-fold.

Got more tips on how to be Authentic? Share them below!

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Is your Community Contaminated?

21 07 2010

[tweetmeme]This morning I found myself at the W Hotel in Hoboken, accidentally (no really!) listening to an interesting story on one of the many breakfast shows on at that time. On that show, author James Fowler was describing research he had done that showed how social networks surrounding us can impact each of our lives in a much deeper way than most people realize. To make his point, (and the news presumably) he used as an example that divorce can be “contagious” amongst friends – mentioning that having a close friend experience divorce, increases the chance of your own divorce by 147%. Needless to say shock and horror ensued from the hosts and other assorted pundits on the show who naturally dislike the idea of someone asserting such high correlation to such a dreadful outcome.

Yet when I thought about it, I don’t think I was really surprised. After all, it kind of makes sense. Your social circle represents more than just a group of people you like to get together with for a beer. Your social circle represents the segment of society (or community) with whom you most closely identify and associate.

As with any society, the activities of one affect the activities of the many – word of mouth campaigns are one of many business efforts to capitalize on this effect.  Communities and Societies have social norms and unspoken rules that govern membership – and it’s only natural when an outlier emerges (say, the first of your group goes bungee jumping on holiday, learns how to scuba dive, or, god forbid, gets divorced) that the community takes a moment to reflect on whether that new behavior or activity is a true outlier or simply a leading indicator of something they too should be trying/considering/experimenting.

The elements of peer pressure and groupthink are not new either – it’s well known that many people get into/stay in gangs, or conform group actions against their natural wills because of the innate fear of rejection/fear of social stigmata/fear of ridicule/fear of the unknown that we all suffer from. Humans are inherently social creatures, so why would we be surprised that the social actions of someone we know, like and respect would also impact our own decisions?

Take the divorce case – the first person to get divorced in a social group of couples challenges the group norms. All of a sudden the group has to decide whether or not they approve – whether or not to maintain the two separates in the combined. Once that norm has been broken, it’s only normal for the rest of the group to question their own commitment to what they had considered a societal norm of marriage.  I daresay that if the author had dug further (and he may well have by the way, I haven’t had a chance to read his book yet, and it was a short segment on the program), he would’ve actually gone on to find that whether or not other couples in the group started to consider divorce would also have been impacted by the relative happiness exhibited by the two singles that initiated the first divorce. Did the initial sadness give way to euphoria commensurate with a perpetual trip to Hedonism III? Did the two newly single people now face a miserable existence akin to that of a lonely penguin in the Sahara?

Our understanding of alternative realities in the communities to which we belong influence our own decisions by opening up an understanding of what those alternatives actually look and feel like in real life. If we find our close friends being happier single than married, then it’s only natural for us to consider a similar move.

There are implications of course, for the Social Business World in all this of course (I bet you were wondering when I’d get to the point of all this, eh?).

Social communities maintained (or not) by businesses are fickle things – more akin to organic creatures than to mathematical formulas (which adds to my confusion as to why so many companies seem to be lumping in the Social Media functions with their SEO functions internally – but that’s a different discussion) – and the analogy of new societal norms spreading through a community like a virus is just as accurate, if not more so, in the social world.

Engender a strong goodwill and feeling within your community, and you’ll find that it’ll be resistant to negative vibes. Take the iPhone 4 – despite all its difficulties and problems, people are still buying it – not because it’s that much of a better phone than anything else on the market (nor even its previous version the 3GS) – but rather because Apple’s conditioned its community to be resistant to negative viruses by ensuring that they not only respond, but also try to over-satisfy the customer whenever possible. As a result, the community of Apple buyers continues strong, and continues to grow in number.

Cross your community though, and that bad feeling will spread far and wide like wildfire. You only have to look at the many Facebook faux pas of the likes of Nestle and others to see that at work.

It strikes me then, that we might well start seeing a new type of competitive behavior showing up in the future – that of setting up deliberate social viruses to attack and/or convert the social networks of competitors.  I can certainly envision ways in which companies could manipulate a few key individuals to enable them to corrupt a competitor’s user community for example – sowing seeds of discontent, and setting up the consumers to be virally vulnerable to the possibility of alternative realities.  Could we then be on the verge of a new weapon in the Corporate Strategic Arsenal?

In many ways we need to nurture a new skillset in corporations – that of the Social Doctor – Able to diagnose potential viruses prior to them taking effect and injecting the corporate social world with the virtual equivalent of vitamins to re-enforce it.

Part strategists, and part social scientists, this new breed of business executive will need to show a sensitivity and concern for customer communities that is currently alien to the majority of companies who still treat their social networks as a sales and marketing tool rather than a living, breathing symbiotic organism.

Mix that social awareness and responsiveness with corporate strategic ability though – and you get the ability to build and maintain a Social World that will drive unrivalled competitive advantage in your direction. What do you think?








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