Authentic communications

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This Thursday, hundreds of marketing communications professionals will gather in person for “Authentic Communications 2008: Beyond Web 2.0, What's Next?” The day-long conference will feature technologists, PR professionals and online marketing gurus, each with a different take on how best to deliver authentic communications in today's world of consumer-generated media, employee blogs and Facebook pages. In a prep call for my panel, I realized how fruitful the conversation could be when extended beyond the search and social media clique.

In one sense, it is somewhat sad that we need to qualify communications as “authentic.” And as much as we don't like to admit it, we have all consumed, or even created, our own fair share of inauthentic communication. I can think of very few professionals who can honestly say that they have never put lipstick on a pig, including myself. From selling vaporware to positioning a mediocre product as top-of-the-line to building out a search program that may or may not be as relevant to the searcher, we all know when the line has been crossed.

Consumers, of course, are the ultimate judges of authenticity. Sincerity or truthfulness cannot be feigned by anyone but the most expert of all actors. And even then, we know they are acting. This topic is not new; Seth Godin's 2005 book, All Marketers are Liars: The Power of Telling Authentic Stories in a Low-Trust World, hits the nail on the head. (In the interest of authenticity, I will relay that I have not actually read the book, but have heard Godin speak on the subject.)

Yet with Web technologies pushing us towards increasing transparency, communications are not necessarily any more authentic. If anything, navigating such conversations have become a lot like the Mission: Impossible scene where Tom Cruise hangs upside down above a web of laser beams and a pressure-sensitive floor. With each new technology comes a long list of questions for the search and social media marketer that not only question authenticity, but ethics.

Is it right for a marketing department member to create a wiki page for a new product? What if that employee pays an agency to do the heavy lifting? And if that agency pays hundreds of third parties to add to the wiki page? Is digging an article on your firm ok? Or asking all of your Facebook friends to Digg it as well? If an employee's personal blog voices concerns over the company, should the employee be reprimanded? On the flip side, is it acceptable for a firm to ask employees to create a flog (fake blog) to appear authentic?

Granted, none of these practices are illegal, and just about all are executed by Fortune 1,000 firms on a daily basis. The key to these tactics is to remain authentic, or risk being frowned upon by the digital powers that be. And for once, the digital power I am referring to is not Google; it is the masses and their ability to see through inauthentic communications that will deliver the hardest punch.

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