I’ve  been reading a lot about how important it is for companies to be “authentic” with their customers. People love to point out how “authenticity” is now what people need, and social media makes it all that much more important.

I beg to differ.

Authenticity doesn’t matter.

What matters to customers is not authenticity; it’s believing that they’re being treated authentically. There’s a world of difference between the two.

Here’s the authentic story: the companies you do business with are in business to make money, create prestige, and give people power. Very few of them would exist if the founders and employees had other sources of cash, status, and power. Maybe some of those founders and employees truly, genuinely care about the business as a vehicle for meaningful relationships. Here’s how you can tell: next time the company founders, see how many top managers reduce their salaries to keep their employers employed. Next time there’s a problem with a company’s product, let’s see how many companies actively seek out customers to refund their money (versus simply having a silent policy that complainers get refunds). And next time the company does something wrong or unethical or breaks a promise, watch how it eagerly rushes to its blog to discuss its ethical transgressions.

For most businesses, social media is simply another new hurdle to be dealt with. An appropriate brand image is designed and an ongoing conversation is created to reinforce that image. If part of that image is to be “authenticity,” then it helps for the blogger to put in a few embarrassing self-effacing comments or air a few customer complaints. And voila–authenticity achieved.

The Internet Doesn’t Necessarily Lead to Authenticity

There’s a theory that now there’s so much information around that it’s hard to hide misdeeds or give a crafted impression. Huh? Since when. I have direct experience to the contrary.

Several years ago I posted a blog post about a controversial issue in which a particular Fortune 500 company had a large, vested interest. Within an hour of my post, I got a call from the Board of Director’s PR person, informing me that they wanted to spread word of my post. It seems they had a database of 10,000 bloggers with a cumulative following of several tens of millions, who believed that they (the bloggers) were privileged keepers of truth. By leaking information to this network of bloggers, the company could flood the internet with whatever information (or misinformation) they wanted. It would appear to come from thousands of independent sources, all of whom were being played by being fed the pre-packaged information along with lots of flattery about how important they and their blog are to the world.

The company wins: it gets its message out there in ways that seem completely unrelated to the company.

The bloggers win: they are privvy to “inside” information, they increase their followings, and get a huge ego boost.

The consumers: well, they get to pay more money for stuff and keep consuming.

Authenticity is a Choice; Know Why You’re Choosing It

For some people, authenticity is a choice. They strive hard to present an online image that reflects what they’re like in person. I’m like that. As someone whose product is information–the market price for which has been steadily pushed down by the internet–what makes me unique is my personality. So I strive to present myself online with all my offline quirks.

So what do I do when someone tweets me, telling me they like my Get-it-Done Guy persona better than my Twitter or Facebook personae? I hadn’t realized they were different, but yeah, the Get-it-Done Guy is a kinder, gentler version of me, in part because he goes through an editing process first. So even when I’m doing my best, my different online presences bring different parts of my personality to the fore. I’m being authentic, it’s just that each lens into me is getting a different part of the whole.

Rather than worrying about authenticity, realize that internet commerce is about transactions. It’s not about making friends with a company. And as a company, the internet is simply one more playing field where reputation management matters. In my humble opinion, the easiest way to manage your reputation is to do a good job, ethically and morally. Then you don’t have to worry about handling the coverups.

I’ll end with the $100,000 question: is this blog post sincere, or just an attempt by me to give the impression I’m authentically sharing my thoughts?

Authenticity? Hogwash.

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