Authority and Authenticity in Social Media and Blogging
Article by Jonathan Brill
Two of the most charged words in social media are authority and authenticity. Social Media gurus tend to talk often of these things as if they were somehow more important than search engine optimization, revenue generation, or return on investment. That’s because they are.
Anthony Greenbank, author of the Book of Survival, once said that “to live through an impossible situation you don’t need the reflexes of a grand prix driver, the muscles of Hercules, the mind of an Einstein. You just need to know what to do.” Sage advice to be sure, and there’s a similar principle in social media. It might read something like this:
To build a great social media following, you don’t need to be the best writer, you don’t have to be the foremost expert in your domain, you don’t even have to be the best networker. You just need to know what you’re talking about and tell the truth. Pretty simple advice right? Maybe, but no less powerful for being so.
Practically speaking, authority is knowing what you’re talking about and authenticity is believing what you say. Why are they such a big deal? To answer that, we have to look beyond social media at basic human social psychology.
Dr. Robert Cialdini, author of The Psychology of Influence, listed authority as one of the six “weapons of influence”, the keys to winning trust in social situations. In his book, he lists various experiments in social psychology that prove that when a person is seen as an authority, people around them will trust them to the point of performing objectionable acts, counter to their own judgment. In other words, if people have reason to believe you’re an expert in bubble gum, you could tell them it’s made with butterfly wings and a certain percentage of your audience will take your words as gospel. There are a number of ways for people to determine your authority: education level, job title, career accolades or accomplishments, and the most underrated factor: do the influencers in their social circle believe you’re an authority?
Dr. Brian Sturm, Associate Professor at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, teaches a great class on all aspects of storytelling. He goes over the basic elements of a good story, the almost trance-like state that encapsulates a great storyteller and their listeners, and the different ways a story can emotionally engage an audience. About halfway though his class he’ll stop and matter-of-factly remind his class that “one thing that’s clear: the listener has to trust the storyteller. If that doesn’t happen nothing happens.” No matter how great the story, no matter how great the storyteller. If the storyteller lacks authenticity, he might as well be speaking a different language. Laws 4 and 5 of Cluetrain Manifesto, respectively: “Whether delivering information, opinions, perspectives, dissenting arguments or humorous asides, the human voice is typically open, natural, uncontrived. People recognize each other as such from the sound of this voice.” And then again in Law 15: “In just a few more years, the current homogenized “voice” of business-the sound of mission statements and brochures-will seem as contrived and artificial as the language of the 18th century French court.” Authenticity is about sounding like you believe what you’re saying.
Can you exceed at blogging and social media in general without authority and authenticity? Possibly. If you’re funny or entertaining enough, you will still get traffic. After all, I don’t have to think of you as an authority or trust you to laugh at you. But if you’re like most corporate bloggers, you’re not offering chuckles; you’re offering yourself as a domain expert with an interesting opinion. If you want me to value that opinion, you’ll have to convince me you’re an expert and convince me you believe what you’re writing. It’s one of those things that’s easy prove, hard to fake. It’s also one of the principle reasons people are flocking to social media for their content. They’re looking for authoritative, authentic sources of information. You just have to be one of them.
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