Mike Cushing / Digital Strategy / February 3rd, 2014

The End of This Post Will Figuratively Restore Your Faith in Humanity

What happens at the end of this post is literally a breath of fresh air.

Sound familiar? These days, you can’t swing a cat gif without hitting an advertisement claiming insider secrets, a headline promising shocking details or some equally life-altering bit of information. Hell, even once-respectable (maybe?) news outlets can’t resist these days.

Besides cringe-worthy cases of poor editorial judgement, all of these web trends have one thing in common: They deliver fleeting, incredibly shallow content experiences. Unfortunately, many brands on the web employ the same approach with content, social outreach and more. Of course, this lack of reliability online is not limited to brands.

You Big Phony

Before the end of the year, a wave of fun stories swept across the web. A testy napkin-based showdown between confined airline passengers on Thanksgiving. A battle of wits between a comedian and a salsa-flavored Tweetbot and its marketing handlers. Both were funny, both turned out to be semi-elaborate hoaxes. Though I was disappointed, I can’t say I was surprised to learn that someone had taken the time to pull a fast one.

After the number of hoaxes, jokes and staged “experiences,” it’s almost safer to assume that everything on the Internet is fake. Gawker has even started a semi-regular series dedicated to unraveling everything you thought and hoped was real on the Internet.

As Internet users, we’ve been conditioned for disappointment.

Image credit: Martin Whitmore
Image credit: Martin Whitmore

The Power of Curiosity

Human curiosity is a powerful force. If you offer us insider knowledge, we want to take advantage. Got a heavily edited video of puppies finding a new home? Great, I’ve got a stack of tissues you wouldn’t believe. Show us a mystery, and we want to unravel it. Curiosity gets us into all sorts of exciting and troubling place, and often times, it’s used to take advantage of us.

There’s a reason why viral sites like Upworthy and Distractify are so effective at drawing us in. For every Upworthy post — usually videos or posts taken from content creators — its team writes up to 25 headlines. They choose the one that is most likely to pique a viewer’s interest by creating a gap in their knowledge. The content itself is geared to create an emotional reaction strong enough for you to click share and coast onto the next video.

mind the gap

It’s an effective strategy, but it doesn’t leave a viewer fulfilled or actually engaged with what they’re seeing. It’s merely fulfilling our natural curiosity with carefully packaged content, and it’s why so many of these practices succeed. Users want fantastic claims to be true; they want to be shocked, amazed, inspired and engaged.

As responsible content creators, it’s our  job to empower our visitors, not exploit them for clicks, shares, likes or whatever other weak-ass marketing metric you’re inflating.

Authenticity is More than Just Content

authentic_goods_by_blackandcolour-d57xwh3Upworthy is an easy target, but they don’t have much to worry about. They’re not content creators. They’re curating content that already has viral potential and slapping a click-bait headline on top. As marketers and business owners, an authentic web presence goes beyond just pumping out the occasional blog post or Facebook update. Users want to actually connect with a brand, not be given the illusion of a connection.

Required authenticity is likely coming whether you like it or not. Even if users haven’t come to expect a certain level of engagement with brands, there’s a powerful push behind making sure people and companies are representing themselves truthfully on the web: Google.

Love ’em or hate ’em, almost every step Google has taken has been pushing content providers into more authentic practices. No more spamming directories to get low-quality backlinks. No more link networks. Even our tried-and-true “best” SEO friend, guest blogging, will soon be shown the door. And it’s about damn time.

I’ll be the first to admit I’ve written my fair share of guest blogs for clients, and I can’t be happier that we’ve moved on to stronger digital marketing tactics. While I did my best to create engaging, useful content for readers, a backlink was the most important win for a particular article. That said, I hope that some of them created real, lasting connections with potential users for clients.

Google has taken some steps to push authenticity through Google authorship, and that is only going to continue as it tweaks search algorithms to value hosted content and social signals more. Most importantly, though, your users want authenticity, and it’s pretty easy to recognize companies that strive for it.

Last week, lingerie company Aerie announced that it would no longer be retouching model photos with Photoshop and launched its #AerieREAL campaign asking customers to share their own photos.

cool-model-ad-campaign-Photoshop-no-retouching

Is it marketing? Absolutely. But it also joins the company with an important discussion about body acceptance and glamour, and offers a real opportunity for Aerie to engage with customers on an authentic level. And you only have to check the hashtag to see the positive response the company is getting.

Transparency vs Authenticity

For a while, transparency was all the rage. We needed to be open. We need to show we cared. Respond to every tweet, show our fun office on Facebook, blog about special events, follow up on Yelp reviews. Sadly, many brands confuse the open nature of a transparent communication strategy with one that actually engages users with authentic, responsible dialogue.

You can be as transparent as glass without saying something that matters.

Without diving too deep into the well-trodden arena of Simon Sinek’s Start With Why, your customers don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it. You’re not converting anyone by blandly appealing to everyone.   So how can you take a transparent approach and turn it into an authentic one?

Remember that awesome launch video for startup Dollar Shave Club? If not, take a moment.

As a startup, Dollar Shave Club had to do something brazen and disruptive to get attention, but the video also clearly and intelligently breaks down the shortcomings of competitors. It tells you exactly what you’re getting, what they’re doing and why you should care. It won’t appeal to everyone, and that’s exactly the point. Everything about that video is authentic: curse words, toddlers and leaf blowers of cash, included.

With one video, you know exactly what you’re getting from Dollar Shave Club. Can your customers say the same about you?

How to Be Authentic

Four days of terrible service at a large Las Vegas hotel got me thinking about authenticity.

On the first day, I got a response to some light Twitter grumbling with an apology and a helpful suggestion to see the manager. The problems continued, and I received the same tweet two days later, revealing what appeared to be a helpful human was really just automated troubleshooting. Rather than trying to solve my problem, it gave the illusion of solving the problem.

Unfortunately, many companies believe that authenticity means responding to everyone. So if we can just automate blanket replies to the most common problems, people will love us. Anyone who has ever received an automated tweet, email or phone call can tell you they rarely fix the problem.

If you’re not prepared to actually give the level of service or attention that your social media presence suggests, then you’re letting your customers — and ultimately, your business — down.

It’s fine to be a one-way street, as long as your customers understand that. You can provide an authentic representation of your company without responding to every tweet, but you have to give your customers a sign. They’ll be forgiving if they understand what you’re doing, but if you’re just retweeting positive comments while ignoring the negative…well, then you have a problem.

So what do you want your audience to do? Are you prepared to meet those expectations? If you’re not, make sure your customers know it.

Match Your Users Curiosity, Don’t Squander It

Every visit to your website or Facebook page is driven by the curiosity mentioned above. New customers want to know what you’re all about; returning customers want to know what you can do for them today. You should be just as curious as to how you can help your customers. That means you should really know who you’re talking to, not just what you want to say.

A user’s curiosity should be rewarded, not simply filed away as a lead or a Facebook like. Excited visitors become customers. Excited customers become advocates. Offering a positive, constructive user experience, rather than simply a transparent one, builds a lasting connection with site users that will drive real action, not just a fleeting moment of interest.

You Made It

As promised, it’s time to offer a breath of fresh air. Well, really it’s just two tools to let you catch your breath after your rage-screaming from Upworthy style headlines. A Chrome app called Unworthy that scrubs your browser of links from Upworthy, distractify and other viral sites, and Downworthy, which replaces clickbait headlines with snarky alternatives. Cherish them, and enjoy a more accurate web.

Photo Credit: Caroline Gutman