Being authentic on the web requires a clear understanding of what you want to do and why, but more than that, it requires knowledge of who you are.

I started this morning with a TED talk by Brene Brown if you do not know who she is or what she does I would recommend clicking on the link and seeing the video for yourself, even if it means that then you won’t have time to read what I have written next.

Brown’s research (and talk) focused on vulnerability and the way we connect with each other as people. It inadvertently raised the ghost of a question: if being vulnerable, means being us, what does it mean to be authentic? The question is more than just a clever play on semantics. A real trend in marketing, branding and online selling has to do with authenticity.

We, as consumers, have got tired of a world of clever packaging, sleek advertising and surface gloss inducements where some ‘clever’ corporate entity, salesman or institution, treats us as children whose base needs have to be placated in order for us to make the ‘right’ choice and buy something, sign up to a list, convert into followers, become fans, agree to be brand ambassadors and allow ourselves to be coerced into writing a review. ‘Clever’ these days means fake more often than it does not. ‘Clever’ means that someone is busy hoodwinking us (even if that is more of a perception than the reality), ‘clever’ means that someone is selling us life insurance or sub-prime mortgages we cannot afford and which (unbeknown to us) we will have to let go of some time down the line after the ‘clever’ someone has made their commission.

We don’t want ‘clever’. What we want is real and in the age of the web where research means a few more clicks and when we can tap into social networks (like Quora or Facebook or Google+) and get the opinion not just of our circle of online friends but also experts who actually know what they are talking about, real is what actually works. And real means ‘authentic’.

Authenticity is a funny thing because there is no right or wrong way to do it. To explain this better I will have to use the example of a profession I know well because so many of my friends are in it: writing.

Writers and Authenticity and Fans and Book Sales

If you are a writer you are a little f**ked up. No, wait for this, you are actually probably, seriously f**ked up. I mean you work in a profession which most people do not regard as ‘real’ work. You have days when you could gladly claw out your own brain with your hands. You have thoughts, ideas, suppositions, some of which are so out there you do not even know if they have any connection with reality (and this goes for non-fiction writers also) and, when you get your work out there, you’d much rather let it speak for itself rather than have to explain it (or you) all the time.

At the beginning of your career you struggle to make anyone take you seriously and the moment you make it you struggle to maintain an even keel and stop yourself from taking your own self too seriously. You begin to see the picture, I hope. So, the question is (and it’s a valid one) just how do you get authenticity in there? How do you become yourself to the point that Brene Brown suggests and still maintain some shred of self-respect, manage to keep your friends from sprinting away and keep your family ties intact? How, in short, do you get people to see who you are and still keep it together as a writer?

The same, to varying degrees, goes for many professions. We have become adept at building up professional facades (and movies here are to blame as they encourage us to build stereotypes in our minds) and maintaining them, investing in them part of our self and identity, so to suddenly shy away from that is a little akin to seeing the wizard behind the curtain, understanding that the great work of literature, the practical tome of self-help, the towering work of intelligence, the great insurance package, the fantastic investment deal, were put together by someone who is flesh and blood and kinda scared and uncertain and just as vulnerable as we are. And that it requires a leap of faith, of sorts, to actually take their advice, read their work, accept their offer.

Here’s the thing. In terms of how we conduct our lives we take leaps of faith all the time. We just don’t call them that. We respond to ‘hunches’, we listen to our ‘gut’ (What?! Yep.), we follow our ‘instinct’, we respond to the ‘vibes’. We make decisions which are so far from being called rational that you wonder just how we can really justify it to ourselves at all. Yet we do.

We also dress it up. We do not acknowledge to ourselves that we are really going out on a limb because of our own wishful thinking (we want this product to make us thin, we want this policy to make us rich, we want this book to blow our minds), we, instead, want to suggest that there are other, unseen forces at work which are helping us (making us?) decide. Worse yet, everyone else around us seems to accept our suggestion.

There is no Lieutenant commander Spock, from planet Vulcan in our circle of friends or acquaintances who will stop us and say, ‘wait a minute. That’s not logical.’

Here’s the rub. Knowledge and wishful thinking converge towards the same direction and pull us towards opposite ones. We all, now, understand professional facades, or professional personas, and the need for some kind of ‘sell’. We also all, still want the same things and to our wishlist this now includes ‘authentic’.

In writing, which is my example, the writer, his thoughts, personality and ability to now connect with his readers, is one of the key ingredients to the promotion of his books and subsequent sales. Publishers, these days, want not just a writer who will be able to write reasonably well and deliver a manuscript on time, but also one who has connections with the social web, has a legion of fans (what Seth Godin so fondly refers to as a ‘tribe’) and is capable of projecting a sense of who he is.

Is Authentic the new ‘Clever’

Being authentic is not new. When I was active at corporate level I was lucky enough (and it was luck) to become part of a team which put this to work across a workforce totalling over 150,000 members of staff. It gave me insights which I detailed in my post on Truth Marketing. The danger with any kind of approach like this is that you have to have a conscience (in the corporation I worked we actually invested in independent personnel whose main role was to help keep us ‘honest’ and true to our professed ideals – a move which was both costly and unprecedented in terms of corporate initiatives) or corporate expediency will erode even the best of intentions.

In order for authentic and real to work in marketing you have to invest part of yourself in it. I say only part because to invest everything is to defocus the issue and probably create more problems than you solve. As readers, for instance, we really want to know a little of what makes our favourite authors tick, enough to allow us to connect with them at a deeper level than just that of work creators, but we probably do not want to know all their foibles, where they buy their milk, if they are having an argument with their partner and whether they agonise over which brand of deodorant to buy. That is so real and so authentic perhaps that it demythologises things a little too much and somehow deflates the experience.

We are back to our wishful thinking and knowledge. We all want ‘heroes’ of some kind and we all then want to know them and (at a proverbial level) buy them a drink. A writer who spends 20 hours glued to their keyboard because the idea they are pursuing in their writing is so compelling fires us up. The ability to then connect with at writer over a social network setting and exchange some pleasantries or even discuss that idea, honestly and openly, is something few of us can resist. In that discussion, we fancy, we let the writer know how we appreciate (or not) their thoughts on the subject and in the exchange connect with them, the same way we might have at a bar, over a beer. In their responses and interaction we also get to know them a little.

That part of authentic and real, actually works. The writer gets to actually connect with those who read what he writes and those who read what he writes deliver invaluable insights and feedback in a setting which helps both. All, provided, of course, the writer does not become defensive and hide behind a façade (in which case the ‘authentic’ suddenly isn’t) or that they do not become too relaxed and dismiss the issue with ‘hey bub. Just read the work, I don’t even know myself half of its implications’, which would prove that our statue has feet of clay.

Projecting the Real You Can Really Work

I have used writers as an example because unlike most other professions they (or I should say ‘we’) are the best at hiding. We really want to let the work speak for itself, we hate interacting with our public (one of the reasons we’ve become writers in the first place, otherwise we might have become actors or bus conductors) and when we finish something we are so drained or so pre-occupied by the next thing we are working with that we rarely want to talk about it.

All of this is wrong. The web is giving us an unparalleled opportunity through social networking to market ourselves and what we do in ways which actually engage those who we want to do business with. You could be selling anything, from used cars to trips to the moon. If you are open about why you do it and what makes you tick, you will find there are those around you which really respond to it and are ready to help you get better, help you become more successful, help you become more famous, help you – even – become richer. What you need to do is connect.

Whenever I air this idea, especially in a corporate setting I always get asked the same question: What happens when some idiot makes you feel small, useless and stupid? Well, the answer here is that you cannot control how people feel or what they do. You can only control what you feel and what you do, yourself. Be open, forthcoming and interactive for yourself, first, and for profit second. Make an effort to really listen and understand those who belittle your efforts or criticise what you do. Maybe they have a point. If they don’t they have hurt none other than themselves. If they do have a point, they have just helped you become even better.