The Age of Authenticity

“If I can’t see you, you don’t exist!” Also known as the battle-cry of every online marketer working in the 21st Century. The race for attention has consumed us all over the past ten years, and brands have slowly begun disappearing. They have migrated from our billboards, our magazines, our televisions, and have found a new home in the palm of your hand. They’ve stopped bothering you as much in person and no longer need to be physically noticed. Instead they have targeted you based on how you search and what interests you. Is it always successful? No. I still get adverts for nappies, which is a bit awkward, but forgivable. For the most part the algorithm seems to get it right, and it has resulted in, almost every way, online winning over traditional branded communication. But the question today is no longer how to get attention, the strategies and tools are there, we know how to use them. The question is how are we approaching communication once we have the attention we have worked so hard to get? Are we getting the sales our strategies predict, or are some brands finding themselves like a dog chasing a car, the chase is exciting, but what do you do once you have what you wanted? Asked differently: are we converting attention into connection?

Skip This If You Already Know That Words Have Been Replaced by Pictures

Text alone is (pretty much) a thing of the past, unless you are chatting to your mom, mates or your girl on WhatsApp or DM. The same can be said for newspapers, books, and magazines. We first thought it was that these “things” (things here meaning physical, pay for it and hold it) were being made obsolete and that consumers were waiting for it to be available online to stay relevant. We were kind of right, and kind of wrong. For one simple reason, when you have a thing in your hand or on your lap that looks like a TV, you don’t want to read, you want to watch. Words, on their own, have become extinct. They are one dimensional and time-consuming, which is why you can watch me talk about this instead of reading it — you have that choice, and that choice matters if you want our attention.

Video is no longer an add-on, it’s now equal or, oftentimes, more important in communicating value. YouTube, for a number of years now, has been the 2nd largest search engine in the world, and Instagram together with Snapchat have provided all of us with a more meaningful way to present ourselves publically and communicate more meaningfully with each other. This is an opportunity that is as true as it is for brands as it is for you as a user. It would also be pretty interesting to know the stats on how much time we spend on Google to find video instead of going straight to YouTube. Point is, social apps have redefined what “connecting and telling stories” means for us. It’s changed what we expect, and has succeeded over Facebook at being immediate. Until we find a better way to find answers to every question imaginable Google will remain top of the log, but visual platforms are succeeding on a day-to-day basis (as opposed to need-and-ask) because people matter, and we like to see and hear them. We want it to feel real, even when we know it’s not always entirely authentic. But watching your friend or teacher is a lot better than reading what they have to say. Because words have one innate problem that video doesn’t — words can be easily misinterpreted.

Reputation, credibility, and reliability are traits varying with each individual, how they match our individual mix has always mattered in terms of how prioritize people. This is no longer only true of friends, but the same truth applies to entertainment and learning. Once you’ve logged on to YouTube you are surrounded by your trusted advisors who teach you to be the best at what they love to do, be it exercising, contouring, your golf swing or making music. They have been handpicked by us. Who we follow or subscribe to, who we surround ourselves with online, has been carefully curated. And we chose them because of how we are and what we look for in those we trust. And customers are beginning to curate the brands they associate themselves to in exactly the same way.

The Rise of the Social Economy

Trust or its new school equivalent buzzword “social capital” has become, in my opinion, more valuable than product and price. A fantastic example is AirBNB and Uber. Two companies who have successfully and undeniably disrupted their respective industries. And they have done so by valuing reputation, which establishes trust, above all else. The two brands asked one simple question: service quality is an unknown when you first interact with a new brand, how can we help people judge for themselves and be more willing to try us? So they introduced a consumer-centric rating system where you, the guest or passenger, judge the character of the person you have dealt with to either encourage or warn the person using the service after you. That changed the game.

Ask yourself, would you rather drive with a guy who has a 2 rating on Uber? I wouldn’t. I would much rather cancel and wait for the next one. Does everyone care? No. But I would rather keep doing what I am doing, or wait, to avoid being in a situation that is unpleasant for whatever reason. I like having that choice, because to me it’s not worth the risk. Similarly with AirBNB, would you get excited if you read: “Most beautiful apartment I have ever stayed in, but it was probably this cheap because plumbing was problematic” or “Love at first sight, but, sorry to say, some things you can’t tell from pics — it smells like it hasn’t been cleaned in a year.” Would you? Probably not. For many, service reviews have become as important as product reviews. Product reviews are commonplace now. If you are thinking about a new phone, you spend at least an hour researching it and comparing. And we have wanted service reviews for a while now. We have wanted brands to be more transparent, so much so that entrepreneurs have made a more than decent living creating websites (hellopeter.co.za, tripadvisor.com, etc) that make it possible for consumers to share their experiences. The loss for the brands who choose not to encourage consumer reviews as part of their brand culture is twofold (at very least): not only do these third party websites take traffic, attention and the emotional connection away from the brand the consumer paid to have an experience with. But, instead of the brand retaining that attention from start of the experience to the end, they have, inadvertently, caused their consumers to feel like they can pay to take from the brand, but cannot share, add perspective, or say thank you. Brands have established a dynamic where the conversation has felt, at least to me, one sided. If you agree, don’t you think that is a great loss in potential connection?

Yet, regardless of the huge success brands that value transparency have found with consumers, most service brands still aren’t willing to open up. The old-guard are holding their cards close and biting down till the bitter end — which is why both the transport and accommodation industry were knocked on their back by Uber and AirBNB. They didn’t see it coming, because they hadn’t asked the question. It was the empathy these two brands showed in trying to understand the human dynamic in the challenges they faced, that made their service offering simpler and more effective. Their thinking wasn’t to solve a product issue, it was to solve a personal one. They included their audience and successfully converted attention into connection. And they won because of it.

Finding Meaning In A Medium That Has Fundamentally Changed

The goalposts have moved, the expectation has changed. Is everyone there yet? In South Africa, not yet. But soon, like everyone else, they will be, because things are changing fast. Every two years a new way of thinking makes it possible for us to broadcast ourselves more meaningfully to our loved ones, and brands will always be close behind to capitalize. Communication is becoming more authentic than ever and the flaws we once used Photoshop to even out have become welcomed and encouraged. Because, these days, who has the time to be perfect? Slowly things are becoming more about what you mean than how well you show yourself. We are valuing connection more than perfection. An entrepreneur I love to follow, Gary Vaynerchuck, said a cool thing about SnapChat, which was that they grasped one simple truth: that moments are temporary. Until now we have created an idealized version of ourselves online (which continues on Instagram, and that’s okay) that can be scrutinized and judged, because, until now, once you post something on the internet — it stays…forever. So, we took the time to make images that will last, because, that’s what photos were there for: to remind us of a memory when memory fails us, photos were made to be permanent. However, today, we are swamped by them. They are everywhere, from everyone, and now there is video added to the mix. There is just so much public sharing happening that the value we place on that picture of your dinner on Instagram that you linked to Facebook (to remind us you have Instagram) just is becoming less important. How you share is becoming irrelevant, either you share or you don’t, and we assume you will.

Similarly, information has become assumed. Having the world’s knowledge at our fingertips is no longer special, it is fact. Even my gran, now 87, has a phone that can search the internet and receive pics from us on WhatsApp. That was her Christmas present, a phone that can receive pictures so that she can see her grandchildren and great-grandchildren grow up. Because just sending a text saying: “They are fine, growing so fast” just wasn’t cutting it for the rest of the family. Being able to send a picture where before we couldn’t, not only makes her a cool-Gran, but it makes keeping her in our lives when she lives far away more meaningful. Photos no longer preserve memory, they have become a tool for sharing ourselves.

The question isn’t whether or not the Information Age is over and if so, what now? If anything the fact that it is over gets to be a relief. We have adopted the internet in a way that has progressed us and has, for the most part, brought a lot of us closer together. Are there flaws? Yes. But communication has been made simpler. Connection is a click away. How we use that is up to us, just like face to face communication always has been. But that is the next step, a conversation about how we use it, how we connect, and it boils down to authenticity.

The Authenticity Age

I want your brand to make me feel new. Every single time. I want your brand to unlock the part of me that only your brand can.

Sounds like a cheesy love song right? That’s because it is. We want connection. How your brand makes us feel, and more importantly what your brand enables us to do, is everything. Emotional participation, where we get to share who we are vicariously through and because of your brand. But we are paranoid. We have been lied to, been made false promises to, been misled by brands. Advertising has pandered to us to the point where we record our favourite TV shows just so that we can fast forward through the advertising. Years of advertising has made us, as consumers, jaded. And like any failing relationship where trust has been lost, it is going to take commitment and time to reassure us that you mean what you say. It is up to brands to change that dynamic, and how brands use media to share its perspective authentically is the only way forward. To be of any value, the public needs to be respected, which means that the cornerstones of authenticity — meaning and transparency — have to be respected equally. We are no longer connecting to product or price, we are connecting to story, and the story has to be true, because we have watched enough movies to know when we are being fed a formula. We know the spiel. It’s why pick-up lines haven’t worked on girls for years, because they only tell her one thing about you: that you don’t think that speaking honestly would win her over, when all she wants is a friend who she can respect back. The one liners, the promises, the reward (if you do what I want) just won’t get her to believe you, not because you aren’t trustworthy, but because the way you are communicating with her isn’t sending a message that you want to listen to her.

I feel like I’ve taken the girl-boy metaphor far enough. Bottom line: something needs to change for brand communication to start making an impact and to foster more meaningful, loyal and participating relationships between consumers and brands. It won’t happen overnight, one sentimental “we care about you” advert or campaign isn’t going to make the difference. The tone that you establish now gets to be the beginning of a new strategy that encourages a conversation rather than a monologue, because your aim isn’t to “play nice”, the aim is to have a relationship and to show that you are trying.

“Try” is the most important verb in communication for me right now. No guarantees, no absolutes, because we aren’t robots. We are all doing our best. To me, saying you are trying implies that you are humble enough to share your brand for what it is rather than what you wish it could be. That you might not always win, but that you intend to. Intention is as important as outcome, because intention communicates values and, most importantly, story. I can’t get behind a guy who guarantees he’s going to win, he has no need for me to believe in him. A guy who is trying, who is sharing the ups and downs, who shows me how he fails and wins, and is persevering to be the best — that’s a guy I want to help and get behind, that’s a story I can believe in. I am not saying that you should start an airline and say “we are trying our best to keep you in the air”, because, like I said before, product quality is assumed. Doing the job well gets you in the door, but what happens once you are in the room will make or break whether anyone cares or not.

Brands have become a part of us. We are covered in them. We use them. They tell the world about us before we open our mouths. They educate others how to treat us. Whether we acknowledge it or not, our relationship with the brands we choose to associate with forms a part of our psychology. What can we do to activate that psychology and make it more meaningful and lasting for consumers? How can we establish a stronger relationship with consumers where there is an untapped potential for authentic connection?

This story is published in The Startup, Medium’s largest entrepreneurship publication followed by 286,184+ people.

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