In a recent post, Rob Engelsman talked about using students to create “authentic content” through social media. Indeed, this can be one of the greatest benefits of social media content. It’s often raw and unfiltered (or less filtered). It’s “authentic.” However, authentic content is not reserved for social media.
In fact, all content should be authentic.
But why is authenticity good for content? What does “authentic content” mean and how do we plan for it? I think this term is used too casually, but it represents a fundamental quality of effective content. Authentic content takes courage. It’s risky. Although, the risk of creating inauthentic content is much worse.
What Is Authentic Content?
Let’s bring meaning to this vague term. To help make sense of “authentic content,” I reached out to the Meet Content community on Twitter. Man, they’re smart. Here’s what they said:
I think the prevalent theme here is “be yourself.” It’s your voice — your institution’s brand — and all its wonderful imperfections that make it unique and "ooze with personality."
For me, authentic content accurately represents who you are and what you do. These are essential communication goals for any content strategy, and authentic content is the key.
Authentic content is not an unedited YouTube video or aggregated event tweets. Authenticity is not defined by what you say but how you say it. People confuse "unpolished" content with authentic content. Typos, fuzzy images, and unclear Facebook posts will not help people know you or connect with you.
Authentic content requires planning, just like all purposeful content.
What Is the Value of Authentic Content?
Why is being authentic important? Why do we want "content with an identifiable voice" that "is true to the personality of [our] institution"?
Well, if you can’t accurately communicate who you are and what you do, you’re just another brand. Generic and unremarkable. Authentic content allows you to build meaningful connections with your audience. Author Simon Sinek describes this value as building trust and creating support for your brand (video):
What authenticity means is the things you say and the things you do you actually believe. … When you only say and only do the things you actually believe, people will trust you. And when you don’t say the things you believe — you’re just trying to get some sort of short-term behavior — people won’t trust you. So, the importance and value of being authentic is that it’s in your long-term interest that people will support you and stand by you. People will put up with your failures. People will help you for no other reason than it helps them.
When you develop meaningful connections with your audience, they become a partner — willing to share your message (promote your brand) and forgive you when you mess up. People don’t develop connections with generic brands.
People won’t care about you unless they know you.
Why Authentic Content Is Hard
Being authentic should be easy. Just be yourself, right? So why is authentic content so rare?
It’s hard to be yourself. I know. It’s much easier for me to tell you to be yourself than to follow my own advice. Opening yourself up to critique and criticism is tough. All institutions want to be different and stand out, but very few take the steps to achieve this.
Rather than creating content that represents the values and culture of their institution, most organizations try to pretend they’re someone else — someone less flawed. Someone perfect. They want to be different, but they still act like everyone else.
The only way to be different is to be yourself.
I found it much easier to be myself when I was a kid, when I wasn’t worrying about all the things I was trying to say or how I wanted to be perceived. I was the first one in drama class to volunteer for the spotlight. My sixth-grade performance of “Johnny B. Goode” made me a star. (Well, among third graders.)
These days, it takes a minimum of two margaritas for me to do karaoke. While I cringe when my family brings out the VHS tapes of my childhood performances, I’m secretly proud of them. That was me. Goofy, awkward, fun-loving me.
Being proud of your institution (and yourself) gives prospective students and your community something to be proud of. If you want people to fall in love with your institution, then you need to give them a reason to. If you want your audiences to be proud of your institution, you need to stand tall and be proud of yourself by being yourself.
The Risk of Inauthentic Content
When we’re afraid to be ourselves, what we’re talking about is shame. That’s a strong word, I know. But maybe by using this word, we’ll realize that inauthentic content is a problem we need to solve.
In her TED talk on the power of vulnerability (video), Brené Brown describes shame:
“Shame is really easily understood as the fear of disconnection: Is there something about me, if other people know it or see it, that I won’t be worthy of connection?”
We’re afraid that if we open up and act like ourselves, people won’t like us. They won’t want to be our friend. They won’t want to attend our institution. Yet, people need to know us to determine if we can be good friends — if our institution is the right fit for them.
“In order to allow connection to happen, we have to allow ourselves to be seen — really seen,” says Brown.
You need to remind yourself that you want to build connections with the right people — people who will benefit from and have a positive experience attending your institution. By misrepresenting yourself, you’re doing a disservice to both your audiences and your institution.
The irony is that this is a lesson we all know. We learned this in elementary school, in high school, in the workplace, on Facebook and Twitter. When we allow people to know us, we build meaningful connections.
We need to be willing to say, "This is us — love us or hate us." This message will attract the right people and weed out the wrong people.
We’re not creating content to attract everyone. We’re creating content to attract the right ones.
Of course, this thinking isn’t popular at board meetings where people are looking at application and enrollment numbers. However, the hard truth is if you cater to mediocrity, that is what you will get. And become. The easiest way to marginalize your institution’s value is to act like someone else.
How to Plan for Authentic Content
So, again, we arrive at the question: How do you create authentic content?
To sum up, you need to first know who you are. It’s not enough to talk about what you do, you need to talk about how you do it. If authentic content is content that represents your personality and core values, how can you plan for it without knowing yourself?
Yet, most institutions don’t know who they are. Sure, most have some sort of branding guidelines, defined core values, or the ever-popular mission statement. But do those descriptions represent authenticity or just brand vision? Do content contributors know how to use these descriptions to convey who they are through the content they create? For most organizations, the answer is no. And the result is a mishmash of competing messages and personalities — or, possibly worse, a distinct lack of personality.
Authentic content — effective content — needs to reflect who you are and what you do. This requires having clearly defined communication goals, including voice and tone.
Most higher ed web content talks about what institutions do but not how they do it — or how the institution’s qualities add value to its offerings.
If you’re creating authentic, trustworthy content on Facebook but guiding people to your website containing inauthentic content, your website undermines the trust you have built with your users. Similarly, if your marketing landing page content is friendly and welcoming but your academic program page content is cold and distant, you lose that initial connection you established with your users.
The need for clear, consistent communication is why messaging should be the foundation of your content strategy. Clear communication doesn’t happen by chance. Create a message architecture. I offer examples in my talk, "Editorial Style: Your Guide to Clear Communication on the Web."
Margot Bloomstein shares her method for developing a message architecture in "Content Strategy at Work." I find it immensely valuable.
What does “authentic content” mean to you? What does authentic content look like at your institution? We’d love to know!