Rain put a damper on Day Two of SXSW interactive 2017. Since most of the sessions my colleague and I planned to attend were held on the other side of the river from the heart of SXSW downtown, we took shelter there for the day. One of the best things about SXSW Interactive is the hustle and bustle of the downtown area as thousands of creatives migrate from session to session. Without that, SXSW is something less than SXSW. But, in spite of the weather, attendees and presenters turned out (at least on this side of the river) and the conference rolled on.
The golden thread running through today’s sessions was, without question, authenticity. Authenticity is certainly not a new idea here at SXSW, or for any of us. In our best moments, we know that we are at our best when we are genuine with ourselves and others. In social media or integrated marketing, authenticity is the currency of success. People engage on social platforms because they seek genuine, authentic, human interaction, and when they find it, it is compelling and attractive. The sessions on Day Two explored both traditional and emerging communications technologies and rightly heralded authenticity as critical to success across a diversity of platforms.
Authenticity is essential as we continue to leverage emerging technologies to tell stories. At the USC Annenberg School of Communications and Journalism and at the Texas State University School of Journalism and Mass Communication, journalism professors are challenging students from multiple disciplines to work together creatively to both use and develop emerging technologies to tell stories. Working with state-based and media partners, these departments engage storytelling projects that empower students to deploy drones, 360 video, augmented reality or other emergent technologies to convey important stories. Technology put at the service of authentic story telling in these creative ways not only becomes a pathway to learning for these students, but it immediately changes the face of journalism. The two keys are the authentic exploration of the ways new technologies can be leveraged to tell stories better, and the authenticity of the next generation journalist to seek out and tell the truth for the benefit of the audience.
Authenticity is incredibly important for brands as they engage individuals and their communities on messaging platforms. One-to-many social platforms like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram are quickly giving way to one-to-one messaging-based platforms such as iMessage, SnapChat, WeChat and others. As brands engage in this space with branded keyboards, emojis and others media that not only seeks but requires individual engagement and sharing within otherwise closed communities, the need for a brand to have deep integrity with its consumer base is paramount. If a brand believes that it can simply push product or advertise a brand message in this emerging space without acknowledging the need for prior awareness and loyalty, the brand will fail, potentially irreparably. In the emerging social economy, authenticity is required for brand engagement.
Authenticity is critical to the entrenchment of live video across social platforms. Facebook Live and Periscope over Twitter have given local and national journalists (as well as citizen journalists) a platform to immerse audiences in breaking news from wherever events happen. Whether events that impact small communities, national breaking news or international events, any journalist with a smart device can be up and broadcasting live in a matter of seconds. This immediacy comes with the implicit demand to be an “honest broker of the truth,” to borrow a favorite phrase of mine from Dan Rather. Credibility in anything considered “news” is paramount and with the power to engage a worldwide audience in real time without the necessity of a satellite truck and live network feed, the responsibility is immense. As live social platforms mature, look for look for news platforms, brands and even your friends to push live video into your social media feeds. The most successful players in this space will be those who produce content with authenticity.
Authenticity is the beating heart of gaining reach on SnapChat. SnapChat influencers are a group of people who have built large communities on SnapChat by sharing content over a long period of time. These influencers make their platform available to entities that are interested in reaching their audiences. These influencers are no necessarily established celebrities. In fact, you can think of the people on the panel I attended as that guy in high school who you hadn’t heard about in a while and when you Googled him you discovered he was a major celebrity in Japan. When a company contracts with one of these influencers, the person simply creates content consistent with their personality but engaging the brand. One of the SnapChat influencers, for example, contracted with Jack in the Box. To connect his followers with their brand, he mentioned the name of their product and the restaurant and then jumped out of an airplane as if to skydive to visit the restaurant. For this marketing relationship to work for the influencer and the brand, the production values and content on SnapChat has to have integrity. Any sense that the influencer has sold out to a product or brand would damage their following. Further, if the followers detect a hint of inauthenticity it would also damage the image of the brand on the platform. As noted above, on these one-to-one platforms authenticity is absolutely critical for the connection on SnapChat to be viable.
Authenticity is crucial for both social and brand imaging. Advertisers have rightly been put under the cultural microscope for promulgating images that are completely out of step with reality. Male and female models who have been formed and then edited to portray a perfect body image for ads have been found to wreak havoc on the identity of people for decades. There is a clarion call by many consumers and advocacy groups for representations in advertising that reflect the lived reality of consumers. This authentic imaging includes real male and female bodies – scars, wrinkles and all – and portrayals of life that mirror genuineness rather than project rarely attained ideals. Organizations like the All Woman Project have been successful in shifting the tide in modeling and advertising to what is a more healthy, authentic representation of human embodiment that affirms rather than denigrates the way people see their bodies.
Whether we are talking about new platforms for digital storytelling, the entrenchment of live video, influencer marketing on SnapChat, or social imaging, authenticity is key. Of course, this isn’t news. It has always been the case in social that authenticity is the currency of the enterprise. As much as it occurs these days, organic reach in social occurs on the basis of authenticity and honesty, whether on personal accounts or brand platforms. The more brands embrace authenticity at every level of their marketing and business practice, the better the brand will fare in the emerging social and commercial economy.
Day Three of SXSW promised to be dry, and it lived up to that promise, restoring a bit of the SXSW vibe to SXSW. But more on that in the next installment.