Authenticity. It’s a tough word to pin down. After all, what appears authentic is largely in the eye of the beholder. It’s something we know when we see it. And, conversely, we often have a visceral negative reaction to something that strives for authenticity but misses. In the same way that CGI lost in the uncanny valley just feels off, brands that take big swings at authenticity often come up far short.

But despite the risks (see: the Pepsi Kendall Jenner debacle), authenticity in content marketing is a prerequisite for more and more consumers. Search volume for the term “authentic” has risen by one-third in the past five years, and 63 percent of consumers prefer “authentic brands” over ones that conceal details about themselves.

It’s easier said than done, though, sort of like how telling someone to “act natural” makes it impossible for them to be natural. And most content marketers are ultimately trying to make money for their brands, but naked commercial ambition is a one-way ticket to irrelevance when it comes to content marketing.

So content marketers need to be smart about how they approach ensuring their messaging has not just the look and feel of authenticity but that it doesn’t leave a bad taste in the mouth. Here, we’ll outline seven critical tips.

 

1.Highlight Personal Experiences

Messaging that focuses on a real person, complete with photos of that person and glimpses into their personality, life story and even their families, is wildly effective at engaging readers. Don’t be afraid to speak in the first person if it will amp up the authentic appeal of your content.

This is particularly true for content marketing that’s written by an owner, a senior official or longtime employee, but almost any interesting anecdote could potentially help you tell a human, authentic story.

A blog about how the company’s founder got her start. A video interview with a marketing executive and their favorite college professor about how things have changed in the industry. A travel journal written by the newest company intern. These all are examples of how you can the audience in on some aspects of the daily lives of your company and its employees.

Extend this to your industry partners, clients and customers as well. Customer testimonials have among the highest effectiveness rates, as nearly 90 percent of the audience finds them appealing.

 

2.Don’t Overload Links, But Do Provide Helpful Resources

You don’t know everything, and it’s good to admit that. While you should link directly to sources of data or unique insight, don’t overdo it. If you’re including tons and tons of links all over your content, not only will readers gloss over most of them, but search engines may actually penalize your site.

There’s no hard and fast rule to how many links you should or shouldn’t include, but a good guideline is to think of it this way: Would the reader get the full context of what I’m trying to say and would they be able to understand what information came from my brain if I didn’t include this link? Then it may be best to leave it out.

Linking not only runs the risk of annoying your audience (and Google), but it could backfire on you if the links change in the future, and a long-term content marketing strategy should be built around evergreen content. A good rule of thumb is to avoid links to repository sites that are constantly making changes or to breaking-news stories, as they can change by the minute.

If you do need to include links, consider using a dead-link checker that can crawl your site and flag links that aren’t working anymore. A reader who clicks repeatedly on dead links will assume there’s nobody tending the shop.

 

3.Use Personalization, But Don’t Creep People Out

It can be truly scary as a consumer to think about everything companies know about you. Especially for companies like Google, Facebook or cellular providers, the depth and breadth of their data collection is simply enormous, and consumers are concerned about how that data is being used. A Pew Research Center study conducted in 2017 found that just 9 percent of Americans said they were totally confident that social media platforms would protect their data, and about one-third of people didn’t believe companies they do business with would keep their information safe.

Consumers are rightly concerned about companies’ access to their personal information, whether in the wake of revelations that data firm Cambridge Analytica misused Facebook data to influence the Brexit campaign in the UK and the U.S. presidential election in 2016, or as a result of the more common data breaches that frequently hit retailers, social media sites, insurance providers, even the government.

It’s hard for consumers to believe their data will be safe, but that doesn’t mean companies and content marketers should simply give up on using customers’ information to provide them with better service. It just means that providing the best possible service, not getting your hands on all that juicy data, should be the goal. Saying you’re collecting data to personalize a user’s experience is one thing; it’s another to actually do it in a way that makes the imposition worth it for the consumer.

Personalization like dynamic homepages, loyalty programs, birthday/anniversary offers, subscription-like product reminders, live chat and product recommendations all are ways to add authentic value to your customer experience. For instance, a $25 birthday gift certificate is a fair price to pay for a company knowing something as relatively impersonal as your birthdate, which most of us splash all over social media anyway.

 

4. Welcome Feedback and Criticism

While online forums and comments sections often can devolve into cesspools of cross-talk and petty fighting, they also can be informative and instructive for content marketers. If people find your content unhelpful, posting a negative comment often is the first thing they’ll do. And, sure, some people make negative comments as a reflex and not necessarily because they’ve seen something specific in your content, but it pays to treat each comment as a real criticism until proven otherwise.

Companies that are responsive to constructive feedback or less-than-constructive feedback that is nonetheless accurate are better off in the long run than companies that simply avoid all criticism. So where possible, you should enable comments on articles or blog posts, engage with commenters operating in good faith and reply privately to issues best handled out of the spotlight.

 

5. Explore Automation, But Don’t Leave Everything to the Bots

Remember how we said before that consumers are leery of companies having their data? Similarly, they’re becoming increasingly leery of engagement with machines. Calling a customer service line, talking to a chat window, getting a follow-up email — each of those incredibly common consumer experiences is driven by automation and artificial intelligence.

Automation is valuable in saving time for marketers as well as making connections in data that a human brain is unlikely to make, which not only can save companies time and money but can make for better products and a better experience for consumers.

Still, in a 2017 consumer survey, 57 percent of respondents said they preferred to get help from a person when using customer service chat windows. One way to ensure the human touch is to limit the use of automation to only those services that either a human could never provide as well or that simply would require too many hours. When automation and AI are done well and balanced with human interaction, these technologies can help make lives better, both for you and your consumer.

 

6. Let Your Fans Tell Your Story

The wisdom of the crowd doesn’t have to work against you. In fact, you can turn each of your brand’s followers, loyal customers and fans into amplifiers for your messaging by developing user-generated content. From hashtag/retweet campaigns to happy customer case studies, user-generated content provides social proof to potential customers that your brand is worth their dollar.

In a recent study, 35 percent of consumers say a lack of online reviews, one form of UGC, would make them less likely to purchase a product, and an incredible 75 percent of respondents said user-generated content makes marketing messages feel more authentic.

Why? Well, for the same reason people said they’d rather get help from a real person. As a consumer, if you believe that a product has helped a real person, then that means the claims the company makes about how great its products are might actually be true. The more social proof you see, the more you become convinced that the brand is the real deal.

 

7. Ban Shameless Self-Promotion

Content marketing is, in the long run, a way to increase sales and revenue for your company. In ways that advertising simply can’t do, marketing allows your brand’s messages to cut through digital clutter and, with pinpoint accuracy, reach the ears, eyes and hearts of your target audience.

But today’s media-savvy consumer immediately sees through a thinly veiled advertising. If someone is being nice to you because they have an ulterior motive, that annoys you, right? Similarly, brands should never use content marketing solely as a conduit for talking about how great they are. Nothing will turn a prospect off faster than clicking on an article they think might give them insight into some topic but then seeing two paragraphs in that it’s really an advertisement for a company.

It’s easier to make great content that enlightens, entertains, informs or excites people and say nothing about your product than it is to wrap an ad with seemingly well-intentioned content marketing messages. Not only will they not engage with the content or your brand this time, but you’ll erode their trust by attempting to trick them. Tricky brands are inauthentic ones.

 

Conclusion

Authenticity might feel elusive or even impossible to implement, since your job is to make money for your brand. But as important to you as it is, your brand is only a concept. What’s real are the actual people in your company, the actual humans who buy products from you and the real-life individuals who you hope to turn into customers. If you can formulate a content marketing strategy that remembers people are the ones who matter, you’ll never lack authenticity.