Wait! I thought we had a relationship!
Fake authenticity in an age of social media

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A thinly veiled pitch
A casual friend called me with a question she seemed to have already solved. It had been a year since we last chatted and I enjoyed conversing, but was confused about why she would call to ask about something she seemed to have found an answer for.

In the course of our conversation, she mentioned (“oh, by the way…”) a service she uses that she thought might interest me. She offered to walk me through it. Her offer seemed surprisingly gracious, until she mentioned she was an affiliate of this service. Everything suddenly fell into place. This wasn’t a social call, it was a sales call. I went from feeling the pleasure of connecting with an old friend to feeling manipulated to feeling insulted. Did she really think I wouldn’t see through her ruse? This kind of trickery might have gotten a pass twenty years ago. It doesn’t now.

Cheap imitation
This is the age of personalization. Peer to peer networking. Relationship marketing.

It’s also an age of fake personalization. False grassroots campaigns. Feigned relationship marketing. Manipulation disguised as connecting.

Everything authentic has a cheap imitation. Even the devil can quote scripture. But we’re getting more sophisticated.

Automated fake authenticity
Last week I got a free download that put me on a list. Their second email apologized for forgetting to include a link in their first email. This was an autoresponder message, so clearly the “forgetting” and the “apology” were scripted to appear personal. I went from interest in hiring this vendor to feeling manipulated to feeling insulted. Why would I hire someone who tries to trick me? Did they really think I wouldn’t see through the ruse? This kind of trickery might have gotten a pass ten years ago. It doesn’t anymore.

Sometimes the message itself isn’t disingenuous, but the sender is fake. A friend Direct Messaged an author she admired to tell him his recent practice of tweeting his latest book one tweet at a time seemed less personal than his previous twitter posts. He replied that his marketing people were behind the strategy and not him. My friend was even more disillusioned to know the canned messages weren’t even from him. This kind of trickery might have gotten a pass five years ago. It doesn’t anymore.

Fake interpersonal
Fake marketing reminds me of fake managing and relating where people select a PowerPhrase that I recommend without adapting it to their situation, style and intent. They look in my books for words that will work rather than words that help them express what’s in their heart and mind. They look for ways to appear authentic and sincere when they’re not. I’d rather people speak impersonally to me than pretend t be personal.

Every attempt at fake authenticity erodes trust. It also creates a barrier for those with sincere messages. I almost didn’t open an email with the subject line “partnership opportunity” because I receive too many emails that would be better titled “generic opportunity to make me rich at your expense.” This particular email contained a genuinely personal, legitimate offer that I happily took advantage of. I almost missed it.

Simple authenticity check
We do need to hone our messages and in craft our words. So how do we decide if we’ve crossed the line from influence into manipulation?

The answer is actually a simple set of questions. Are we trying to trick anyone? Are we presenting things as different from what they are? Are we putting our best foot or a false front forward?

I would not have minded had my friend opened her call by saying,

  • I know it’s been ages since we talked and I’m using a new product I’d like to tell you about, so I thought it would be a great excuse to call and check in.  

What I do mind, is when someone pretends we have a personal relationship and they’re really only trying to sell me. What I do mind is when someone tries to disguise hustle as honey and hype as help. What I do mind is when someone implies we have a relationship when we don’t.

Keep the party real
And what I do love is all the ways social media helps us find people who share our interests and values and purposes.  What I do love is when someone leaves a thoughtful post on my blog – even if it contains a link to theirs. What I do love is the genuine excitement I feel when I discover someone I should know.

So – a message to those who muddy the waters with fake authenticity. Please stop. The real thing is much more fun, and the results are far more rewarding.


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Meryl Runion and Speak Strong (SpeakStrong) provides Power Phrases (PowerPhrases) and other tools to help you improve communication skills at work and at home. You can read more about her at www.speakstrong.com.

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