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How to build an authentic online presence in 6 steps

| | 4 mins.
Written By: Kelsey Thompson | Posted On: 05/11/2022

Be authentic online, they said. It will improve engagement and drive growth, they said. 

“Authenticity” has long been a favorite buzzword and recommendation. But what authenticity looks like in practice is often less clear. 

Research shows that, unlike many buzzwords, getting authenticity right in external communications does make a big difference in performance – especially when it comes to cultivating younger audiences. The addendum to our report the Future of Giving, focused on Gen Z behaviors and their charitable giving implications, showed that authenticity is of critical importance to build trust with Gen Z audiences. 

Let’s break down how to build an authentic online presence as a brand. What tools does it take and what questions need to be asked? 

 

1. Establish a persona. 

Brainstorm a persona based on how you want your audience to feel when interacting with your brand. Use the persona to guide the brand’s online presence.

Example: The Washington Post is a legacy media brand. It is trustworthy, informative and well-established. But that doesn’t mean they can’t get creative. The brand got an early start on TikTok, where they convey the news in a way that feels native to the platform, including using trending dances and sounds to tell stories, while remaining true to The Washington Post’s brand. 

 

2. Carefully choose what information your brand shares and how you talk online. 

Don’t automatically filter out anything negative – instead consider how negative information could be useful or enlightening to your audience. 

Example: When the pandemic hit, our partner the Denver Museum of Nature and Science closed their doors to in-person visits along with museums and cultural institutions around the world. In the absence of in-person visits, their authentic online presence became even more important to achieving their mission of building an empowered community that loves, understands and protects the natural world. Their curious, creative, playful and inclusive brand shone through a robust virtual events schedule, new partnerships to offer unique content online and relevant scientific information to help their audiences navigate the pandemic. 

 

3. Keep your finger on the pulse of your industry. 

Use social listening tools to not only keep track of how your audience talks about your brand online but how they talk about your competitors and your sector as a whole.

Example: As a cultural intelligence consultancy helping organizations understand cultural shifts, our partner sparks&honey has built a brand voice that is knowledgeable, approachable and hip. Through their online presence, especially their daily, virtual Culture Briefings, illustrate their ability to understand cultural shifts and bring together experts to share insights. They couldn’t do this without paying attention to online conversations and investing in the tools they need to analyze these conversations. 

Tools: If you’re looking for more in-depth cultural analysis, sparks&honey is a great partner. For less in-depth but still useful social listening, Meltwater, Sprout Social and Talkwalker help monitor social media engagement, online mentions and industry trends.

 

4. Listen to audience feedback.

In addition to monitoring what your audience talks about online, monitor their response to your content. An authentic brand has many components and some of those may resonate better with audiences in specific contexts.

Example: The MFF brand is positive, x, and x and that manifests in many ways. By monitoring the most clicked links in our bi-weekly newsletters, we found that our audience consistently clicked on links in the final section of the newsletters. The section focuses on positive news happening in the world right now but with an especially lighthearted twist – almost to the point of being cheesy. While the MFF brand is not cheesy, this section authentically represented our brand’s dedication to finding the light in dark times and using information to combat despair or hopelessness. Knowing that it resonated with our audience helped us to lean into that aspect of our brand even more. 

Tools: Many newsletter platforms, like Mailchimp and X, provide analytics to accomplish this. Google Analytics provides website traffic analysis for free.

 

5. Directly engage with your audience. 

Respond to comments, ask questions and use polls. Take every opportunity to gauge how your audience interacts with your brand and how you can better serve their needs.

Example: Like the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, the Shedd Aquarium had to make a major pivot when Covid-19 closed their doors to visitors. They pivoted to online content and quickly found viral success by sharing their resident penguins on “adventures” around the aquarium. They didn’t stop at viral, though. The Shedd Aquarium continuously creates new and exciting content and pays close attention to what interests their audiences most. The penguins continue to be frequent stars and content featuring them continues to drive big engagement numbers, including almost 200,000 impressions per post (3.5x the average of other content types) and an average engagement rate of 7.5% (on par with other content overall.)

Tools: Twitter and Instagram both offer free, easy-to-use poll features. Sprout Social and Brand24 help manage community management on social media.

 

6. Be willing to learn and grow as a brand. 

Being authentic does not mean you never adapt or change. Instead, keep to your company ethos while evolving to meet the ever-changing needs of your audiences. 

From updating to more inclusive mission statements to expanding to new social media channels, there are countless ways to continue innovating online while remaining authentic. Knowing how you want your audiences to feel when they interact with your brand allows organizations to continue exploring new and creative ways to achieve those goals.