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Authenticity on social media is a moving target


A few years ago, social media content hit a turning point. Perfectly curated Instagram grids and impeccably produced video gave way to carefree photo dumps, straight-from-iPhone footage and even networks that centered on real-time, unfiltered posts.

“Authentic” has been the name of the game lately—literally, Merriam-Webster deemed it their 2023 word of the year.

But how much can we talk about authenticity on social media without clearly defining what that means? And does that definition hold true across different generations of social media users?

We sat down with Olivia Jepson, Senior Social Media Strategist (Analytics), at Sprout to start clarifying what authenticity on social media stands for and how it’s evolving.

Our new research found that about half of all consumers prioritize authenticity as a top quality in the influencers they engage with. But this drops to 35% for Gen Z (who cares more about things like an influencer’s posting frequency and follower count).

Do you think this is a long-term preference? Should we assume that people who grew up with social see through the “authenticity” facade or is this a preference that they’ll grow out of?

I anticipate we’ll only see more of this, but maybe not in the doomsday way this stat might allude to. Let me start with, yes, authenticity will always be important, but what that means is shifting.

The signals for authenticity on social media today are very different from what they were. Just three years ago, audiences may have thought authenticity from influencers came from having a good camera presence, fitting sponcon naturally into your content or the idea of raw, unscripted video formats.

Younger audiences are more attuned to how social works as a business—for both brands and influencers. These audiences especially understand that raw video content doesn’t mean that something is inherently authentic. Even the most lo-fi videos are often scripted, planned or re-recorded multiple times to achieve what the creator or brand is trying to portray. But does that mean they’re inauthentic? It depends.

A TikTok post from Lyft featuring a real driver talking about their new Women+ Connect feature.

This doesn’t mean that more planned videos aren’t authentic, it just means that our definition of authenticity now means more. It’s more reliant on brand building and value-driven content than ever before.

When we’ve consumed enough YouTube apologies for a lifetime and have been exposed to an increased amount of monetized and sponsored posts, expectations over generations are sure to shift.

The same survey found that Gen Z is more likely to be interested in brands using AI influencers…which feels like an about-face from the “authentic” content we talk so much about. Is there a spectrum of what people will tolerate? For instance, lo-fi content at one end and completely fabricated virtual content at the other…but anything in between is forgettable?

For me, what this (and the above) signals is that the internet is moving further into the entertainment space, allowing brands and creators freedom to create for the increased time people are spending on apps like TikTok.

The in-between is what we’re so used to seeing on a daily basis. It’s not necessarily forgettable, but it’s what we expect when we go on social. AI influencers are new, they’re fascinating. So people—especially younger audiences—are intrigued. It feels like the most obvious shift toward entertainment for me.

Plus, people are intrigued by not only the virtual personalities, but the people who created them and their purpose. Kind of that “Wizard of Oz” effect.

How does this change how marketers think about future influencer partnerships?

I think brands really need to examine what authenticity means to them.

I’ve heard so many marketers say “authenticity is what we look for” when partnering with creators. But WHAT DOES IT MEAN??

If you can clearly define it, then seek influencers who align with that definition. That’s where you should focus your time. Not on what I think people deem as authentic, but what’s authentic to my brand and to our intended audience. Joe Greer’s partnership with Bandit Running is one of my favorite examples.

A YouTube video showing behind-the-scenes footage and interviews of Joe Greer's campaign for Bandit Running.

Supporting their mission to be the world’s most community-driven running brand, this partnership places Joe and other members of their community at the center of the campaign. They give him full creative freedom for seasonal campaign shoots with members of their community as the key subjects. This partnership results in BTS content that brings their community deeper into both the brand’s story and Joe’s, while adding more substance and depth to each seasonal release.

It feels like this creates a huge challenge for brands, especially those catering to Millennial (or older) audiences while simultaneously trying to expand awareness among Gen Z, Gen Alpha, etc.

How do you build a content strategy that appeals to conflicting preferences? Or does this create more fragmentation among how brands approach different networks?

I think this creates a really unique opportunity for deeper brand development and storytelling.

Consider Harry Styles’ cosmetic brand, Pleasing. Given this was founded by Styles, it would be easy to limit their audience to fan girls alone, but they have a larger mission. When their content and creative direction ladders up to their mission to facilitate a better future with and for one another, they don’t need to hit on every trend to be relevant. What sticks with people is the larger story they’re sharing.

An Instagram post from Pleasing featuring a real couple, promoting the brand's Valentine's Day Gift Guide.

When it comes to reaching younger audiences, you absolutely can tap into those trends, but think through how you can use those trends to support your story—not diverge from it.

Want to read more about the role of authenticity in influencer marketing? Download our 2024 Influencer Marketing Report: In Influencers We Trust.

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