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How to Be Authentic in the Digital Age – Nicola Smith
The Agents of Change

How to Be Authentic in the Digital Age - Nicola Smith

What does it mean to be authentic in the digital age? How can you be authentic online? Is this something just for big corporations with huge marketing and communications teams, or can any small business or entrepreneur succeed?

What if more businesses worked together instead of against each other?  It is this focus on collaboration that Nicola Smith believes is going to be a key to how businesses grow in the future.

Another struggle in business today is staying authentic in this age of social media and other virtual spaces. So while we’re trying to be everywhere at once, it’s important to remember not to be so customer centric, and to instead focus on being more customer led. Instead of talking at your customers, look for signals from them as to when and how they want to interact with you in that way.

Rich: She’s the founder and CEO of Rebel & Reason, a branding, marketing, and cultural transformation consultancy and training firm based in Atlanta, Georgia. A rebel since birth, she instinctively approaches most professional and personal situations by asking two simple, yet powerful questions that often inspire change and ignite rebellion: “Why?” and “Why not?” Nicola Smith, welcome to The Agents of Change Podcast.

Nicola: Hi, thank you so much for having me.

Rich: So you have been a rebel since birth, but what led you to start your own consultancy?

Nicola: I had worked in marketing and advertising for about 15 years and had jumped around form the agency side to the publisher side, eventually to brand side, and really had just gotten to the point where I realized my expertise and my experience was valuable. And I wanted to be able to use that to create something of my own and to be able to give back to the community.

Rich: Did you feel that there was something missing in those other companies or agencies that you can do differently?

Nicola: Yeah. So a big part of my career, especially on the agency side, was leading teams focused on futurism, prototyping of new experiences using emerging technology, consumer behavior, or emerging media platforms. And I wanted to be able to bring that type of thinking to brands and companies, not just in the way that they market, but applying that more broadly to how they approach problem solving and their business as a whole.

Rich: Ok. And you just weren’t finding it at, or the flexibility ability and freedom to do that at previous agencies?

Nicola: Yeah. The flexibility and the freedom. And then to be completely honest, these are often largely male dominated industries and workplaces, and I had experienced overt and subtle sexism throughout my career, and decided it was time to start something where I didn’t have to put up with that if I chose not to. So if I have a client where anything like that pops up, I can choose not to work with them. You don’t have that same choice and discretion when you’re working for somebody else.

So that was part of what I wanted to create and this company was a safe work environment where based on our values and who we are, we deliberately choose not to work with clients that may act that way.

Rich: That’s awesome. And being the father of two daughters I really like that approach as well. You said that we’re in the age of authenticity. What does that mean to you?

Nicola: So it means a couple of things and I know you and I discussed this a little bit. But coming from a trendspotting and futurism background, one of the things that we often see happening is that for every trend there is a countertrend. And so what we’re seeing is this rise in expectation and authenticity and transparency from consumers and even B2B clients, at the same time that we are seeing a rise of technologies that make it increasingly difficult to separate reality from fiction. So everything from voice editing tools to new video editing software that is astounding because it truly looks real and it is not. To the fact that every time you or I go online as a consumer and we’re trying to log in or trying to purchase something, we literally get asked whether or not we are a robot. So AI is now asking us to authenticate our own humanity in many ways, which I find fascinating.

And then on the opposite end of that spectrum, we’ve seen this rise in influencer marketing which is largely, and often the strongest examples of influencer marketing, are based on very legitimate, very authentic relationships that those influencers have with their audience. And we’re also seeing a demand for consumers that brands are focused on a higher purpose, and that they’re giving back and doing good in the world. And that’s a shift from what we’ve seen 10 years ago.

Rich: So, and you mentioned this, it feels like this is almost a big brand thing. Like big brands have the resources, they have the people they can throw at this to take care of being authentic. But what would you say to the people who are running small businesses or even solopreneurs who may already be feeling like they are doing everything they possibly can just to stay profitable. Like trying to be authentic on top of that almost seems like a Herculean task. What do you say to those people?

Nicola: So I think in some ways small brands actually have an easier job at this. There is less bureaucracy, and oftentimes the founder/CEO/leader is closer to the ground and what’s actually happening with your consumers or your buyers. And so a lot of being able to have an authentic brand and be authentic in your marketing if you’re smaller, is really about making sure that you have a solid understanding of your values, your purpose, your vision, and really having a sense of how you want to bring those things to life through your behaviors and through your messaging.

And so to me this idea of brand purpose isn’t just about marketing and messaging, it’s really about a holistic approach to your business. And if you can do that well, it opens up amazing opportunities for marketing, for getting awareness around your brand, for driving engagement, leads, and conversion.

Rich: Is the first step then to be very clear internally, whether it’s just you or with your team, to make sure that you’re all aligned with what your values are and what your purpose is and what your vision is?

Nicola: Absolutely. And I find that oftentimes small businesses start because someone had a great little idea. And they build a business, they build operations, they go to markets, maybe they become really successful. But they often haven’t done that foundational work that big brands do take the time to do. And it doesn’t have to take thousands and thousands of dollars. There are smaller branding agencies, there are smaller branding companies, a lot of this you can also do yourself. You know your brand and your company and your purpose better than anyone else ever will.

And so I would encourage smaller businesses to take half a day or half a day to sit down and really think about who you are and what purpose your company has in the world beyond just making you more money. And if you can get to that core focus of why you’re doing what you do and the problem you’re trying to solve, then who you’re serving starts to allow you to make critical decisions about what is and isn’t going to be authentic.

Rich: That’s very fascinating. So I can see sitting down and taking a look and trying to decide what is the value, what is the purpose of this, beyond just dollar signs. So once we’re clear on that – and I’m not saying that’s something that necessarily comes about in 1-2 hours of meeting with your teammates – but when we do become clear and we know that this is what my company stands for, this is the value we want to put out to the world, how do you then transform that into some sort of authentic engagement with your audience? What does that look like to you?

Nicola: So it will differ depending on the brand and depending on where you land with some of your values and your purpose. But a lot of it will come down to how you message, the channels you choose to focus on as a business, and where you want to get that message out. It will also come through in the types of partnerships and causes that you may align with.

So oftentimes I will do a process with companies where we look at something called “developing a new brand neighborhood”. For most companies when they think about who exists within their space or their neighborhood, they will list their competitive set. Which, absolutely your competitive set is part of your neighborhood. But if you have core values and purpose, it starts to open up opportunities to expand those partnerships based on alignment of values and of purpose. And that in itself becomes an amazing marketing stream and marketing mechanism. When you’re partnering with the right partners, whether it is for marketing or branding, whether it’s to bring new services or products to your existing clients, or to add some other type of value.

And so there are lots of different ways that you can start to apply this authentic strategy and this authentic thinking to how you think about executing your marketing strategy.

Rich: I love that. And I love the idea of a brand neighborhood. You’re right, I totally would have thought about the other people in my town doing similar work to us as who was in our neighborhood. But there are obviously so many other organizations that are also aligned with the kind of things that we’re aligned with, and I think we just don’t think about those kind of people or those organizations.

Nicola: Yeah. And I think that the future of business, in my mind, is really around collaboration. And we’re seeing this more and more across various verticals. So even the fact that some of the biggest car companies are now partnering with R&D, so that they can reduce their R&D costs.

We’re seeing different technology companies having to build technology that can integrate. So for example smart home tech, it all needs to be able to integrate with Nest. So companies and brands are having to think really differently, and I think really that focus on collaboration is going to be a key to how businesses grow in the future.

Rich: Alright. So beyond just our brand neighborhood, we are going to engage with our audience. And certainly I can engage with somebody one-on-one with authenticity. Hopefully I can, I’m at a networking event, I’m at a business meeting, and I’m my authentic self-talking to this person about what they do and what I do. But these days obviously, so much of our connections with our audience or customers is online. So how do we make authentic engagements with these people while we’re using platforms like Facebook or LinkedIn, or we’re putting together videos, or even in our search engine results maybe? How can we be authentic in those virtual spaces?

Nicola: So one of the first things I recommend to brands is that they really focus on being customer led, not just customer centric. So we hear a lot about being customer centric, putting the customer in the middle. I agree with that. But I think if we talk about authenticity, what we really need to allow to happen is for our brands and our engagements with our consumers to be led by that consumer. So it is much more about looking for signals of how, when and why many people want to interact with your brand. And serving them and engaging with them in that way.

And then I would say on top of that there is 5 primary roles in my mind of how to really be authentic in the digital age.

Number one, you need to think about this in a less formal way. This is a much more informal way of engaging with and communicating with your consumer. So this may not happen on your website, especially if you’re a B2B brand or you have to have a little bit more rigor behind what you’re talking about and how you’re going to talk about it and use some more industry-based terminology. But especially when we think about social media and these more participatory channels, making it a little less formal, allowing that to be a place where you can have a little bit more of an authentic voice is a great place to start.

The second piece is that you have to understand that for this to truly be authentic it needs to be participatory. It needs to be a two-way interaction. So in the same way that you can have an authentic conversation with someone one-on-one in person, you need to be able to replicate that type of authenticity and they type of participatory engagement in the digital space. Now if you’re a larger brand it becomes much harder to do in scale, but there are still ways that you can start in infuse that into your interactions

Number three, it really needs to be in whatever capacity you can deliver on this, immediate and real time. And this is also where looking at automation tools and AI like chat bot technology – which is actually relatively simple and very cheap to set up – so even for those small business owners out there, you can create chat bots especially on places like Facebook. That immediacy and that real time response, again, is an authentic way that we communicate with each other as human beings. Because if you were in person and someone asks you a question you wouldn’t wait 20 minutes or 2 days to answer it.

The fourth is really thinking – again this is tied back to that idea of being customer led – is being platform specific with your content and with your multimedia content. So getting a sense of where your audience wants to consume content and how they want to consume it, as well as the type of content they may consume across various channels. So you may find for example that you’re producing tons of amazing YouTube videos, but if you’re speaking to an older-based demographic or in the business realm, a podcast might actually be a much better vehicle for that information and for that content.

And then the last rule is really focusing on being community first. So when you’re thinking about creating content or you’re thinking about your marketing strategy, what does this community want and need? What would add value to them -not just what’s going to promote our product and what’s the best way to showcase our features – but let’s really allow ourselves to be community focused and led by those communities.

Rich: So that’s really good stuff. A less formal, participatory, immediate response, platform specific community led, community first. I’m just trying to figure out, when I’m doing this – specifically about the platform specific – how do I know if my audience is going to respond more podcast versus YouTube? Is this because I’m supposed to know in advance? Is it because I’ve done surveys? Or is it a matter of put things out there on different platforms and see who is responding to us and if they are the right audience?

Nicola: So ideally if you’re a big brand and you have money, you do some research and then you test out a variety of these different channels and you generally have a very large team looking at analytics. As a small business owner myself, that isn’t really feasible for me at this point in time. And so I would do some third party market research.

You can often find a lot of great information on demographic-based content consumption on E-Marketer. You do need a subscription to get the full reports, but if you’re looking just for directional data on where to focus, they often have articles that will include stats and specific charts and information that will give you a sense of where your audience is. So you want to search for some of your demographic-based specifics on your target audience, so their age, race, gender, what industry they’re in if you’re looking B2B, and other factors. And then you want to really look at that and search for that against podcast consumption, top media consumption formats, and get a sense of what those folks are actually consuming and where they’re getting information.

And then I would start out by testing maybe the one or two top channels based on that third party data. And then from there take a look at your personal analytics for your brand and see what is and isn’t resonating and what is and isn’t working.

But the reality is, you’ve got to test it out for at least 3 months with a structured cadence and consistency, so that you can really get data that is valuable enough to give you a sense of what to do next.

Rich: It is really tricky and I think a lot of small businesses don’t have the patience necessarily. You know I joined Twitter really close to its beginning, and I was on it not to get business, but about 800 tweets in suddenly somebody engaged me asking if I did WordPress sites. And all of a sudden that started a conversation that got me business. I was podcasting probably for a couple years before one of my listeners called me up and basically said, “Is this something you can help me with?” And I realized I could be getting business out of these channels.

So I just think that a lot of people who might be listening now might be too quick to get off of something if they don’t see some sort of immediate return.  It can be challenging to decide how much you want to invest in a certain platform if you’re not getting that immediate return on investment.

Nicola: And that’s often why many small business owners will start with a blog. It sounds daunting as well, but I would say there are ways to hack the system to get some of that type of stuff done. So for example, I love doing research, I love putting together presentations, and I love public speaking. I do not personally love writing, but I have a bunch of great ideas and a lot of information that I know is really valuable to my audience and to other small business owners and other brands.

And so what I decided to do is I went on Upwork – which is a website that basically helps you find gig workers or freelancers – and I found a writer. So what I do is I put together presentations because I’m on the speaking circuit a lot and then I send my writer my presentation and I say to her how many blog posts do you think you can get out of this. And then because she now knows my tone of voice and she has that authentic sense of who I am as a person and who my brand is, she actually writes the blogs for me. And then I approve them and I review them and give her feedback. But there are very quick and easy ways, and relatively cheap ways, I pay her $100 per blog post so we’re not talking about a huge amount of money. If you’re doing one blog post a month and for a writer you’re looking at $100/month and maybe an intern or someone to get it up on your website and stick it in the newsletter.

You can start to do some of this stuff pretty quickly and easily. It doesn’t have to be the burden that I think we’ve been told it should be, if that makes sense.

Rich: Absolutely. And what I love about what you just said is the fact that you know what you’re good at, what you like doing, and you outsource the rest of it. And I think a lot of small business people are so afraid of that, they think they have to do it all.

And I know from being on the other side of it, we have had some clients that just can’t write. They either don’t have the skills or they don’t have the patience to sit down, but they’ve got the stories. And we’ll just interview them and turn that into 5-10 blog posts. And honestly, if you can get a good writer that knows your voice for $100 a blog post, that’s money in the bank. Because of course blog posts just sit out there and continue to grab search engine rankings and get people to link to you and follow you. So I think that’s a fantastic way to create that authentic connection with people even if you may not have the writing chops that you think a good blog deserves.

Nicola: Exactly. And being the rebel that I am a lot of my focus as I started my own business has been around how do I take what I know from my work with the Fortune 500s and the Fortune 50s, and how do I basically pack that knowledge as a small business owner who doesn’t have a big budget to spend on marketing and doesn’t have a massive team. And so that’s been a lot of my personal focus as I’ve built Rebel & Reason, is to figure out how do I write the rules, how do I do what I need to do but approach it from a completely different perspective and solve those problems in different ways.

So I thought that with a variety of things. I know this isn’t as marketing focused but I have also hired two virtual assistants on UpWork. One of them is doing all of my infographics and posting the blog post and putting them into the newsletter format, and all of my speaking outreach. And the other one is helping me with internal operations and organization and they’re both only about $35/hour. And I can set the amount of time I want them for every week.

So I would say for small business owners out there, start thinking differently about what’s possible when you can use a distributed workforce, when you can tap into really high quality gig workers. These are not 22 year olds that are just out of college, these are people who also wanted out of the rat race of working for someone else, and they’ve chose to do the freelance thing in their discipline of expertise.

Rich: Nicola, although the age of authenticity was maybe the tent pole we had the conversation around, we did talk about some big picture stuff; values, purpose, vision, brand neighborhoods, being customer led, and we talked about the 5 points to better engage people in our audience on digital marketing. But the person who is sitting there going, “What do I do next?”, if there’s one takeaway that you want them to have after listening to this interview, what would it be?

Nicola: I really would want them to focus on defining who they are as a brand and developing their North Star. Unless you have done that it is very difficult to come across in an authentic way, especially as you start to scale. Because this becomes the foundational blueprint for every other employee within your organization, and ultimately it sets the tone for the interaction customers will have with your company, products, and service.

Rich: That’s great. In other words, know yourself before you ask anybody to know you.

Nicola: Exactly.

Rich: Nicola, this has been great and I’m sure some people want to dig a little bit deeper. Where can we find you online?

Nicola: You can find us at rebelandreason.com, and you can also check us out on Instagram at Rebel and Reason.

Rich: And as always we’ll have all those links in the show notes. Nicola, thank you so much for stopping by and sharing your expertise on authenticity today.

Nicola: Absolutely, thank you so much for having me. 

Show Notes:

Nicola Smith believes that embracing disruption and turning that into opportunity, creates innovative business goals and drives sustainability in this turbulent corporate world. Check out her website to see how she’s changing the way businesses think and grow.

Rich Brooks is the President of flyte new media, a web design & digital marketing agency in Portland, Maine, and founder of the Agents of Change. He’s passionate about helping small businesses grow online and has put his 20+ years of experience into the book, The Lead Machine: The Small Business Guide to Digital Marketing