Here’s How to Unlock Authenticity as a Competitive Advantage in 2020



“Fail faster, win more.” — Steven Bartlett, CEO, The Social Chain


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At just 27 years old, Steven Bartlett heads a global team of more than 700 innovators delivering opportunities for today’s brands to be disruptors of the digital age. He built the firm from his bedroom in Manchester at age 22 with the goal of creating a company that changes the world and took it public in 2019 with a market evaluation exceeding $200 million. On the first day of #SMWONE, he shared his entrepreneurial insights to help us distill the state of social media in 2020.

Here are the primary insights and takeaways:

  • The opportunity in distrust is authenticity
  • Influencer marketing is dying
  • The future of social media is private messaging and groups

Navigating fundamental reorientation around truth and trust

Our industry faces a fundamental reorientation around notions of trust and privacy. We’ve experienced scandals like Cambridge Analytica that ushered buzzwords such as privacy and “fake news” into the mainstream and we continue to see the scapegoats and the larger impact on public perception across virtually every industry dating back to late 2016. Pointing to stats shared from Edelman’s annual trust report, Barlett explains that we reached the “crisis point of trust” in early 2017 and have yet to fully recover.

Fast forward to today, less than a quarter of individuals believe what they see on social media, more than half (57%), say the media they use are contaminated with untrustworthy information, and 76 percent claim they worry about false information or fake news being used as a weapon though according to Barlett every threat presents an opportunity however and this opportunity, in a word, is authenticity.

Be a consistent glass box brand

With these threats to transparency, however, Barlett stresses there’s a genuine and powerful marketing opportunity to redefine our engagement with consumers. He boiled this down to a simple transition of becoming glass box companies versus black box brands.

“In a world we don’t believe the person holding the have let down the rules and let people see inside,” explained Barlett.

He used Everlane as an example of a brand whose attempt at being a glass box brand failed due to inconsistency when they laid off entire customer support staff during the pandemic just days after the staff asked the company to recognize the union. By essentially using a pandemic to union bust, the company’s values and glass box attitude came back to haunt them because they weren’t consistent.

And this applies to personal brands too. Using Elon Musk as an example, Barlett stressed that people who have the courage to be glass boxes and show the real-life which we can all relate to, those are the ones who are winning. The secret sauce to achieving this goal is bringing culture and emotion together in a unifying, emotion-provoking message.

The fraudulent influencer space

The influencer marketing industry is on track to be worth $15 billion by 2022, but that isn’t to say it hasn’t met its fair share of problems throughout its growth.

Influencer fraud costs brands $1.3 billion annually. And that’s not all, many brands are focused on the wrong metrics. Specifically, many agencies rely on vanity metrics such as likes, comments, and views to mask unproductive business results. Barlett described how the majority of influencer campaigns lack strategic insight or creative direction, they are merely a glorified product placement focused on driving reach. “A majority of posts from influencers are static, emotionless billboards that are fundamentally void of truth.”

He used this argument to make the case for opting to work with micro-influencers instead for three key reasons:

  • They are more honest in their review of your brand
  • They are responsive to their audiences
  • They hold more authority for their truth and emotion by reserving their branded posts to only those companies they authentically support

The post-organic reach era: private messaging, Stories and group culture

Social media is designed to magnify what is already being magnified. Strong emotions will continue to trump mild ones and in the post-organic reach era where reach continues to decline and people are sharing less than before this will only continue to be the case. Mild emotion simply won’t get its fair share of attention in the presence of a strong emotional message.

“It could well be the case that in 10 years we don’t have just five social networks we use every single day, we have 15 centered around our interests.” In support of his projection, Bartlett pointed to a Facebook stat revealing there are more than 600M ppl in groups that they find meaningful as of April 2019 up from 100M in February 2017.

In the same vein of private, trustworthy spaces, Barlett explained that messaging apps have surpassed social networks yet a staggering number of businesses aren’t tapping into the opportunity. In a joint study with Buffer, Social Chain found that a staggering 71 percent of marketers weren’t using messaging. Similarly, Stories are getting disproportionate amounts of attention compared to public news feeds. This is being enforced by new efforts from Instagram to test additional Stories feeds within its platform alluding to a possibly a future of platforms being solely centered on Stories and the newsfeed becoming an accessory to the Story.

“Fail faster, win more. Success is not the outcome, success is the completion of the experiment,” Bartlett said to close the session.

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