On Authenticity and Keeping It Real

The Internet, much like the wider offline world at large, can be a very fickle place. Trends come and go, and just as “retro” aesthetics can make hot returns, the same can also be true in the realm of social media. Indeed, it’s this appeal to the classic or retro aesthetic that propelled Instagram to the gargantuan status it enjoys today. People loved those filters that mimicked the look and feel of old film cameras.

What’s Old Is New Again

When Instagram first hit the scene, it was founded on a sense of nostalgia, but also on a sense of authenticity. Because you had to post in the moment — hence the “insta” in “Instagram” — the idea was that followers could get a glimpse into your real life. The popularity of the retro filters eventually paved the way to the #nofilter movement, which further solidified this idea that what you see on Instagram is representative of the person’s real life, in the moment. Of course, this quickly changed.

As spontaneous, in-the-moment captures got cast aside for a heavily curated #latergram, as spontaneous smartphone shots got replaced by professionally edited photoshoots with DSLRs, edited on professional photo editing software before being shared on Instagram, the aesthetic changed. Then, everything had to look, quite literally, picture perfect. You still see a lot of this today, to be sure, but the trend is moving back toward one of authenticity and “keeping it real.”

The Real Goods

Followers are becoming less interested in the perfectly manicured Insta-worthy moments (but they still want to see them now and then). Instead, they yearn for high quality content that’s honest, raw, and real. While it’s not quite all the way back to smartphone shots with #nofilter, we are seeing much more subtle filters and edits to create, well, a more “unedited” look into their real lives.

They’re looking for a real connection with a real human being, not a passing glance at an artificially inflated online persona. To this end, great-looking photos on Instagram aren’t enough. Followers seek that real connection with a real look into the real lives of so-called influencers. Storytelling is more important than ever before.

This means that you should be paying just as much (if not even more) attention to your captions as to the photos and videos themselves. The more “raw” and “spontaneous” takes in Instagram Stories are becoming increasingly important too.

The perfectly manicured feed is slowly becoming a thing of the past. Scroll through your Instagram feed and you’ll find more and more “here’s my reality” type posts. It’s messy and imperfect, but it’s more true and authentic.

The net result is that followers feel less like they’re being sold on something — particularly in the case of branded content and sponsored posts — and more like they’re catching up with with a real friend over a cup of tea. It feels like they’re being brought along on the journey of growth and exploration.

Big Things in Small Packages

If you want to build a community around your personal brand, then you need to tell an engaging story. You need to be a real, three-dimensional character with real flaws and real growth. When you see that publicly-visible “like” counts are fading away, the importance of true engagement becomes even more important. That means better captions, more comments, and more back-and-forth interaction through those comments.

Almost counter-intuitively, this ends up being more advantageous for influencers with relatively smaller follower counts too. Call them micro influencers or nano influencers if you like. The truth is that when you don’t have as many followers, these “smaller” influencers can more authentically engage with a larger percentage of their followers. Brands love that, because it’s not just a passing like as they scroll on by. Raw reach isn’t enough.

It makes much more sense for brands to work with 100 influencers with 10,000 followers each than it is to work with one influencer who has one million followers. They’ll effectively engage with more potential customers and brand loyalists that way. And that starts from a place of authenticity and genuine truth. Deeper connections and relationships are highly valued, and they represent the real key to growing online.

Is This Real Life?

For Instagram, this means going beyond just the regular post every day or two. It means leveraging more of those interactive elements in Instagram Stories, for example, including polls, questions, and slider reactions. It means doing Q&A sessions on Instagram Live or sharing memes every now and then. And yes, it means sharing less glamorous sides of your life to demonstrate that you are indeed a real person.

That way, the next time you work with a brand on some sponsored content, you’re not seen as just another shill. You’re a real person offering a real recommendation.