Online identities have been curated and filtered in the digital age and brands that want to connect with the real people behind them and influence their choices must first provide psychological safety, says TRA’s Colleen Ryan.

This is part of an ongoing “The art of knowing people” series with TRA that aims to challenge conventional thinking and better understand consumers, markets and cultural trends in Australia and beyond.

In a digital age where our online worlds are omnipresent, a duality of identities has emerged – a polarity between our highly curated, highly cautious, “filtered” online self and “unfiltered” true self.

It's a phenomenon driven by human behaviour. We naturally adapt who we are depending on who we're with and what we'd like to present to the world.

But the internet has obscured this process. We built our identities online within the confines of templates, layouts and algorithms – identities that are seen and judged by obscured audiences within ambiguous contexts. As a result, our feelings of safety are impacted. We are led to constantly “edit” our identities in response to the feedback we receive from voices online and from people we interact with offline. We hide behind personas and filters to present a highly curated version of ourselves – the “Filtered Self” – an identity that exists alongside our true “Unfiltered Self”.

News Corp's The Growth Distillery initiated a research study with TRA to understand the impact of the Filtered Self on decision-making behaviour and found a major shift in consumer priorities. The study, titled “The Unfiltered Self”, drew insight through interviews with a global panel of 11 experts. This was followed by qualitative research with 48 Australians aged 18–64 and a quantitative study with a nationally representative sample of over 2,000 people (N=2,162). The results found that 60% of choice is influenced by perceived safety. When people feel unsafe, they are not only less likely to make a choice but they are also less likely to be happy with the choices they make. 

When people perceive themselves to be in a safe environment, they make purchases more easily. This means brands that want to influence consumer choices online need to prioritise psychological safety and connect with the real people behind the screens. The Unfiltered Self research found that a safe environment contributes to 60% of ease of purchase decisions. The remaining 40% is driven by personal interest and investment in a brand; when people are passionate or invested emotionally, they will also make purchases more readily.
In response, brands need to shift their behaviour online. They need to be contextually relevant and self-aware, understanding their own filtering to connect with communities online. The research identified key principles that can guide this transition.

Identify your niche and build a community around it 

Connect with people, customers, employees, partners and brands who share your brand's beliefs, values and interests – your niche. Make connections across social media platforms, online forums and in-person events. Be active in these spaces and engage with people in a meaningful way.

To deepen connections, create dedicated spaces where your community can come together. Whether on a private Facebook group, a Discord server or even in a physical space like a pop-up shop or community centre. A dedicated space gives people a greater sense of control. For instance, Duolingo, a language education app, has achieved global success on TikTok by tapping in to niche and trending topics with their owl mascot.

Allow all voices to be heard

Consumers are attracted to relationships that allow for equal interactions, so build a network that allows everyone to have a voice. Actively encourage open conversation and create opportunities for people to share their thoughts, ideas and feedback, whether through surveys, social media polls or one-on-one conversations. 

Be willing to listen and learn. When people share their feedback, be open to hearing it. Smart brands will use this as an opportunity to enhance CX – it's an authentic way to demonstrate that you value customer input and are committed to creating safe and inclusive spaces.

Feedback from a participant in The Unfiltered Self study demonstrated the value of equality when referring to Snag Tights content on their global Instagram account: “As a plus-size person for the majority of my life, I have struggled with purchasing clothes. There are very few companies that provide plus-size clothing that is fashionable and is unforgiving about showing off diverse bodies. They use models that are ALL sizes, shapes, ethnicities, abled and disabled bodies. Inclusivity in diversity creates community.”

Use social norms as shortcuts 

People find safety in the familiarity of shared norms and behaviours. Use language or imagery commonly used by your community or networks, or sponsor events and causes that resonate. Doing so will show that you are living your values. For instance, a brand that targets young adults might use slang and pop culture references in its marketing materials to create a sense of familiarity and connection.

Lululemon took note of this, tapping into a trend of Lululemon “dupes” gaining momentum and responding to it by hosting an in-person “trade in your dupes” event in Los Angeles.

Commit, consistently 

Show that you're invested in the long term, that you're reliable, trustworthy and follow through on your promises. Keep your messaging consistent. 

This might look like creating valuable resources and content such as blog posts, e-books, webinars or other educational materials that help your community learn and grow. Or building relationships with customers on a personal level by interacting with them on social media, attending industry events or offering loyalty programs.

Vaseline, for example, set out to reduce the skin colour bias within healthcare and dermatology. Instead of just featuring people of colour in their advertising, they partnered with a digital healthcare company (HUED) to create a searchable database of skin conditions for people of colour, which connects users with dermatologists.

Make decisions simpler 

Offering fewer choices combats choice paralysis, making decision-making easier and more enjoyable. Support consumers by focusing on providing a curated selection of products and services. Ensure what you offer aligns with your brand values and the needs of your target audience.

Make it easy for people to find what they're looking for. Have a clear and concise website navigation system that uses relevant keywords and tags in product descriptions. Provide personalised recommendations to show that you understand the unique wants and needs of your customers.

In a category that is becoming increasingly knowledgeable and sophisticated, Australian brand Go-To skincare is helping to demystify consumers with a straightforward tone, an online quiz and guides that make skincare easier to understand.

Ultimately, The Unfiltered Self study found consumers are 34% more likely to make a purchase decision when their perception of safety shifts from low to high. By following these principles, you can strengthen a sense of psychological safety with your customers and foster deeper connections with your brand. After all, smart marketers know a real connection with people is worth its weight in gold.