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Getting the thumbs up for your sustainability comms?

April 2015

As more and more corporates take to social media to engage with consumers around sustainability issues, do they really know what they are doing? Tom Idle explores what current best practice looks like

Every sixty seconds, 1.8m new ‘likes’ are made on Facebook, 120 new members join LinkedIn and at least 600 Tweets are sent that contain the word ‘Starbucks’. The number of people using the internet for social media will soon overtake the number that uses it for that favourite of past-times, porn. It is big business. Before we go to bed at night, we check in with our friends on Facebook. When we wake the next morning we check the news on Twitter. According to, 25% of smartphone users, aged 18-44, say that they can’t remember the last time their mobile wasn’t right next to them.

It’s no wonder companies and brands have jumped on the bandwagon, keen to grab the opportunity a wealth of new channels brings in marketing products and services. Encouraged by consumer research claiming 53% of Americans who ‘follow’ brands on social are more loyal to those organisations, many have poured vast resources into it. Take the computer giant Dell, for example: Its Facebook fan-base is bigger than the population of Singapore.

But it’s not just about selling products. Social media is seen as the perfect tool for brands to engage customers, investors and so-called ‘influencers’ (those that have a big following) on issues that are important to them.

“The way brands are using social media has changed dramatically in the last five years,” says Matthew Yeomans, founder of Sustainly, an organisation that has been tracking exactly how the world’s biggest companies communicate sustainability issues using social media since 2010. Back then, Yeomans found just 60 businesses that “were putting any real effort into it”. In comparison, the latest study features analysis of 230 companies who are dedicating resources to it.

The shift is a result of what he calls “the rise of soft sustainability” – a realisation by business that meeting their sustainability goals will become tougher without the support of consumers, who’s buying habits will drive innovation. They must talk to consumers about these big issues – whether they be climate change, youth unemployment or gender equality – in a way that doesn’t bore, alienate or confuse them. “Food that won’t hurt you; products free from poisons; paying workers a decent wage – these are issues most people agree on and they just happen to dovetail with the technical terms sustainability professionals hold dear. It’s about talking the same language.”

But finding the right language is easier said than done.

For Nathan Strauss, digital communications manager at GE, the key is to make it a two-way engagement. “Unlike an advertisement, where you’re pushing a message out, on social you’re sharing what you think will be of interest – and with that sharing you have a responsibility to engage.”

And it is this need to engage, as opposed to merely communicating, that poses a challenge: creating an authentic voice that the general public truly buys into. The last ten years has seen many of the most pressing sustainability issues enter mainstream consumer decision-making. “One word scares the hell out of the big corporates: trust,” says Yeomans.

“Trust is fundamental to the credibility of a company – and social media has played an enormous role in that. The relationship between brands and consumers has changed because of an ability for consumers to ask questions, share voices and come together in a group mentality to call companies out.”

It’s why Strauss ensures that GE’s social output is “not just about us, us, us”, opting instead for unique content that “has some value for everybody – inspiring imagery, interesting facts and educational content”.

It’s the same for Mary Bradburne, corporate global social media lead at Cisco. “Our followers consist of media influencers, analysts and Wall Street players; if we ‘sell’ to those audiences, they get suspicious. It has to be inspirational,” she says.
Cisco and GE are among the brands recognised in the new SB{influencers}100 Index, the first study of its kind to use data to quantify the success companies are having in reaching and engaging audiences across social media when it comes to sustainability. The resulting Top 100 league table puts Nestlé at No.1.

“What the study found is that there isn’t one clear strategy being adopted, rather a range of approaches,” says Gemma Dodd, a director with Salterbaxter, the sustainability communications consultancy that carried out the study and produced the index. “However, those that came out on top have invested the right amount of effort and resources. That is key.”

Nestlé employs a seven-strong team to run its range of channels, including a dedicated Twitter account for its Creating Shared Value (CSV)-specific content. For Strauss at GE, which ranked ninth, you have to have a long-term commitment in place. “To establish presence on any social media channel, you should think in years, not months.” And it is not something to be delegated to junior members of the team, regardless of how tech-savvy they happen to be. You’ve got to be willing to dedicate resources if you want to be leading in this area.”

So, if you want to do a good job, it’s going to cost you. Part of this resources conundrum is establishing how much content to create and how many different channels to run. The Salterbaxter index shows that almost all of the brands that came out on top have at least one dedicated social media channel on sustainability – “and that is no coincidence”, says Dodd, as it allows them to focus their content and engagement efforts within a narrower, more specific universe of interests. However, as business models start to integrate non-financial considerations into decision-making, so too will social media strategies.

“[The challenge] is getting the balance right when communicating complex topics,” says Madeleine Lewis, a storyteller with Virgin Unite, the non-profit arm of Virgin Group, which ranked fifth in the SB{influencers}100 Index. “This isn’t always easy, as our audience is so broad and ranges from experts to those just becoming interested in sustainability.”

Ultimately, it’s about being “authentic and open”. “We stay true to Virgin’s culture and are honest about our own efforts. We’re not perfect, but we’re on a journey and happy to share it as we learn and change.”

For Yeomans, Coca-Cola is a shining example of a company willing to tackle issues that might be uncomfortable for them. “It has mastered the online art of talking about tricky issues associated with health and exercise.”

He points to it’s ‘What is Happiness?’ campaign, a key part of which involved experiential advertising where consumers were invited to use a vending machine powered by a bicycle. “They worked out that 20 minutes of cycling burned enough calories to ‘earn’ a can of Coke. It was a piece of theatre that confronts a major issue for Coca-Cola. They are trying to say, ‘Our product is great, but you do have to take care of how much you drink’.”

So, what does the future hold for brand use of social media? The evidence points to greater investment in editorial content, the launch of issue-specific channels and listening tactics (watching conversations unfold online and trying to be a part of them, as opposed to purely pushing content out there).

Alongside familiar platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, brands are likely to pilot the use of newer kids on the block, like Instagram, Tumblr and Vine. And they might also opt for even newer options, such as 2degrees’ targeted stakeholder dialogue or the Millennials favourite which is producing rich, shareable content that aims to normalise sustainable lifestyles.

As more and more companies prove the value of their activity – that social media is not just another communications channel, but rather a chance to influence and engage – investment will continue to grow. As Strauss concludes: “As we increase our share of voice on sustainability issues, it has a positive impact on some of the key metrics we measure against, such as favourability or willingness to invest.

“And there’s a brand and reputation halo to be gleaned from being active and vocal about our position in tackling the really tough issues through what we’re doing to find innovative solutions.” 

Global | corporate communications


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