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Social Media On Message

Making sustainability meaningful to a wider audience:

Sustainability consultant Alan Best explains how major institutions are working to engage and educate new audiences to share their thinking and actions on sustainability:

I RECENTLY attended a Sustainability Leadership Forum at the London HQ of NYSE Euronext, which is a Euro-American financial trading organisation involving institutions such as the New York Stock Exchange and Euronext who have formed the first global equities exchange.
This was held on the day that Twitter was floated and achieved an initial share valuation many billions in excess of the sage predictions of the experts. Once again a social media company that has yet to make any money was seen as a valuable asset by large numbers of investors.
Clearly communications using social media is seen to be valuable to those running businesses who are backing this belief with lots of cash. I have not seen much evidence of flooring companies using these channels, but I am convinced that this is a valuable way forward for those who are working hard in the industry to improve sustainability and who would like to communicate this more effectively.
The guest presenter at the Forum was Matthew Yeomans, a leading author and director of social media sustainability consultancy, Custom Communications. Matthew is lead author of the SMI-Wizness Social Media Sustainability Index, available free on line and which examines how leading companies such as Marks and Spencer and General Electric are increasingly using social media channels to communicate their efforts to become greener.
The audience for sustainability information has until recently been handled through two distinct routes. Firstly, conventional communication with customers is still largely in the hands of marketing and advertising people who – with a few notable exceptions – tend to steer clear of scientific or strictly evidence based green claims in favour of emotional words and images to convey a general impression that all is well when using their products.
The more focused, dry and detailed information, when it is presented, is usually in the form of a company sustainability report which has been targeted at a very small and niche group of specialised stakeholders such as investors, NGO’s, employees and some of the specialist scientific media.
As a result, these reports tend to be produced annually and then put up as a PDF on the company website and there appears to be little expectation that anyone outside the niche group identified will read it. Much of the costly and time consuming effort that has gone into producing it may then be seen as wasteful and a poor return on investment by the commercial departments who are competing for promotional budgets.
There is, however, much information in these reports that is highly positive and potentially inspiring to a wider audience and which could be capitalised upon if a company is able to communicate a message of commitment to more environmentally and socially responsible ways of maintaining and improving its profitability.
The wider audience for this information includes customers, community groups and ratings agencies as well as shareholders and NGO’s. The challenge is to present the information in an appealing way which is tuned in to the audiences’ extensive use of different media channels.
If company producing the Sustainability Report bury it in a PDF deep on their website then the impression created is that even they find the stuff boring so what is the audience supposed to make of it?
This commercial potential for the good news contained in these reports may only be fully realised if each audience group is targeted separately and a social media channel suited to the purpose is selected and used to enter into a dialogue with each of them. Around 40 major companies are currently running on line social media channels focusing on their sustainability and innovation projects.
Many use a live magazine format with content which includes interactive quizzes and apps which can educate the audience in an entertaining way. This will surely set the trend for others to follow and also create an expectation for companies to communicate a lot more about their sustainability and innovation efforts than is currently the case if their brand is to maintain or improve its position.
There are now a whole array of social media channels used by millions daily. The current top 10 appears in the panel. Each of these channels offers a different approach from delivering short bursts of words as in Twitter to blogs written by senior directors to multimedia pin boards such as Pinterest.
There is a need to have a good and authenticated story to tell in these more interesting formats as the feature of social media, which is particularly new and challenging, is the ability for the audience to enter into on line dialogue with the company. This is likely to be well informed and potentially hostile.
A classic example of a major commercial backfire from social media is when the Costa Concordia marketing people decided to announce on Facebook a 30% reduction on its next cruise for passengers caught up in the disaster. As can be imagined the response was negative in the extreme.
In sustainability story telling it is important that a company communicates what it is actually doing rather than what it would like to be doing. Levi Straus have used a number of social media channels and have seen a positive response to communicating projects such as its sourcing of more sustainable cotton and innovating a product line, Waste