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Sustainability 2.0 – Driving Sustainability Engagement through Social Media (Part 1/2)

October 12, 2011 - 4 Comments

Sustainability 2.0 involves the employment of social media tools to initiate, maintain and monitor sustainability engagement.  Companies and institutions are increasingly turning to social media channels to grow corporate social responsibility initiatives of all categories, including sustainability.  Sustainability 2.0 involves two components for optimal engagement across any large-scale enterprise organization, or even university campus: 1. promotion and 2. analysis.

Promotion of sustainable actions via social media:

According to a 2011 study by Sustainable Life Media and Zumer, social media is used at 50 global companies to promote sustainability on various engagement levels.    Professor Nigel P. Melville of the University of Michigan delivers an action-based summary of the report’s findings on 4,000+ social web posts:

  • “76% of sustainability professionals interviewed believe that their investment in sustainability-themed social media will help gain market share, increase the size of the overall market, or, ideally, both.”
  • “Companies such as Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Dell and Toyota (all profiled in case studies) have unearthed the enormous potential of combining social media and sustainability to gain market share and acquire customers in new and growing markets.”
  • “Social media is impacting the way leading corporations are planning and executing their business practices.  As an example, companies have been able to increase internal recognition of their sustainability goals, on average,  by 10-15% through the use of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. This is resulting in greater compliance with energy, waste and water efficiency strategies.”

Why select “social media” as a channel for driving environmental activism? People are influenced by social media conversations.

A study by Harris Interactive indicated that on average, 60% of respondents aged 18-55+ “value the opinions other people share on social media”, and 53% of these users “prefer to listen to others share their opinion, rather than give their own.” From a marketing standpoint, while we can search further for statistics on how social media influences purchasing decisions and therefore is a persuasive communication channel, the basic concept displayed in the corresponding chart is that the majority of users are empathetic listeners of others in the social web, whether conversing with peers or organizations.

I believe social media is an effective channel for sustainability outreach, particularly because the communications infrastructure is already in place and usually free to access.  At the enterprise level, companies already have social media platforms in place for coworkers to collaborate on ideas and effectively bring internal visibility to these projects, if enough crowd interest is shown.  IBM ThinkPlace is a prime example of using social media to harvest ideas from the wisdom of crowds.  The ThinkPlace project began as a pilot community with 50,000 IBM employees, eventually scaling across the entire company.  This social media platform led to the ThinkPlace Challenge in 2007, where over 350,000 IBMers were open to collaborate on ideas to address challenges in Africa, including issues concerning water and energy use.

We know enterprise organizations have social media platforms in place.  Cisco Quad is a great example of an enterprise social networking platform.  However, the challenge lies in harnessing the full potential of these tools to promote sustainability.  The Guardian UK conducted a series of interviews on a panel of sustainability experts, which I’ve digested to display select quotes here:

  • “Social media doesn’t have to be and isn’t always about pushing more products. Social media can be used as a platform for innovation.”
  • “Social media can be a great way of informing your workforce on your sustainability agenda. More importantly however, it allows employees to feed in and co-create. Staff who will have to carry out sustainability strategies will be far more motivated to act on initiatives they have helped create.”
  • And lastly, a somewhat controversial yet very logical thought: “I don’t think social media is a channel at all. On the contrary I would argue that social media is a philosophy – one that is reshaping the way we communicate in general and how companies do business. The problem with thinking of social media as a channel is that it then gets handled like any other channel. Combine social media and sustainability thinking and then you have potential for real change in companies – and good profits as well.”

Overall, we examine how social media can be used to promote sustainability activism.  However, this is just one half of the engagement process.  The second half involves metric-backed analyses.  While promotion is necessary, nothing motivates the human mind better than competition.  Next week, I will discuss how we can use social analytics to drive sustainability competition.

Tune in next week!

-Michael Hopps

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  1. Great post Michael. I look forward to reading your upcoming posts on social media analytics.

    • Glad you enjoyed it Nigel! Your research has contributed greatly to this sustainability 2.0 scene. Check out Part 2, focused on social analytics for sustainability competition. - You may recognize the Building Dashboard from Lucid Design :)

  2. This is a good reminder that social media also brings a lot of social good. Thanks for sharing Michael!

    • Glad you enjoyed reading Allison! Social media can indeed be applied to a number of CSR-related activities. Sustainability is one of many.