A few months back I had the pleasure of being interviewed by Iliyana Stareva, then a graduate student in management and marketing at the University of Applied Sciences and Arts in Dortmund, Germany, as part of her research for her dissertation, “The Power of Social Media as a Communications Channel for Creating Business Sustainability Value: a Support Tool or Menace?”
As you might guess, Iliyana’s research is an excellent resource for anyone marketing sustainable products or services, as well as any company interested in sharing its sustainability initiatives publicly.
On her blog, Iliyana graciously invites sharing of her findings. So it is my pleasure to include an excerpt from her post about the project. Here (in Iliyana’s own words) are the main conclusions of her research (I have emphasized certain key ideas and phrases that I think are highly important for green marketers):
- There is a need for a new business culture based on the ability to feel and show empathy and the ability to change and move away from traditional horizontal and vertical business approaches towards a web, ecosystem and dialogue-based mindset for more innovative and value-driven collaboration. Consequently, there is a requirement to change the currently very dry, technical and preaching-like nature of sustainability communications towards making it more relevant, emotional, fun, provocative and engaging in order to better reach audiences on a larger scale.
- In this regard, social media can be that new tool because, since it shares the same values as sustainability (community, transparency, authenticity, innovation, creativity and collaboration), combining and aligning the two concepts could have a powerful impact on effectively balancing the triple bottom line. Social media can thus be an asset that companies should capitalise on, as it can provide competitive advantages and allow brands to become pioneers. But, real commitment to social media sustainability communications is nevertheless required. Most importantly, both practices need to be embedded throughout the organisation – only then can they be effective.
- Social media allows companies to be creative, authentic, honest and transparent in their sustainability communications approaches and offers them the platforms to attentively listen and directly respond to what customers and other stakeholders are saying. Hence, social media provides tremendous benefits for organisations to increase brand awareness, promote sustainability initiatives and efforts, engage with stakeholders, integrate them into the company processes, facilitate knowledge management, advocate green activities and inspire sustainable lifestyles.
- As a support tool social media can not only serve as a communications channel, it can go beyond just sharing information to being a collaboration and co-operation tool that can create value and drive real change through storytelling, community building, crowdsourcing, open innovation and co-creation. Thus, social media can be a strong differentiator and a source of transparent and engaging competitive advantage for business sustainability and so help create a sustainable brand.
- On the other hand, as social media gives everyone a voice and allows for information to spread rapidly like a virus, brands have lost control over the conversation and it becomes a challenge how to deal with stakeholder scrutiny and negativity expressed online. Those, who try to control the conversation in persuasive and manipulative manners or by deleting comments, are put at the risk of a crisis that can seriously damage or even destroy a company’s reputation. Organisations that lack transparency and honesty in their communications are inevitably found out.
- Not understanding the nature of social media and ignoring its transparency requirement by, for example, choosing practices such as greenwashing is a main reason for inducing the menacing role social media can play. But because on social media nothing stays hidden brands are required to ‘walk the talk’, aligning content with context.
- The benefits of social media outweigh the risks for most organisations; those who fail to understand the new social landscape will be endangered of having their business disrupted by social technologies.
(If you have read my white paper on FTC compliance, you might recognize many of the key concepts echoed in Iliyana’s findings.)
Iliyana ends with a profound thought: that it is the responsibility of businesses to be leaders in the shift towards a more sustainable world.
To enhance the present and preserve the future companies must play their role in educating society… Education, though, starts with communication – if society is not made aware of the issues and their extents, then solving them is not possible. As Galileo once said, “you cannot teach a man anything; you can only help him to find it within himself” – people cannot be forced or driven to agree or act in the way others want; people need to be gently and friendly led, inspired and engaged to change their minds. This is where the potential of social media lies because it is first and for most about people and relationships.
This is an especially important point. With all the risk of greenwashing it can be tempting to steer clear of addressing sustainability, but ultimately it’s in everyone’s best interest to keep it top of mind publicly as well as when planning one’s own corporate sustainability initiatives.
One last gift from Iliyana (who, by the way, received an A+ on her dissertation and is now the Social Media Account Manager at Brandzeichen Markenberatung und Kommunikation GmbH in Duesseldorf – congratulations, Iliyana!): this awesome Best Practice Guide infographic you can use to help your company stay on the good side of social media: