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Social Networking: a Key Part of Your Sustainability Communications Strategy

| Thursday August 20th, 2009 | 1 Comment

Social-Network-SustyEffective sustainability strategies depend on many moving parts. Sustainability change experts reading this blog will tend to have more than a little experience with most of them! However, there’s one tool that we’ve seen chronically underutilized: social networking. These tools aren’t just for connected teenagers anymore – effective use of social networking can make all the difference in effectively communicating sustainability efforts while positively impacting image and brand. Using sites like Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, savvy organizations can now easily and inexpensively (think sustainable!) communicate directly to their customers.

Social networking can and should be a crucial part of every comprehensive sustainability strategy. Read on to discover how it can maximize the return on your sustainability initiatives.

Utilizing Social Networking for Maximum Company and Brand Value

Let’s briefly explore five ways that social networking can help companies maximize sustainability value for their company and brand.

1. Is social networking a core part of your sustainability communications strategy?
Companies who understand sustainability and social networking realize the enormous value their activities can have on public image and brand.  Yet, some companies pay no attention to the potential brand benefits they could enjoy from a sound social networking component to their sustainability communications strategy.  Taking advantage of social networking makes it easy to target audiences with sustainability messaging and branding.  Some big brand names – like GE – get it already, and communicate their sustainability efforts through blogs and newsfeeds.  GE, who distributes blogs on Bloglines, brands its sustainability efforts using ecomagination and provides RSS, Google and My Yahoo newsfeeds of ecomagination news.  Maybe GE will soon have both Facebook and Twitter pages – these tools are a logical extension of the existing back-and-forth on blogs.

2. Are you sharing your sustainability commitment and results?
Even in the current tough economy, many global companies have redoubled their commitment to sustainability.  A prime example is Walmart, which has worked aggressively to reduce the environmental impact of their stores and supply chain.  As an example of sharing its sustainability progress, Walmart provides an easy way to receive RSS feeds that focus on their sustainability news.  Other companies (like HP) use sites such as Justmeans, through which they can target and distribute sustainability news to an interested, sympathetic and motivated online community.  For your company, social networking can be an easy and inexpensive way to effectively target an interested audience, and shape a specific message around the results your company is achieving.

3. Are you organizing grassroots efforts – both internally and externally?
The backbone of change movements are grassroots efforts to organize and communicate.  Social networks have broken the barrier of “borders, languages and cultures,” making these activities easier than ever before.  While most people think of social networking as an external tool, new technologies exist that allow companies to organize similar services within their company as well.  These private social networks can be just as effective at guiding sustainability discussions internally as “traditional” social networking is to outside stakeholders.

For example, a large clothing retailer we recently met with implemented technology to provide a Facebook-like functionality to its own internal social networks. A large biotech firm has a similar program on tap for late 2009.  Such technology has enormous potential to organize (and leverage!) internal sustainability expertise, while providing an efficient way for employees to communicate with each other and discuss sustainability news and ideas.  Externally, many companies are now setting up their own Facebook and Twitter pages, with the dual purpose of sustainability communication and organizing outside stakeholders that have an interest in tracking a company’s efforts.

4. Are you managing the sustainability message about your company – or is someone else?
Many companies have been surprised to be on the receiving end of blowback on their sustainability efforts.  After so many years of being able to tightly control their image and messaging, many have been caught off guard by the instantaneous, viral, and seemingly spastic judgments that can come out of the world of social networking. Because of the potential for instant feedback, companies must learn to be careful at managing the sustainability messages about their company, whether or not they originate it.

As an example, organizations like Greenpeace are ever available to create their own unique way of messaging as part of their role as environmental stewards.  Their messaging can often be unflattering (to say the least!). This has implications for how your company manages the communication of your sustainability efforts – you’re not only speaking directly to an audience, but making a case towards other stakeholders, too (don’t forget to engage these critical stakeholders through many avenues, not just social networking!).  When implemented correctly, social networking offers a great venue to manage your company’s sustainability achievements, while building credibility (and managing serious criticism) by communicating when things don’t go as planned.

5. Do you measure the sustainability pulse?
One of the most overlooked benefits of social networking is the ability to measure the shifting attitudes towards a company and issues by individuals, governments and corporations.  At any time, it’s easy to go to the various social networking sites and get an idea of what people and organizations are thinking – and what they care about.  It’s unlikely that major stakeholder concerns will emerge without at least some prior grumbling on social networks. Technologies to track this pulse are available, such as TweetDeck and Nielsen BuzzMetrics.  Over time, the capability and capacity to measure this pulse will be critical to staying on top of trends as they happen. This will allow sustainability change agents to understand the potential impacts on your company, and manage your brand and communication effectively.

One Last Question

We are clearly still in the early days of social networking, and many of its sustainability benefits and solutions are still unknown.  One thing is for certain: social networking and access to information and ideas has had a huge impact in the adoption of sustainability globally, and leveraging this powerful tool will be critical to the success of a comprehensive sustainability strategy.

How do you connect to others and message to the global community about your company’s sustainability practices?  Sound off on your views of the importance of social networking to your company.

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FairRidge Group is a team of management, strategy, and change experts focused on business transformation through the practical application of sustainability for operational improvement and strategic innovation. FairRidge Group brings a new framework for sustainability management that integrates strategy, operations, branding, measurement and organizational development to drive profitable business transformation.

David Johansen is a FairRidge Group founding partner. He has worked in the IT and Management Consulting industry for 20 years in sales and management positions. David is active in sustainability and volunteer efforts in his local community.  He holds an MBA with an information systems concentration from University of Minnesota, and a B.S. in Marketing from Kansas State University.


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