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How Social Media Really Can Produce Social Change

3p Contributor | Friday February 3rd, 2012 | 0 Comments

By Stephanie Myers

Across the digital universe, brands are asking consumers to click for the good of the planet.

GE wants consumers to tag green innovations in their neighborhood on an interactive map and then check in while on Foursquare. Danone puts a call out on Facebook and Tumblr for photos that celebrate the environment. Starbucks asks consumers to pledge to switch from paper cups to reuseable mugs – and then publicize it to all their friends.

These social media-driven initiatives are naturally intended to build greater awareness of the brand’s own social responsibility positioning. But in asking consumers to create, vote, like, pledge and share online, can these tactics actually foster a change in attitude or even behaviour? Can social media help build a more sustainable society, one campaign at a time?

Interestingly, a global study from The Netherlands Organization argues that it can.

As researchers David Langley and Tijs van den Broek found, most consumers appreciate the need to address environmental issues in everyday life but lack the motivation to change their behavior.

Consumers are held back by a lack of knowledge or interest, other priorities, or plain skepticism that one person’s choices can really make a difference. For a myriad of reasons, good intentions don’t translate into action.

Social media helps tackle those barriers to adopting a sustainable lifestyle, Langley and van der Broek determined. In particular, social media takes what would normally be small, invisible actions and broadcasts them to the rest of the world. When pooled with the actions of thousands of others, suddenly one initiative is seen to have a significant impact.

The effect quickly snowballs as people are more likely to take part in initiatives that have already attracted a critical mass of participants; large numbers send a signal that this is socially appropriate behaviour.

When consumers are encouraged to share their commitments and achievements with others online, the foundation is set for making actual behaviour change. The caveat is that social media is best for encouraging small steps; Langley and van der Broekfound that online initiatives that call for a significant change in lifestyle will have trouble recruiting large numbers of participants.

So are social media campaigns led by brands a panacea for the planet? Of course not.

The fight against global warming won’t be won simply by consumers voting for their favorite sustainability project on Nokia’s Climate Mission mobile game. However, these digital initiatives do impart pro-environmental values and help shape consumer preference for greener lifestyles.

And, according to Accenture’s 2010 CEO Study, these are the favorable market conditions that corporations have been are waiting for. CEOs are ready to begin integrating sustainability across their organizations and offerings – just as soon as there’s a mass market consistently demanding sustainable products and services.

Social media on its own won’t necessarily save the planet. But it might just encourage a more sustainable future.

Stephanie Myers is the Director, New Business at JWT, helping brands solve their marketing challenges in new and innovative ways by connecting them with award-winning strategic and creative talent.

Stephanie has over 15 years of experience partnering with blue-chip corporate, public sector and non-profit clients to build the reputation of their brands while delivering on bottom-line objectives and social responsibility goals. She  offers senior-level marketing expertise combined with a nuanced understanding of global business, environmental and social issues and trends.

Stephanie’s insights on brand, sustainability and social responsibility can be found at Sustainable Brands, the Canadian Marketing Association Blog, on her personal blog, stephaniemyersblog.wordpress.com, and via Twitter @Stephanie_Myers.

Stephanie holds a Global Master of Arts from Tufts University and a Master of Business Administration from York University.

[Image Credit, AltMuslimah, Flickr]


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