eBay, Others, Offer Strategies for Turning Customers into Allies

Triple-bottom-line businesspeople aren’t just in it for the money; they seek to satisfy social and environmental bottom lines, as well. And generally, the same can be said of their patrons. That shows up in consumers’ willingness to pay premiums for fair trade, responsibly-sourced products. But the relationship between company and customer does not—and, many would argue, should not—end in a financial transaction. So how can socially- and environmentally-responsible firms go about turning their customers into advocates?

That question was posed to three panelists—Danny Kennedy, founder and CEO of Sungevity; Ron Gonen, cofounder and CEO of Recyclebank; and Amy Skoczlas Cole, director of citizenship outreach at eBay—during the JustMeans Social Media for Sustainability conference on Monday, in San Francisco.For eBay, the task of fostering advocacy among its customers is a relatively easy task. After all, eBay buyers and sellers deal in reused, salvaged goods, so they are by nature “recyclers.” To emphasize this, and to provide a range of ideas on ways that eBay users can build on their existing green cred, eBay’s Green Team offers tips and tricks and news through Green Team site, explained Cole.

But going beyond that, eBay also provides buyers a way to contribute a portion of their payments to select charities. It also works with World of Good, an organization that connects artisans from the developing world with mainstream retail markets.

While few companies are like eBay, many can use its Green Team model. eBay employees who were looking for ways to communicate with consumers and connect with them over environmental and social issues started the Green Team. Your own organization probably has a number of employees who would like to the same.

For Sungevity, a startup that sells residential solar power systems, social media has been a handy tool for connecting with customers while also building up awareness about solar energy. Kennedy explained that Sungevity didn’t think much would happen when a developer offered to create an online game for the company. But it turned out that the game—a play on Tetris in which the gamer tries to fill a roof with solar panels—was a big hit. “As you play the game, you earn sun-bucks that you can use as a discount on your order or which you can elect have have donated to an environmental charity,” he explained. The game generated a great deal of unexpected buzz and marketing for Sungevity—80,000 people played the game in six months, he said—and a companion trivia element in the game helped players understand how solar panels work and how solar differs from other energy systems.

RecycleBank partners with communities to encourage consumers to recycle their household waste in exchange for coupons and other financial incentives. So the company has one very obvious and sure-fire way to turn its customers into environmental advocates: it pays them. Of course, giving someone a coupon in exchange for diverting their soda cans and newspapers into a separate waste bin won’t likely turn them into the next Ed Begley, Jr.  But Gonen raised an important point. He said that much of the green news that consumers hear is about technology that won’t be available, or affordable, for a number of months or years in the future. Recycling is something that they can do now, and something that makes an immediate impact. So while few things beat a financial incentive when it comes to turning consumers into advocates, it’s also important to enable them to do something both simple and tangible—something that lets them quickly recognize their contribution to a cause.

Freelance writer Mary Catherine O'Connor finds that a growing number of companies are proving the ways that they can make good financially, socially and environmentally (as the triple bottom line theory suggests).With that in mind, she contributes to Triple Pundit, as well as to Earth2Tech and other pubs focused on sustainability. She also writes The Good Route, an Outside Magazine blog that addresses the intersection of sustainability and the active/outdoor life.To find out more, or to reach her, go to www.mcoconnor.com.

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