Corporates could teach NGOs a thing or two about sustainability

Or, at least, about communicating about it. Corporates are using innovative social media approaches when talking about sustainability — non-profits should take note.

Massive global insurer Allianz and soft drink company Pepsi-Co may seem to have little in common, but they’ve both embraced social media with open arms to talk about sustainability.

Allianz showcases its knowledge on climate change, demographic trends, energy and hunger, through news and analysis website Alliance Knowledge, and its Knowledge blog. This content is then shared with various communities on their social media channels. PepsiCo has backed initiatives, such as the PepsiCo Women’s Inspiration Network, an online interactive network with a “global female perspective.”

For that reason they both rank high on the Social Media Sustainability Index, written by Matthew Yeomans and fellow Social Media Influence founder Bernhard Warner, which reviews how companies are using social media to communicate about sustainability. All of the companies ranked were listed in leading sustainable company indexes, including the Dow Jones Sustainability indexes and FTSE sustainability index, and communicating about sustainability through a blog or by using social media – such as Twitter or Facebook.

Why use social media to discuss sustainability? According to Index, “the central tenet of a social media philosophy – transparency, authenticity and learning from your community to build a stronger more profitable and, yes, better business – are the same strengths that make sustainability such a compelling business philosophy.”

Was all this social media work just spin and ‘green wash,’ I wondered, for example, with PepsiCo? The Index only looks at how companies are communicating their sustainability strategy – and not how sustainable the company actually is, said Yeoman. PepsiCo’s online work “doesn’t negate that Pepsi is creating sugary unhealthy foods. Are they showing leadership on one issue and not on another? Well, yes, that’s open to criticism but that wasn’t the principal driver behind the research.”

Social media: “business philosophy”

Yeomans dispels the idea that social media is just a tactic or about marketing and thinks it’s something more fundamental – he calls it a “business philosophy” in this podcast.

“Social media isn’t a numbers game, …it’s about your value and your usefulness,” he said speaking at an IIED event organised by Forum for the Future. For that reason he’s not keen on online campaigns that drive people to ‘like’ a campaign on Facebook and advocates “attracting the right audience, not necessarily the biggest audience.”

Content is King

Coming in at top spot on the Sustainability Index, is GE’s Ecomagination Challenge, a (US) $200 million crowdsourcing experiment where businesses, venture capital firms, entrepreneurs, innovators and students develop clean energy ideas and submit them for funding. The site lists hundreds of ideas that have been submitted, a blog, and lots of strong content on their Facebook channel.

Unsurprisingly, generating this content requires a 20-strong editorial team. Allianz similarly has a big publishing operation. Having one to drive the development and management of fresh, strong content is key.

Social media is “always on,” so having an “editorial approach and editorial teams around it becomes quite important,” said Yeoman. “They need to think about what they publish and how they publish every day.”

How can a non-profit with a 20th of the resources (aka, me) compete, I asked? The relevancy of the content and approach taken is critical, he replied. NGOs need to cut through the competing “noise” on social media, he said. And they can do that through a “3-step process of listening to what your community are interested in, understanding what you have to offer them in terms of relevant useful content and thinking and ideas, and using that as a blueprint to communicate,” he said. “Small or big, unless you’re doing that you’re not going to be very successful”.

The future: internal social media tools

How might social media look and be used in five years time? “Imagine that you have a global company embracing social media tools – internal twitter systems like Yammer, more streamlined working, imagine when you put sustainability into that as well –– learning from customers, for example, that they don’t need as much water to make certain products,” said Yeoman.

This is already happening. Dell has already received 17,000 ideas on how to improve their products through their Idea Storm site. It also shares ideas for new products, and then adapts them based on feedback. Big companies like Ford and Nike are already adopting internal social media tools, like Yammer or Jive.

But these tools could go beyond creative brainstorming and help resolve, for example, supply chain problems, which many major companies face.

Getting heard above the ‘noise’

Allianz’s Knowledge started as climate modelling because they’re risk to climate change is quite severe as a massive global insurer and it “created a forward social media voice to show that it was already addressing the issue,” said Yeomans. Social media is “shining a light on the organisation to show that it really knows what it’s talking about.”

Think tanks and non-profit organisations – living repositories of sustainable development thinking – should learn from such private sector examples, or risk not getting heard above all that ‘noise’.