Is 2014 the year that sustainability marketing and communication become a big deal for companies? That’s certainly the impression you could draw judging by Unilever’s recent launch of its Project Sunlight campaign, not to mention Chipotle’s "Scarecrow" film and interactive game along with IKEA’s new sustainability awareness-raising "Wonderful Everyday" campaign.
It’s also the overriding conclusion of the fourth annual Social Media Sustainability Index — a comprehensive study of how 475 global companies use social media and online channels to communicate their sustainability and corporate social responsibility activities.
In researching the Index, our team of researchers looked at 4,000 social media sites and platforms. What we found was striking: In 2013, 233 of the 475 companies used social media to communicate sustainability or CSR. That’s a four-fold increase from when we started the Index back in 2010.
Part of the reason for this increase can be explained by the explosion of corporate social media noise in general. But it also seems clear that, as the environmental and societal issues that frame sustainability begin to grow in importance within society and at board level, so companies are increasingly keen to tell the world about just how sustainable they are trying to be.
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Twitter, not surprisingly, was the platform most companies felt comfortable talking through. The companies included in our Top 100 (and ranked in the Index) used 86 different Twitter accounts. Naturally, Facebook and YouTube also were very popular for sustainability storytelling while a few ambitious companies including Walmart, Telecom Italia, IBM and Sun Life also embraced platforms such as Instagram, Tumblr and Pinterest (Details are available in the full report).
Yet, while companies are committing more resources to social media sustainability communication and marketing they still have plenty of work to do in how they communicate those stories. All too often Tweets read like press release headlines, blog posts have all the creativity of a scientific instruction manual and YouTube videos are dominated by dry, corporate speak. As a result they only get a handful of views.
For sustainability to win mainstream respect online, companies will need to talk about their environmental and social responsibility work with the same passion and the same creativity with which they promote their core products and services. To do that, companies will need to have a clearer understanding of their audience. It won’t be enough to talk to kindred spirits in the sustainability and CSR community. Neither will they be able to position sustainability just as a niche topic for academics, NGOs and the “green” media.
The Top 10 companies on this year’s Index — Spanish bank BBVA (up from #2 last year), followed by AT&T, IBM, GE, Unilever, Levi Strauss & Co (last year’s leader), Nike, Coca-Cola, BSkyB and Suez Environnement — are already succeeding at bringing sustainability into the mainstream by winning over consumers, customers and their own employees with stories about products and services that are useful, interesting and relevant.
We look forward to tracking how many more companies make that journey in 2014.
The full Social Media Sustainability Index is free to download at sustainly.com.