By Kimberly Wilson
Social media has undeniably changed the corporate sustainability landscape as companies harness this technology for their sustainability programs. According to the SMI-Wizness Social Media Sustainability Index, in 2011 more companies used social platforms to communicate sustainability initiatives and to crowdsource ideas to resolve sustainability issues. A closer look into this trend suggests that it has only just begun.
The 2011 Social Media Sustainability Index, released by Social Media Influence and Wizness, reported that the number of companies in its index that use social media to communicate sustainability has more than doubled in the last year. In 2010, the report found 120 of the 287 companies in its index engaged in social media through platforms such as YouTube, Facebook, or Twitter, but only 60 companies dedicated resources to the mission. In 2011, 250 major corporations engaged in sustainability communications through social media and 100 companies committed resources to that goal.
The companies trailblazing the way include General Electric, IBM, and Pepsico, all of which made the top 10 list on the index. IBM’s Smarter Planet is a website devoted to communicating its sustainability initiatives and uses compelling storytelling that showcases its work around the world in communities and cities. Just look at its Facebook likes to see how popular it has become – 230,952 and counting.
Other companies like General Electric are using social media to crowdsource ideas to find innovative solutions to sustainability dilemmas. GE created the Ecomagination Challenge to find clean energy ideas in America and the winners received $200 million capital investment by GE and its partners. They also developed a strong editorial team to produce content to encourage participation.
While many companies turn to traditional social media platforms for their sustainability strategy, newer platforms are proving to be equally effective tool for companies. Starbucks brought its BetaCup Challenge to the Jovoto community, a website that crowdsources ideas from the public, in order to find a sustainable solution to the coffee cup. The website Causes, which hosted the famous, viral “Kony video,” has also been used by companies like AT&T to engage the public in its sustainability effort.
For many companies, social media does more than boost their sustainability profile, it is a necessary tool to manage their brand. Social media is a powerful way for consumers to speak out against corporate actions and for companies to engage with their dissenters. Companies that don't manage their brand perception on these platforms can quickly become a target of consumer backlash, like what BP experienced after the Gulf oil spill when a Facebook group "Boycott BP" formed and drummed-up 791,000 likes.
Now that companies have embraced social media for their sustainability initiatives, has it boosted their CSR performance? There may not be a direct correlation, however many of the leading companies on the Social Media Sustainability Index are performing better in general when compared with their peers on CSRHub, such as IBM which has an overall score of 66, higher than its industry average.
Whether or not social media will improve companies' CSR performance in the immediate future is still uncertain, but it certainly will be a driving force in how sustainability programs develop in the future. From what we've seen so far, it is likely that increasingly more companies will incorporate social media into their sustainability strategy in the future hoping to convert their consumers into loyal brand advocates.
Kimberly Wilson comes to CSRHub from Northwestern University where she recently completed her Master’s degree in business journalism. She began her career working in sustainable development at the International Finance Corporation as a marketing consultant. She went on to work at the Financial Times newspaper where she was involved with political and economic coverage. Kimberly has long been passionate about ways businesses can be leveraged to improve the world. This led her to volunteer in South Africa working with women who were microfinance recipients. In her downtime, she enjoys running along Lake Michigan, going to concerts, and weekend brunches in downtown Chicago.