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July 30, 2012

Social media: Sustainability before profitability?

Posted by Simon Towers (View Profile | View All Posts) at 6:26 AM


It's one thing for a company to be socially responsible but what is the best way to communicate this activism to your customers?  You guessed it.  Facebook, Twitter, and other social media web sites are a sure path to show customers that businesses are caring, participating members of the community - whether brick and mortar or cyberspace or both.

Con Edison, the environmental award-winning utility that services the New York metropolitan area, has been very proactive in the past few years with trumpeting their green campaign.  The company has effectively used social media and numerous web sites to illustrate how they reduced the firm's carbon footprint and persuaded customers that saving electricity and using energy efficient appliances is not only the "right" thing to do but also a great way to reduce electric and gas bills.  It's a win-win arrangement.  Sporting goods manufacturer Patagonia has been a poster child for corporate responsibility from day one.  From the outset, mountaineer and founder Yvon Chouinard "tithed" the company's revenues and gave a percentage to environmental causes.  So it was only natural to talk about their policies on their web site, "The Footprint Chronicles." The site features the complete life cycle of Patagonia products - from sourcing to processing to transportation to delivery and the impact on the environment - as well as their paper procurement and consumption practices, and their approach to sustainable building design. Patagonia even gets store customers to vote on how the stores must spend some of their environmental grants budgets! 

Conversations on sustainability issues can also evolve into innovation and co-creation partnerships.  CFS, the financial co-operative from the U.K., advises customers on investing ethically. Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport has set up an innovation platform focused on sustainability in partnership with some universities and research institutions. And, Pepsi has diverted its Super Bowl advertising budget into a portal where they invite people to come forward with sustainable project ideas that they're willing to execute (and Pepsi is willing to fund).  JP Morgan Chase uses Facebook to ask customers to "like" their community giving initiative.  
By facilitating transparency, communication and co-creation in social media, what companies are actually doing is improving engagement, which is core to social contract.  The upside, however, is that companies are also polishing their brand and their image.  Unfortunately, many organizations are yet to make this connection.  When firms hire a "youth" staff to use social media to connect with their customers, their first thought is commercial impact.  How can Facebook and Twitter increase revenues?  Perhaps they're doing this in the wrong order.  Why not begin with, "What can we do to show our customers how we're partners in the communities we do business?"  What do you think?

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