Today, social media hype is everywhere. Count the number of times you hear about, read about, or visit Wikipedia, YouTube, Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, blogs or some other hot web destination in a day. Chances are, it's about the same as the number of emails in your inbox.
In the U.S., 56.9 million adults (37 percent of all adult Internet users) use social networking sites at least once a month. And a whopping 70 percent of U.S. teens visit social networking sites once a month. People are connected in ways we couldn't imagine ten years ago.
What does this mean for sustainable industries?
Social marketing is a chance to engage people about your product or service. But don't get this confused with general online marketing tactics. It's about connecting with your customers in a transparent, authentic and honest way. Social media is all about dialogue, not controlled marketing messages. Things can get messy. That 's the point. Truly compelling social media creates meaning, value, and strong connections.
A great example of building online customer community is gDiapers' Yahoo! Group (gDiapers are a Cradle-to-Cradle certified flushable diaper). Over 3,000 people are members, with around 5,000 messages being posted by parents each month about gDiapers experiences and questions. A mother of three boys who doesn't work for gDiapers started the site, evidence that having a strong sustainability commitment and an innovative product is a great way to stimulate online community among customers. It's also proof that what's most important is the reason for collaboration, not the technology that enables it.
Yahoo! Groups is a 10-year-old service with limited functionality in the context of the latest and greatest Web 2.0 applications being hyped by the technology cognoscenti. In the Internet world, it's a dinosaur one step away from becoming a fossil. So the lesson here is to focus on why your customers would want to interact with each other, not the technology platform.
Developing Facebook applications, widgets, wikis, and other buzz-y tools have the potential eat up your marketing budget. Think first about how your sustainability innovation can create a sense of community among the people you want to reach. Then, select a platform that's cost effective and easy to set up out of the box so you can start building community immediately to test your ideas.
What about leveraging social media for sustainability initiatives with and across organizations?
Key factors that determine the success of such initiatives are: bringing together a strong community of people working toward a common vision, sharing best practices, and tracking the progress. Everyone learns from each other and helps the initiative achieve higher goals. It's an open source collaborative approach to sustainability initiatives. Individual actions evolve into mass innovation.
Social media platforms are perfect for making this all happen. More nimble, flexible and user-friendly online workspace services that look like social networking sites are empowering collaboration across a broad range of stakeholders—both inside and outside the organization. These are part of the social media revolution rooted in the rise of consumer sites.
My desire to take the "Power of One" approach and expand it into the "Power of Many" led me to create fmyi [for my innovation] in 2004. Organizations using fmyi span the sustainability landscape from initiatives within Fortune 500 companies, to small social enterprises, university teams, green jobs working groups, associations, innovative government agencies, and others. The common thread? These teams have a need to harness their intellectual capital which comes from people within and outside their organizations, often in different locations.
The best success stories are when the sites create meaning, value and strong connections within the initiative in a transparent, authentic and honest way. That means less of a top-down, hierarchical approach and more of a grassroots effort. Social networking sites provide a less closed communication channel (think email) and replace it with a more open collaborative medium that promotes shared change and innovation with sustainability.
But make no mistake about it—social media is not the magic bullet. Sites need to be set up specifically for the initiative, training needs to happen to get people used to collaborating online, and clear roles and responsibilities need to be outlined so the full value of the site is realized. Technology in itself is never the sole answer.
Is it all hype?
Frequently, a lot of the hype surrounding social media comes off as navel-gazing. How big of an impact is it really making? The digital divide is a real threat to creating a sea change through social media. Are we truly involving all voices in this medium? And what about the environmental impact of the Internet? 9.4 percent of U.S. electricity usage is related to the Internet. Many social media companies aren't talking about what their internal sustainability practices are at all. Are they getting a free ride?
In the spirit of social media, add your thoughts to the discussion by clicking on "Post a comment.".
Justin Yuen is President of fmyi [for my innovation], a collaboration software company with a commitment to sustainability. Prior to that, he was Senior Manager in Corporate Sustainable Development at Nike, Inc. Justin is Co-Chair of the City of Portland/Multnomah County Sustainable Development Commission, and on the Board of Directors of the Oregon Natural Step Network, Northwest Earth Institute, and the Portland Parks Foundation.