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Can Social Media Lead Sustainability?

  |  June 23, 2010   |  Comments

Social media can help consumers do more with less. Is your brand prepared?

As global markets become increasingly connected - referring here to the participants within those markets, more than the abstract concept of the markets themselves - a question arises: can the shared experiences and collective behavior of the social Web lead to a sustained reduction in per-capita consumption? If so, right behind is a second question: can your brand, product, or service compete in that environment on a long-term basis?

If the question about a sustainability-driven reduction in consumption seems a stretch, think about the lasting impact of the Great Depression on the people who lived through it. Despite an overall trend toward increasing consumption across hundreds of years, if not thousands, that generation made do with less: reduce, reuse, and repair. In a striking example of how far we've moved away from the idea of repairing (and instead, simply junking entire products), consider my experience last week in Home Depot. I went to buy replacement batteries for the flashlights that we keep around the house. A new Energizer was about $9. A replacement Rayovac was about $4. But that's not what got my attention.

Here's what got my attention: a new, yellow, plastic flashlight - identical to the ones we have at home - with a standard Eveready 6V battery was $3.49. The message to the consumer? Rather than messing around replacing things like batteries, just pitch the entire flashlight - housing, bulb, and switch, all of which are perfectly fine - into the dust bin and buy a new one. More than a bit put off, I bought replacement Energizer batteries...next door at Target where they were cheaper.

This experience got me thinking: what if we always behaved like this? What if we all - collectively - demanded from retailers and manufacturers alike an emphasis on repair and recycling rather than consumption and disposal? How would that change markets? It looks like we won't have to wait long for an answer.

Enter mobile applications, like barcode scanners, Google Shopping, and GoodGuide. These are the kinds of tools that are starting to appear in mainstream markets; tools that lead consumers to make smarter purchases while in the store. The impact goes beyond retail, too, as brand choices are made partly on the basis of price and availability, and as well on the manufacturer's carbon footprint, hiring practices, and performance on things ranging from corporate social responsibility to recycling practices.

What might a consumer learn and factor into a purchase decision? For starters, that the item about to be discarded can be repaired. Scan its barcode or enter its model number, and be linked to a website like eHow or Fixya that could offer alternatives to disposal. Or, a consumer might be alerted to the fact that as a retailer selling energy-efficient CFL bulbs, you also offer collection and proper disposal of the used CFL bulbs, like Home Depot does, as they can't be thrown out with ordinary trash. Go a step further: what if the same application alerted customers about to buy a 12-pack of CFLs ($50 or more...) at your store with a map pointing to the nearest Home Depot or other competing retailers that offer proper disposal? For the next generation of connected consumers, issues that matter to them will become competitive differentiators. Get ready.

Connected markets introduce an additional dynamic: what starts in one part of the world spreads everywhere else very quickly. In the past six months, I've physically worked in the U.S., Canada, Europe, and Asia. If you add virtual engagements, I'm personally involved in social technology projects on four of the seven continents. What has really struck me is the nearly identical behavior of consumers everywhere: from Buenos Aires to New Delhi, 15 to 45 year old customer segments connected to the social Web are almost indistinguishable in terms of what they talk about, think about, and are concerned about.

As big themes like "green" and "sustainability" take hold, these same consumers will begin to shop in ways that reflect their collective conversations and sensibilities being shaped now through social media. Your participation on the social Web will become increasingly important. India's Godrej, a manufacturer of household goods, has launched its virtual community, GoJiyo, specifically to reconnect itself with India's youth, who are increasingly involved with the social Web rather than traditional media (a media consumption shift that is common now throughout the world). Smart move on their part.

The impact on markets will spread further and will accelerate. Handsets turn over faster than laptops, and each new wave of smartphones is more capable and easier to use than the last. India is preparing for 3G: combined with cheaper, Internet-connected handsets, the number of Indian social media participants will climb by an order of magnitude, perhaps doubling the global base of social media participants. And that doesn't count what's happening in China, where there are now more English-speakers than any other country. If you're interested, a recent issue of The Atlantic Wire featured an article on "Globish" as the lingua franca of the Internet, and now the globe. It's fascinating, and the resultant ability for consumers - around the world - to share purchase experiences through social media is profound. Reduce, reuse, repair, and then, by all means, recycle is becoming a common theme in these conversations.

My Dell Inspiron 8600 is a great example of the trend toward higher performance and longer life in the face of reduced consumption and a smaller personal footprint. Manufactured in 2003, I purchased it used in 2005. I've since upgraded the display, installed a larger hard drive, and replaced (and recycled!) the battery a couple of times. I've used it to write two books, five years of ClickZ columns, to edit videos for clients including the PGA Tour, and to give hundreds of presentations. Now nearly eight years old - with a total investment, including purchase, of less than $1,000 - my 8600 has been around the world three times and successfully powered up every time - and every place - I've turned it on. Dell's social Web efforts that resonate with me include its "Go Green Challenge" and its Digital Nomads community. (Disclosure: My company created the "Go Green Challenge.") Dell's social Web platforms connect me to the brand and build on the basic value proposition and reliability that the 8600 has delivered.

I'll probably start looking for a replacement Dell next year. The case on my 8600 is cracked and the hinges are getting loose (of course, my wife says the same about me.) There's no doubt in my mind, though, that I will remain with Dell. Dell speaks to me in the places where I spend time (which is to say the social Web), offers products that I can repair and maintain, and has a complete recycling program when I finally decide to renew. Dell fits into my entire life.

Add all of this together - a shift toward lower per-capita consumption and the return to repairable rather than disposable products - and then factor in global conversations. While larger on an absolute scale, these global markets will become highly competitive across consideration points significantly more complex than price. This means you must be present in conversations on the social Web, and that these conversations must be favorable toward your brand, product, or service in the context of the lifestyles, passions, and causes of your customers. Otherwise, the increasingly connected global marketplace will talk up competing options, forcing you to spend more just to be heard, or will actually work against you, hobbling your marketing efforts. Neither of these bode well for long-term margins and the sustainability of your own organization.

As you gear up for the social Web, think past Facebook, Twitter, and brand-centric communities (yes, they are useful as part of your outreach program) and challenge your own organization to connect internally in ways that support customer-driven innovation. Whether through SharePoint, Lotus Connections, Socialtext, similar off-the-shelf Enterprise 2.0 platforms, or your own internal collaboration platform, link your business to the social Web. Check out Susan Scrupski and The 2.0 Adoption Council for more on exactly how to do this. Build your brand, product, or service with the direct input of your customers, and engage them through active listening, lifestyle and product-support communities, and ideation platforms. Tap their collective knowledge to build smarter products that last longer, products that, like the Android, the iPhone, and my 8600, can be upgraded and extended through a combination of replaceable hardware and customer-driven application stores. And when the thing you sold is truly "used up," ensure that you offer a recycling program or proper disposal service that your customers will talk about. Do these things and your long-term global success - driven by the social Web - is all but assured.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Dave Evans

Dave is the VP of social strategy at Lithium. Based in Austin, Dave is also the author of best-selling "Social Media Marketing: An Hour a Day," as well as "Social Media Marketing: The Next Generation of Business Engagement." Dave is a regular columnist for ClickZ, a frequent keynoter, and leads social technology and measurement workshops with the American Marketing Association as well as Social Media Executive Seminars, a C-level business training provider.

Dave has worked in social technology consulting and development around the world: with India's Publicis|2020media and its clients including the Bengaluru International Airport, Intel, Dell, United Brands, and Pepsico and with Austin's FG SQUARED and GSD&M| IdeaCity and clients including PGi, Southwest Airlines, AARP, Wal-Mart, and the PGA TOUR. Dave serves on the advisory boards for social technology startups including Palo Alto-based Friend2Friend and Mountain View-based Netbase and iGoals.

Prior, Dave was a co-founder of social customer care technology provider Social Dynamx, a product manager with Progressive Insurance, and a systems analyst with NASA| Jet Propulsion Labs. Dave co-founded Digital Voodoo, a web technology consultancy, in 1994. Dave holds a BS in physics and mathematics from the State University of New York/ Brockport and has served on the Advisory Board for ad:tech and the Measurement and Metrics Council with WOMMA.

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