Green Marketing as a Vehicle for Consumer Engagement

Today, smart marketers are focused not only on whether consumers view their message, but to what extent they engage with it.  One definition of engagement is as a measure of consumer involvement with a marketing vehicle.  As defined, it implies that engagement should be considered as both a marketing tactic and a metric that can be measured and optimized. 

The green space is ripe for engagement in large part because consumers are interested in green not just as a product category but as a social cause.  As a result, consumers are not only highly open to invitations to engage, but eager to do so when given the opportunity.   Many, in fact, actively seek outlets for their passion; marketers only need to activate them by providing the opportunity. 

Several marketers have already tapped into this passion by creating points of engagement that go well beyond your average marketing communication. 

One such example is CNN’s Impact your World.  CNN is one of the premier news brands today.  Traditionally, news organizations like CNN have provided ways to consume and subsequently react to news by providing the opportunity to comment on news stories – a form of engagement in of itself.  

Yet, CNN Impact takes engagement to the next level by providing consumers with a way to act on their interests in or passion for particular news events – green or otherwise.  One great example is the recent story of the small Iraqi child that suffered severe burns.  CNN Impact enabled its viewers not only to read articles about the child but to take action by making donations to cover his medical bills.   engagement-tactics_3.gif 

In the green space, CNN Impact provides the opportunity for viewers to take action through its “Planet in Peril” section.  CNN provides links to relevant content as well as to environmental non-profits where viewers can make a donation.  CNN facilitates donations by partnering with Charity Navigator to provide information on non-profits to enable users to make more informed decisions. 

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Another great vehicle for driving engagement was the recent Members Project by American Express.  In this project, American Express designated significant funds to be donated to a cause of its cardmember’s choosing.   A platform was created for cardmembers to nominate and vote on different projects over a three month period. 

In the end, American Express cardmembers chose to fund a UNICEF project to bring clean drinking water to children (a noble project that is at the intersection of green and human health).  American Express provided the platform for the project; cardmembers engaged with each other through this platform to determine the project’s outcome. 

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Smart green marketers should take advantage of green as both a product and a social cause by creating deeper opportunities for engagement with their consumers.  Companies can facilitate engagement in multiple ways: by enabling consumers to act on their interests (eg, by connecting them with volunteer opportunities, enabling donations as in CNN Impact) or interact with peers (eg, through community or discussion boards), by encouraging content creation and distribution, and by facilitating product ideation (eg, through collaborative environments) or direct feedback to a company.   

Moreover, marketers may motivate consumer engagement by wrapping a product with an affinity-based experience (eg, Members Project) or by providing access to an event or experience that has perceived value or is deemed exclusive. 

Given the passion that some consumers have for the category, marketers may be surprised by the response and the impact that such marketing vehicles may have on the bottom line.  

(Disclosure: American Express is a client of Digitas)

Greening Your Brand in a Web 2.0 World

Last Friday, I have the pleasure of moderating a panel at the Sustainable Brands conference in New Orleans.  Panel participants included: 

  • Susan Space, Director, Brands & Advertising, at Sun Microsystems
  • Brian Reich, Director of New Media at Cone, a brand and cause marketing agency, and
  • Janet Eden-Harris, CEO of Umbria, a marketing intelligence company.  

I have included my opening remarks below (and will follow up with the transcript of the discussion when it becomes available):

Web 2.0 enable consumers to participate, share and collaborate online like never before.  And whether you are a B2B or B2C marketer, you probably have noticed that consumers are embracing these technologies not only to participate but to control and dictate when, where and how they want to be communicated to. 

Today, consumers view six times the number of ads that they did 20 years ago. And not surprisingly, customers feel inundated and are tuning them out.  (Ad Age, February 4, 2006) In fact, consumers are finding ways to opt out of viewing our advertising altogether by using Pop-up blockers, spam filters, and DVRs and by signing up for Do Not Call Lists and even Do Not Mail Lists. 

At the same time, they are opting in to view content of their choosing by using blog readers like Technorati, customzied news feeds like NewsVine or even signing up for emails with green lifestyle tips from sites like the Daily Green. 

Today, more and more consumers are active contributors online, and in the process, blurring the distinctions between advertising and content and between consumer and publisher.  In this new world, ads are no longer the stuff that fills the gaps between the content.  Content, in effect, is advertising.  And, advertising is increasingly distributed as content.   With nearly 50% of consumers generating – or perhaps I should say publishing – content online, this shift has already taken hold.  (Pew Research) 

Moreover, distrust of product companies will only accelerate this trend, as consumers increasingly turn to their peers for seemingly unbiased opinions and information. 

And, it is in this environment that most marketers focus on the loss of control over brand messaging and identify, rather than the opportunity.  

How then do marketers – and particularly green marketers – take advantage of this new Web 2.0 order?   

We need to first recognize that the rules of engagement have changed; many traditional assumptions regarding marketing, media and branding no longer hold true.  Yet, as marketers, our response should not be to shy away from this change, but to encourage and embrace it through new marketing approaches. 

And, as it turns out, the green category is defined by specific consumer, product and brand characteristics that can take full advantage of Web 2.0 capabilities.

First, green is an emerging product category.   Consumers are not very familiar with the products available today.  Few standards exist.  And, new products and technology solutions are coming to market each day. 

As such, marketers have the opportunity to leverage Web 2.0 capabilities to help consumers to navigate the category, facilitate consumer education and drive product development through collaborative environments and communities 

Second, many consumers are not fully committed to being green yet.  Attitudes are evolving.  Purchase behavior is inconsistent.  And, perceptions about corporate brands are still be formed. 

Marketers have the opportunity to influence this evolution through transparent participation in the online dialogue, encouragement of WOM marketing and facilitation of consumer engagement online.  

As with consumers, the greening of a company and a brand should be considered a journey.  One challenge for green marketers then is to keep the journey of your own brand one step ahead that of your customers. 

Third, it is important to remember that for some, green describes not only a product attribute but a social cause.  All marketers should take advantage of this by activating those consumers most passionate about the category.   

The challenge for marketers then is to act in a way that is perceived as genuine and not simply “greenwashing”.  

And, it is in this context and this environment that we welcome our panelists and begin our discussion.  

(Special thanks to Carl Fremont, EVP and Global Head of Media at Digitas for his contributions)

Green Marketing Leverages Social Networking on MySpace

Social networking sites such as MySpaceFriendster and Facebook have become enormously popular, with membership topping 200 million today.  Such sites allow users to create personal profiles and interact with others by sharing content and communicating through IM and chat.  Users establish links to each other, creating networks that facilitate the sharing of information between friends and introductions between strangers. 

As Jupiter Research points out, advertising on social networks provides a powerful channel for marketers to reach online consumers in an “environment which they helped create” rather than on “traditional portals and destination sites”. In doing so, marketers can leverage social networks to build brand awareness, in large part by leveraging the word-of-mouth impact of the network. (“Social Networks”, September 26, 2006). 

For marketers, however, advertising on social networks is not without risk.  One challenge faced by all marketers is how to appear ‘genuine’ rather than purely commercial in such consumer-created environments.  Faced with this dilemma, mass market brands must tread carefully when advertising on such sites.  For example, a search on MySpace for Wal-Mart yields a profile page targeting college students with music, electronics and dorm accessories.  It also yields a “Don’t Shop Wal-Mart” page with many links to negative news reports about the company.  Ironically, green as a category may be better positioned than most to exploit social networks as a marketing channel.  There are a couple reasons for this positioning, as the green category may exhibit one or more of the following characteristics: 

  • Emerging product category: Social network users like to share content as there is an excitement, and even competitiveness, about being first in the know.  Emerging products and brands provide the opportunity to exploit the “novelty” factor that motivates viral marketing. 
  • Social cause:  Many consumers are linking to sites or sharing content if these sites or content support an underlying cause.
  • Lifestyle brand: Social network users express their online identities, in part, through the connections that they make online.  Links to lifestyle brands (or social causes) are ways for consumers to express this identity online. 

So, how should green brands take advantage of this consumer-driven social networking environment?  In terms of opportunity size, MySpace is in a league of its own with more than 100 million registered users.  A review of current activities on MySpace reveals learning for green marketers.  Here are a few considerations: 

Create profiles.  Increasingly, companies and non-profits are creating their own profiles on MySpace.  At first glance, they look similar to profiles created by individual users (as the templates are the same).  But, in fact, they are branded pages with content posted by a company or non-profit organization. One proxy for the marketing impact generated from placement on a social networking site is the number of people that have linked to a particular profile.  Based on this measure, promoters of the movie An Inconvenient Truth have enjoyed significant success for a green brand with nearly 85,000 links to date.   

Many not-for-profit organizations also maintain profiles on MySpace.  Interestingly, Greenpeace has one of the most popular profiles of any green non-profit.  However, this may not be surprising as MySpace is in large part about expressing online identity.  Given its grassroots base and edgy tactics, Greenpeace may make for a more unique expression of identify than more mainstream organizations such as the Nature Conservancy and World Wildlife Fund. 

Non-Profit Organization MySpace Links
Greenpeace 38,311
Wilderness Society 16,603
World Wildlife Fund 14,366
Earth First 10,337
National Resource Defense Council* 5,624

* Joint campaign with punk rock band Green Day 

A quick survey of eco-friendly companies, however, revealed very few brands with profiles on MySpace but include Annie’s Homegrown (organic), Ben and Jerry’s and green*light magazine.  Not surprisingly, user links to these corporate sites are relatively low, indicating that users do not want to associate with the brands within this environment or simply that it is too early to tell.   

Nonetheless, opportunity may exist for other niche brands (that are emerging, aligned with a specific lifestyle or support an underlying cause) to create a presence on MySpace.  Examples include companies as diverse as Tom’s of Maine, Seventh Generation, Method and Clif Bar to experiment with profiles on MySpace. 

Associate with celebrities. Association with celebrities provides credibility for a brand and expands it appeal across a wider audience.  One way to do so is to encourage celebrity links on branded profiles.  Currently, environmental non-profits are using this tactic as a de facto endorsement and broadening their appeal to a wider audience.  Most celebrities linked to environmental groups are musical bands which is not surprising given MySpace’s musical heritage.  Several examples include Pearl Jam for Defenders of Wildlife and the Dixie Chicks for the Nature Conservancy.  Promoters of An Inconvenient Truth have a link to the Black Eyed Peas while the unbranded profile StopGlobalWarming tapped the military and political figure, Wesley Clark.  

Tap into “New Influentials”.  Jupiter Research defines “New Influentials” as “active broadcasters of information” across the Internet due to their high consumption, creation and sharing of online content.  By doing so, they have significant influence in building brand awareness – spreading information quickly online via blogs and social networking sites. (“Marketing to Influentials,”, November 7, 2006).

Interestingly, many popular green blogs, including TreeHugger and GristMill, maintain profiles within MySpace and include similar content as their blogs. Seeding environmental blogs with engaging, and perhaps exclusive content (including videos, quizzes or even advertising clips themselves) is one way to facilitate viral distribution by New Influentials within social networking environments.  

Integrate marketing campaigns with MySpace presence.  Advertisers have created profiles within social networking sites in order to extend marketing campaigns to those environments.  Marketers should consider linking directly from the creative or corporate site associated with the online campaign to these profiles. These marketers should engage the consumers that visit their social networking profiles by soliciting their participation (eg, quiz, vote, content creation) or by facilitating the viral distribution of posted content.  There are two great examples of organizations that maintain integrated profiles on MySpace:  

National Resource Defense Council linked up with band Green Day to launch an unbranded campaign, Move America Beyond Oil.  The associated campaign site enables users to view video commentary by band members about environmental issues, send messages (eg, email, text) to government officials, learn about what they can do to reduce environmental impact and download free stuff (eg, wallpaper, icons).  

The campaign is tied to a profile page within MySpace which includes the video from YouTube and messaging information.   While the profile itself has fewer than 6,000 links, significantly, much of the content can be viewed or accessed from Green Day’s own profile which has more than 211,000.  

Green Mountain Energy, the largest US retailer of renewable energy, recently launched an ambitious unbranded campaign, BeGreenNow, which relies heavily on social network capabilities through its website as well as in MySpace.     The campaign itself features a highly engaging website that is intended to:

  • Educate consumers about their carbon footprint (eg, through content, blog, carbon calculator)
  • Motivate action to mitigate impact (eg, planting a tree, purchasing carbon offset)
  • Connect with likeminded people through community functions (eg, join BeGreenNow community, add link to other social networking sites including MySpace, social shopping site Wists and web site bookmarking and sharing sites like Simpy, Spurl, Furl and del.icio.us)
  • Spread the word through a combination of awareness (eg, add BeGreenNow button to personal pages or blogs) and viral tactics (forward to a friend).

The BeGreenNow site also features a video contest where users can submit a video about what they do to be green.  What is most interesting about this tactic is that marketers have cleverly embedded the video on its MySpace profile, rather than on the site.  Thus, a click on the site’s video banner takes the user to the MySpace page where one can view all of the submitted footage, vote on a favorite video and forward to a friend. 

When in doubt, stick to paid search.  Consumers are more accepting of advertisements when companies are open and honest about their intentions.  If there are any doubts about brand acceptance by social networking users, test the water first with paid search. For example, buy relevant key words to assess demand for a product or brand in the context of a social networking site before you invest in an ongoing presence.