Sustainable Communications: what is it and how do you embrace it?
By Mark Sutcliffe, communications consultant
Sustainability has become a ubiquitous concept in recent years. Applying sustainable principles to pretty much everything from transport to tourism and fashion to food has led to serious rethinks over how, what and why we consume everything from hummus to holidays.
But what about communications? At a time of multi-channel media saturation when everyone’s attention span is stretched to breaking point, is there such a thing as too much information? Could over-sharing be counter-productive? How regularly can you post on social media while maintaining quality? Is it realistic to distribute quality content across all platforms, and should you even try?
In many ways, the current state of affairs feels unsustainable. There’s simply too much information out there and everyone is amplifying their attempts to draw attention to their agenda. Attention spans are increasingly measured in milliseconds and perhaps the ultimate irony is that when everyone is shouting, nobody can hear a thing.
This cacophony is driving audiences away from the shouty, confrontational, polarized world of social media achieving the opposite of the extra focus and resource many organisations have dedicated to social media.
It feels like we’re approaching an inflection point, but who’s going to lead the movement away from the social media frenzy to the calmer, more considered spaces desired by millions of ordinary folk who just want to keep up to date with friends, family, community groups and causes that are important to them?
So what would a more sustainable approach to communications look like? For me, the concept of sustainable communications hinges upon at least two fundamental concepts:
i) that the content is accurate, valuable, timely and useful
ii) that those communicating it can maintain a flow of quality content and field any questions it raises without placing unreasonable stress on their employees or consuming a disproportionate amount of resources.
So how do organisations who would like to put their comms on a more sustainable footing take the first tentative steps off the never-ending social media treadmill of post, like, share, repeat.
Stepping off the treadmill
The algorithms which govern what we see on our social media feeds are designed to drive engagement – they want users to keep coming back as frequently as possible so they can serve up more commercial content to them.
This means that regular posters are rewarded for the frequency rather than the quality of their posts. This works in precisely the opposite way to traditional media used to operate, where teams of experienced editors sorted the wheat from the chaff and just brought you the stuff that mattered. They didn’t get it right 100 per cent of the time, but they waded through gigabytes of information to seek out the good stuff, so you didn’t have to.
In stark contrast, social media platforms encourage users to ‘doomscroll’ through the dross – interlaced with carefully targeted advertising messages – whilst creating the impression that everything is equally important.
The first step to posting higher quality content is to step off the treadmill and refocus time and resources on creating content that matters – probably for your website initially – then putting out ‘edited highlights’ on your social media channels.
Social media isn’t free (and it’s likely to get more expensive)
One of the explanations for the explosion in social media marketing is the widespread misconception that it’s ‘free’. Let’s just bust this myth. Social media is not free; it takes time – a lot of time – if you want to do it right.
Done properly, social media isn’t about hitting the ‘transmit’ button and posting three times a day, it’s about interacting – liking, sharing, commenting and curating your community. This eats up an enormous amount of time, which – if you were paying someone else to do it – has the potential to put a massive dent in your productivity.
If you don’t believe me, just set a timer running every time you create, post, like, share or respond to an enquiry via social media and tot it all up at the end of the week before applying your hourly rate. The ‘bill’ at the end of the week will be an eye-opener.
Factor in the likelihood that the large platforms will almost certainly be charging everyone to distribute anything that looks vaguely commercial and social media is going to get even more expensive in future.
So where do you start?
For me, sustainable communications is about doing less better. It’s about electing not to bombard people with more stuff, it’s about choosing not to invade people’s timelines with irrelevant messages, it’s about increasing quality, not frequency; it’s about relevance, not volume; it’s about originality and differentiation rather than copying and pasting to keep pace with the pack.
First – ask yourself honestly: “Is this sustainable?” Work out how much time/money you are spending on digital marketing and ask yourself if you can comfortably continue carrying this overhead. If the answer is a resounding ‘no’ then it’s time to re-assess and re-prioritise.
Answer the following questions honestly and scrutinize any activities that don’t bring you any closer to achieving your objectives and priorities.
- What are my objectives?
- What are my priorities
- Which audience(s) am I targeting?
- Where do I find these people?
- What sort of content engages them?
- Is my messaging clear?
- What does success look like?
This process may be accompanied by a fear factor: you may fear losing the attention of some audiences, or no longer being ‘part of the conversation’. Your communications team may fear losing their jobs, but be brave: keep asking yourself what a sustainable level of communications activity looks like and prioritise accordingly.
You may need to slash the volume and complexity of messaging, reduce the frequency of social media activity and revisit captive channels like email newsletters and figure out how they can engage supporters on a deeper level. This is often a more constructive use of time and resources than randomly cranking the social media handle.
Sustainable communications remains a work in progress. Nobody really knows what it looks like or how to do it perfectly. But by adopting the principles employed in other sectors, we should be able to find our way to a more sustainable future in which values like quality, originality and relevance become more highly valued than frequency, volume and repetition.
Mark is editorial director of Salar Media Services, a content and communications consultancy which specialises in working with charities and not-for-profits in the environment, conservation and sustainability sectors.
Find out more at https://salarmedia.com/category/blog-post/ or you’re welcome to contact Mark on email@example.com
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