October 2, 2012, by ICCSR

Social Media & Social Responsibility: Crowdsourcing, Conversations & Competition

I recently read a blog post that argued that hanging around on Twitter can be classed as work (thanks @thesiswhisperer)! As a PhD researcher in the midst of observing how businesses have shifted from communicating CSR information to stakeholders, to constructing CSR knowledge with them, I spend a lot of time immersed in online activity.

I am interested in discovering why hierarchical authority and corporate-led CSR communication is simply not enough to tackle the complex, global sustainability challenges that we all face. Individualised approaches to encouraging behaviour change have been left wanting and it is acknowledged that we need to enact sustainable behaviours at scale if change can really occur. So how are businesses responding to this? Below I outline three key trends which I see evolving in CSR communications campaigns:

  1. Crowdsourcing: By opening up a CSR dilemma to the general public, businesses are able to source CSR ideas from the grassroots. From providing a platform for CSR ideas generation (e.g. My Starbuck’s Idea), to encouraging individual behaviour change through providing specialised applications (e.g. Unilever’s Shower Ballad app), or allowing individuals to nominate and vote for worthy causes through ‘liking’ posts on Facebook (e.g. Expedia’s Give Them Wings campaign), innovative CSR approaches are being born through more collaborative businesses and stakeholder engagement. Although crowdsourcing requires a high level of transparency from businesses, it gives a voice to stakeholders, building brand engagement, imaginative insights, and opening up unique opportunities for stakeholders to become brand advocates.  
  2. Conversations: The key to gaining attention for CSR campaigns is great content, and video is an emerging medium for businesses wanting to convey CSR messages in an enchanting way. Take The Dove Campaign for Real Beauty. A video launched on You Tube to promote positive self-esteem quickly went viral, gaining global acclamation and over 15 million hits. The video caught attention and set tongues wagging because it was interesting, it tested common conceptions of beauty, and crucially, it was aligned with the brand’s core stakeholder audience. Businesses continue to generate exciting CSR content in novel ways, e.g. Honest Tea uses Tumblr to provide regular CSR updates, and even microblogs, which have traditionally driven traffic to sources of CSR information, are actively generating content. Campbell Soup recently hosted a Twitter chat to build real-time, active dialogue around CSR issues.
  3. Competition: Businesses are adopting ‘gamification’ to educate and engage stakeholders in CSR. Recyclebank is a company which utilises the geo-social network ‘Foursquare’ to reward people for taking everyday green actions, and provide discounts and deals from businesses. It runs online games to incentivise sustainable behaviour both on and offline, and allows users to rate their progress against others. Such positive reinforcement and social recognition is designed to make CSR more accessible, and encourage individuals to learn by doing, rather than by seeing. Virgin Mobile’s Re*Generation project uses Causecast’s volunteer tracking and rewards platform to incentivise individuals to support community programmes, and General Electric’s Get Fit campaign uses the virtual pin board ‘Pinterest,’ to promote cancer prevention through healthier lifestyles.

Social media has opened up new opportunities for more transparent and collaborative business-stakeholder engagement and fostered platforms for collective, mutual understanding around CSR. These powerful new communication channels are being utilised to co-create CSR meaning between businesses and stakeholders, resulting in greater engagement and more opportunity to motivate behaviour change. I continue to watch with interest as social responsibility becomes more social.

By Sarah Singleton (@Sarah_CSR), Doctoral Student at the ICCSR, Nottingham University Business School.

Image: sourced from thinkstock

Posted in THEMES in Better Business