How do we embrace a more sustainable approach to content and communications?

Digital marketing concept. Human hand with a megaphone surrounded by media icons

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 Facebook, Twitter, Instagram et al.

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 bankrupting their organisation.

How did we get here?

First, let’s try to understand how we got here. Three decades ago, at the dawn of the internet age, the traditional media’s grip on the flow of information began to be loosened. This kick-started a process of ‘disintermediation’ in which traditional gatekeepers: newspapers, TV channels and radio were gradually replaced by platforms such as search engines, file sharing sites and social media.

In parallel, digitization and mass production began to reduce the cost of the hardware required to produce content and almost overnight, User Generated Content became at least as important as the material produced by the professionals.

Today, the traditional gatekeepers still have an influence, but they are more likely to ‘curate’ the content they serve up rather than sift it to sort the wheat from the chaff.

Now you can disagree about the quality of the job the traditional gatekeepers did of selecting which content they chose to share with their audiences, but in 2023, pretty much everyone has the right to an opinion, the ability to broadcast it and the potential to ‘go viral’ and shape the global conversation.

In reality, only a tiny proportion of the gigabytes of information uploaded to the internet every second actually lands with the target audience, but this hasn’t slowed the explosion of content across all platforms we have witnessed over the last decade or so.

There are various ways of competing in the information arms race, but most of them require deep pockets and huge resources. And even amongst the large corporates and powerful brands which invested heavily in digital marketing and social media advertising, many have already scaled back their spend after failing to identify a clear-cut return on investment (ROI).

So what would a more sustainable approach to content and communications look like and how do organisations who would like to put their comms on a more sustainable footing take the first tentative steps off the never-ending 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.

Back in the day, media professionals didn’t always 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.

Quality control

As anyone who remembers what telly used to be like when we just had the four (or even three) channels, the chances of finding something worth watching were much higher when the programming was spread less thinly.

The reality is – even with the profusion of repeats resurrected from an archive spanning more than 50 years of popular broadcasting – it’s impossible to maintain quality across the 480 free-to-air TV channels currently available in the UK. The result is we spend a higher proportion of our time searching for something to watch rather than simply watching it.

It may be hard to believe, but most professionally produced content has been through a process of quality control involving pretty stringent checks on accuracy, veracity, decency and legality.

Social media effectively encompasses billions of channels, but few are subject to any quality control and nor do the platforms or individuals posting run the risk of being sued if what they post is inaccurate, untruthful or misleading.

Giving greater care and consideration to what you post in terms of its appeal, relevance, usefulness, originality, distinctiveness, humour and creativity is likely to achieve greater ‘cut-through’ than wishing all your followers a ‘fab weekend’ or ‘happy Tuesday’.

It may seem obvious but setting the bar higher will inevitably reduce the volume of content an organisation is capable of creating while also improving the quality of that content. The social media platforms will continue to reward frequency, but genuinely engaged audiences will appreciate the improved quality of the information you share.

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.

Millions of small business owners will identify with the time- and focus-sapping churn of posting original content when concentrating on the day job would be a better use of their time.

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.

In the early days of Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, organic content reaching potential customers was a real bargain – as were the early iterations of paid-for advertising. Today, the reality is that your organic content is unlikely to reach all your followers, let alone a wider audience, and your paid ads will likely gatecrash the feeds of a totally disinterested and disengaged audience.

Within another year or two, as Facebook and Instagram owner Meta seeks to claw back the vast costs of creating the Metaverse and Elon Musk attempts to make Twitter profitable, paying for social media traction is likely to become the norm.

This pivot has big implications. At the moment, higher quality content is generally rewarded with more views, likes and shares – a clear indication of when you are achieving ‘cut-through’ with organic content.

In the future, paying for social media amplification will get your content in front of more people, but unless it’s high quality, this could be counter-productive. Within this context, views are not the key performance indicator – likes and shares become much more meaningful barometers.

Paid content campaigns also require a more advanced use of analytics to identify the content and messaging that is working – and the material that isn’t.

At this point, larger, better resourced organisations may become seduced by the idea of automating their digital marketing by using a proprietary platform such as Hubspot or one of the many CRM-derived marketing platforms.

As long as you have someone in-house with a detailed understanding of how to deploy these platforms and secure the ROI on the significant investment required, this could be convenient solution to maintaining a consistent social media presence.

But think about automated mailings that land in your inbox or slide into your timeline every day. How many to you open? How many do you really read? How many do you remember? How many do you act upon?

Most of these platforms are derived from Customer Relationship Management systems which are focused on generating, nurturing and harvesting leads. If your communications objectives are longer term and more strategic and don’t rely on selling people stuff, you may find these platforms don’t really deliver.

Automation simply cranks the handle to deliver the numbers. It doesn’t improve the quality or originality of the content – although it may free up your hard-pressed digital marketing team to be more creative when it comes to developing content that really cuts through.

AI isn’t the answer

In recent weeks (thanks largely to a concerted, coordinated and expensive traditional PR campaign) you may have read about an AI innovation called ChatGPT – a seemingly intelligent content creator that can write word-perfect copy on pretty much anything it’s instructed to.

Clearly, this should strike terror into the hearts of copywriters and content creators who make a living out of doing this kind of thing. I had a play with ChatGPT and it writes pretty good copy, but it’s not what I’d call original, innovative or in any way differentiated – and when it makes a mistake, it tends to be a pretty big one.

ChatGPT does what mediocre copywriters across the world do when commissioned to write an article: Google the topic, copy and paste whatever their searches turn up and weld a boiler-plate introduction onto the piece. Thankfully, this content model is almost certainly headed for the scrapheap.

Organisations who begin to rely on AI like ChatGPT to produce website content, will merely exacerbate the current situation in which people are required to wade through gigabytes of undifferentiated babble to find what they are looking for. This will make it statistically less likely that potential customers will land on their page, thus defeating the primary objective of content marketing.

Google is also likely to get extremely skilful at sifting through this morass of AI-generated information and identifying the copied and pasted content and penalising websites which rely heavily upon it in the search engine rankings.

Also, ChatGPT won’t produce and edit video content – although it could produce a basic first draft of the script – which is kind of a deal-breaker for anyone contemplating a video-first approach to content creation and distribution.

Taking back control

So if your New Year’s Resolution is to get your content, digital marketing and social media ducks in a row, what would the first steps look like?

When it comes to marketing and communications, perhaps the biggest challenge facing small businesses and organisations in the digital age is ‘mission creep’. What started as a Facebook page and quarterly newsletter has – seemingly overnight – scaled into a multi-media omni-channel digital marketing empire.

If this looks familiar, it’s unlikely that your hard-pressed comms team is doing everything really well. Dependent on their skillsets, they could be smashing it on social media, but neglecting the website and e-newsletters.

Not so very long ago, discerning readers were prepared to pay professionals to sift and filter out the waffle, blather and BS, leaving them free to focus on the important stuff. Large swathes of the modern media have abandoned that role, making it increasingly difficult for organisations with important things to say about serious issues to get a hearing.

The fragmentation of media and plunging circulations of local and regional titles has profound implications for both local and national groups operating at a grassroots level.

In the last 10 years, it has become much more difficult to ensure messages get out to local audiences because editorial teams are under pressure to crank out celebrity clickbait for their websites rather than craft well-researched and more considered content with direct relevance to their communities.

This seismic shift in the focus of local media has profound implications in terms of organisations’ ability to maintain the frequency, consistency and quality of their content output.

In a fragmented media landscape, distributing consistent communications and focused messaging has become immeasurably harder. Sending a monthly press release to your friendly local newspaper editor is no longer sufficient and the resource implications are profound.

Within this context, it’s all too easy to succumb to the temptation to use short term attention-grabbing social media tactics rather than adhere to a long-term content and communications strategy. There is a place for an agile and responsive social media approach, but this shouldn’t take precedence over a long-term communications strategy.

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.

So where do you start?

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.

  • If this article strikes a chord, feel free to get in touch for a no obligations chat about how you might adopt a more focused, structured and sustainable approach to communications.

Author: Mark Sutcliffe

Freelance content consultant and editor specialising in the outdoors, environment, sustainability, walking and cycling.

Leave a Reply