4 Tips to Improve Environmental Performance of Email and Digital Communications

When discussing the sustainability of marketing, attention very much needs to be paid to digital communications. Many fall into a trap: We may believe we are being environmentally “good” when we use a digital message in place of a print message. Evidence increasingly tells us to think more deeply.

When discussing the sustainability of marketing, attention very much needs to be paid to digital communications. Many fall into a trap: We may believe we are being environmentally “good” when we use a digital message in place of a print message. Evidence increasingly tells us to think more deeply.

Banks, utilities, investment companies, retailers, credit card companies and others that all use “green messaging” to appeal to customers to go “digital” with their invoicing and statements most often commit a sin of “greenwashing”—because they are not measuring truly the environmental impact of such claims. (I’ve mentioned a superb, must-read report for marketing professionals on the “Seven Sins of Greenwashing” in previous blog posts: www.sinsofgreenwashing.org.)

However, digital and electronic data-driven technology users and suppliers are highly—even urgently—concerned about the amount of energy used to run IT infrastructures—from data centers, to servers, to PCs and laptops and the power grid that keeps them all humming 24/7. They are not alone. A recent U.S. Environmental Protection Agency report says 1.5 percent of total energy consumption in America is attributable to data centers—and the figure is growing rapidly. Streaming video eats server capacity—and more and more U.S. households (and workplaces) are spending time online; watching television and movies off tablets and laptops; streaming audio and video; chatting and emailing with friends, families and social networks … and, in short, tapping energy sources that keep the dialogue moving.

This has a clear environmental and sustainability impact—requiring brands to assess their energy sources, the efficiency of the IT equipment, and, most certainly, any verbiage their organizations may have used previously to state the “green” credentials of digital over print.

While purchasing Green IT and Green Power are perhaps the most profound ways digital communication users can tackle being sustainable environmentally, there are other smaller but visible ways to lessen environmental footprints when dialoguing online with stakeholders. This is just a suggested list:

  1. Team up with a green partner. Have a tie-in with an environmental or conservation group. With a recent e-commerce purchase I made with one marketer, I was prompted to direct where I wanted a seedling to be planted in return for my transaction, with one of four regional forest areas (California, Michigan, Florida or Virginia) of the National Forest Service.
  2. Guard against greenwashing. Avoid “greenwashing” when environmental claims are made for everyday business activities or for products, behaviors or processes where one or two attributes may be “green,” but the overall activity may very well not be. There are two excellent resources to refer to prevent “greenwashing.” Going digital—again—is not “green” if a company fails to analyze the lifecycle of its power choices and data centers, for example. Canada-based TerraChoice, which works with both Canada and U.S. regulators to monitor environmental claims, has published The Seven Sins of Greenwashing: Environmental Claims in Consumer Markets. By reading and absorbing this report, communicators will likely not make a mistake in hyperbole over a green dialogue claim. Further, the Federal Trade Commission is scheduled to release its updated Green Guides for environmental claims at any point this year—with an expectation it will clarify creative interpretations behind many of today’s eco-marketing terms.
  3. Opt-out, opt-in, opt-down and more. Modify any online preference center for emailing and mobile messaging to customers from mere CAN-SPAM compliance to “best practice” heaven—where each customer is in (near) total control. Preference centers should be designed for our multichannel world, rather than simply an on/off switch for email. Opt out. Opt in. Opt down. Allow for frequency, subject matter, mail and phone switches, and—most certainly—third-party data sharing suppression if that applies. Retailers are excellent leaders in this area: Crate & Barrel, Williams-Sonoma, L.L. Bean each offer preference centers on their respective Web sites. Likewise, segmenting stakeholders and sending targeted emails to each segment helps to prevent non-responsive email. Why is this green? McAfee, the provider of security software, recently reported that each legitimate email (sending and receipt) generates approximately 4 grams of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas associated with climate change. FYI: One of my clients, Harte-Hanks, offers an excellent white paper on designing online preference centers.
  4. Open up the suggestion box. Web 3.0 and accountability go hand in hand. There’s no one path to environmental responsibility, so let customers, vendors and other stakeholders help. Brands should tell their sustainable story online—enable audiences to post suggestions and engage an internal team to evaluate all of them. Talk with suppliers—not just about green IT, but ways to procure power, print, paper, packaging, office supplies and other workplace necessities. Environmental pursuits—and their tie-in to business success—shouldn’t be kept a secret. By sharing objectives and outcomes with customers and vendors, there is higher chance of success—and transparency is achieved.

The lesson here: like print, digital communications have an environmental footprint. As marketers, if we seek sustainability for our enterprises, and if we wish to communicate such objectives to our many stakeholders with credibility, these impacts need to be assessed, measured and managed accordingly in the very communications process itself.

“Consider the environment before you print this electronic message.” Yes, consider it—thoroughly!

Digital Marketers Abuzz About WSJ Article Slamming Web Tracking

Unless you live under a rock, you’ve probably already heard about or read a July 30 Wall Street Journal article called “The Web’s  New Gold Mine: Your Secrets.”

Unless you live under a rock, you’ve probably already heard about or read a July 30 Wall Street Journal article called “The Web’s New Gold Mine: Your Secrets.”

In case you haven’t, the article — which offers findings from a study conducted by the Journal that assesses and analyzes cookies and other surveillance technology that companies are deploying on internet users — paints a very ugly picture of online marketers and web tracking companies.

The study reveals that the “tracking of consumers has grown both far more pervasive and far more intrusive than is realized by all but a handful of people in the vanguard of the industry.” For example, the nation’s 50 top websites, on average, installed 64 pieces of tracking technology onto the computers of visitors, usually with no warning. A dozen sites each installed more than a hundred.

The study also found that tracking technology is getting smarter and more intrusive. “Monitoring used to be limited mainly to ‘cookie’ files that record websites people visit,” the article said. “But the Journal found new tools that scan in real time what people are doing on a Web page, then instantly assess location, income, shopping interests and even medical conditions. Some tools surreptitiously re-spawn themselves even after users try to delete them.”

Finally, the report found that “these profiles of individuals, constantly refreshed, are bought and sold on stock-market-like exchanges that have sprung up in the past 18 months.”

For the online ad industry, this article comes at an inopportune time. Reps. Rick Boucher (D-Va.) and Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) have drafted privacy legislation, the Senate held a hearing last week on the subject, and the Federal Trade Commission is preparing to release a report this fall.

As expected, the digital marketing industry is riled, with online ad industry execs reassuiring the public that they provide clear notice, allow users to opt out of ad targeting and don’t collect users’ names. One article that was particularly on target about the importance of advertisers coming clean on how they use consumer data was by BlueKai CEO Omar Tawakol.

In the article, which appeared in the Aug. 2 edition of Advertising Age, Tawakol says, “every web page that collects or shares data should be clear and visual about the data being collected. This disclosure needs to be simple and visual rather than in legalese that requires a law degree to comprehend. It should be as simple as a recycling label or a nutrition label. In addition to providing disclosure, the industry should also give consumers easy control over when, where, why and how that dataset is used.” He also suggested the following:

  • Every publisher of data should link to a preference manager at the bottom of each page called “about advertising.”
  • Every ad should have a standard icon like the little ‘i’ icon created by the Future of Privacy Foundation. That icon should link to a preference manager which shows you how to control your own data.
  • There are several different versions of preference managers like BlueKai, including Google, Better Advertising and Yahoo. Although one standard is preferable, choice isn’t a bad thing — even if it means different companies provide different ways for consumers to visualize their data.
  • Once this is prevalent, legislators should mandate that the only way publishers and ad companies are allowed to share consumer data across third parties is if they conform to the industry standards on transparency and control that are outlined above.

All great ideas … but there’s more to the story. In next week’s blog, I’ll introduce another argument to the mix: the growing number of sites where users volunteer the information that cookies try to collect.

What do you think of the WSJ article? Post your comments below.