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Can (social) media sites for corporate responsibility survive?

I’ve been pondering this question since another media site for sustainability pointed its feet at the sky and said “I’m out”.

This one being JustMeans, the site that ran for a couple of years until recently, when economic reality appears to have kicked in.

If you look at the site now you can clearly see the firm is no longer really in meaningful business.

It’s not the first site of its kind to be launched with some degree of fanfare, and fall by the wayside within two years.

Of course, most of these sites and media entities I have seen come and go in the last decade have all suffered from the same problem: A business model that drives cashflow.

Right now it’s still old school products like subscriptions, conferences and reports that keep us in the black, and give me time to write this blog, plus a bit of ancillary revenue like our live debates, editorial sponsorship and so forth.

The future is online, as every social media pundit pretending to be worth their salt will tell you.

But what does that mean? So far, in classic sustainability sense, ie economic, no-one has worked out how to do it. Lots of people try, but the cashflow escapes them, even if they then delve into face-to-face products, like events, because usually they don’t know that business well enough to make it work.

The attitude often seems to be: “build it and they will come”, but they, particularly in this field, often don’t have much money, and if you don’t have a good product to sell them you’ve really got a problem.

Sustainability, if you can call it a business sector (arguably more a trade!) is not alone of course. All sorts of B2B and B2C websites have come and gone in the last 15 years.

Who might deliver online only and win/survive then?

These guys, the 2 degrees network, seem to think they have a chance.

Their PR firm just called me to ask us to write about them, but lacked any kind of compelling hook, or story to do so.

I know they have a reasonable database already (12,000) but what will make them sustainable?

Recurring subscriptions and corporate deals to drive online networking seems to be the business model.

The plan seems to be to create a kind of LinkedIn for sustainability, with active moderation and ‘working groups’.

These seem to be webinars and hosting corporate content and reports etc, in PDF format.

Of any of the new media businesses I have seen come and go in the space since 2001 (anyone remember Business Ethics magazine, or Tomorrow magazine? Halcyon days..) 2 degrees network may have the best chance of any of them.

The question will be: What do you need to do online that continues to drive in corporate individual cash and business licenses/deals in a sustainable way?

Webinars are known to bore people, and as a stand-alone product don’t really work financially unless sponsored. Alone, they are clearly not enough to sustain a business. Many have tried.

I suppose we’ll find out in the next couple of years. LinkedIn is apparently set soon for an IPO valued at $3.3 billion. But then they have 100 million members.

2 degrees seem to have a huge team, presumably all being paid wages, so cashflow must be a pressing concern.

I hear Tesco has asked suppliers to use it, and no doubt pay to do so. I imagine other large corporates are being given the same pitch.

If it works, it could be very interesting. But busy executives need a reason to engage online, even in a private forum.

The question is, can a website log-in compete with a conference call or phyical meeting? I have my doubts at the moment.

Good luck to them if they can make it work. Not sure I would put my money into such a firm right now, but we’ll see what happens.

7 Comments

  1. You might want to check out the below and think twice about keeping this blog posted, especially given that there are no representations that you do not speak for Ethical Corp, you just opened your firm up to a serious libel suit, I'd hope the folks from Justmeans don't read this before you take it down:

    http://www.urban75.org/info/libel.html

  2. Thanks for your comment "friend of ethical corp".

    I have considered that angle, but I'm comfortable with what I have written and I do know the law.

    We've nearly been sued a few times, I'm prepared to wear that risk because I do believe in free speech. That sounds horribly pompous but if I wanted to be a muzzled flack for someone I'd join a PR firm.

    If someone wants to sue us, let them do so. I'm comfortable with that risk.

    I don't know where you are in the world, since you are anonymous, but here in the UK we've had enough of spurious libel lawsuits and corporate gagging.

    Injunctions, super injunctions. Stuff and nonsense. The truth will out, and responses are valued, not gags.

    An anonymous poster on this blog last year said words to the effect of: "word on the street is Ethical corp is bust".

    Rather than track down their IP address and sue them, (and I know who it was) I posted their post on the blog, verbatim, and wrote about our financials honestly.

    Suing is for wimps, ego-mad rich people and spineless celebrities. I say bring it on. Debate is for adults. Let's debate.

  3. Great post. And 100% correct on assumption that 'build it and they will come' – everyone seems to assume that as long as they have a FB profile or Twitter account, they're laughing. It's something stupid like 70% of corporate Twitter accounts are actually inactive, or basically regurgitate RSS feeds.

    The issue around sustainability on social media is one of risk I suppose – the stakes are massively high if you either don't engage (@BPGlobalPR anyone) or you engage and 'oversell' what you're doing. There are plenty of NGOs who will jump on that and annihilate you.

  4. Tony – I will lead a session on social media and boards tomorrow at IMD, ranked as top executive education business school by The Financial Times, The Economist and Forbes. Below are a few points I ask them to consider, which I think are relevant to this discussion. Sincere regards, – Nadine B. Hack, IMD Executive-in-Residence

    As a board member you must assure that the company’s senior management plans carefully and systematically for any social media activity they initiate.

    It should be well-coordinated, have clear rules, train employees on norms, articulate a consistent corporate message, measure performance and more.

    As a board member do you know if senior management knows its objectives for social media: Increased sales? Innovation? Brand awareness? Product support? Public relations? Recruitment? …other?

    Do they also have careful implementation including accessibility, consistency, portfolio management, code of conduct, strategic alignment, crisis management?

  5. Hey Toby,

    I agree that 2degrees is an exciting online platform for advancing sustainability. I want to point you to another site, OpenEyeWorld.com, a sustainability expert engagement platform whose mission is not to REPLACE good ol' fashioned conference calls and physical meetings, but to AUGMENT and COMPLEMENT such in-person engagement. It's not either/or — it's both/and.

    Specifically, I encourage you and your readers to participate in the "Sustainability Chat" I'm curating (as an OpenEyeWorld Advisor) on "Sustainability Reporting Best Practices" with 3 discussion streams (Assurance, Interactive Technology, and Standards & Reporting) facilitated by prominent CSR experts (Deborah Leipziger, Elaine Cohen, James Farrar, Mark Line, Paul Scott, Tom Raftery, and Michael Beutler). It's an asynchronous dialogue happening May 31 – June 2, so you can chime in whenever you have a chance. You can register here:

    http://www.openeyeworld.net/sustychat/2

    I know that Deborah is posting her article on Standards in Ethical Corp as a resource to inform the discussion, and Mark Line is quoting you on the relative dearth of assurance in his opening remarks.

    I think I know you well enough to trust you'll make your own independent assessment of the value of this kind of exchange, and I think you know me well enough to consider this an invitation to learn, and not just trolling/spam.

    Thanks, and I look forward to the possibility of exchanging views with you on the #SustyChat (the Twitter hashtag for following the event.)

    Best,
    Bill Baue

  6. Toby,

    Thank you for bringing our attention to this important side of CSR, i.e. that besides having a social angle, any serious effort should be economically sustainable. From your article and commments, there seem to be only two business models out there: publisher (making most profits through online or real conferences), and communities (which offer similar conferences, webinars, etc.).

    Making sure that you are marketing to a need (real or at least perceived), should be the rational for any business effort. Furthermore, possibly the business will not end up selling the product/service that you originally envisaged.

    Best regards,

    @gastonbilder

    PS: as a lawyer, just because you could prevail in a libel lawsuit doesn't mean you should not try to prevent one. If your objective is to have a debate, you could still achieve it without taking any risks (legal / reputational) arising from being potentially exposed to a lawsuit.

  7. social media There is no comparison to have a chat, drinking a coffee, and sharing time just talking about different things.. that is life.. but unfortunately, our students don't do that, and the computer is the only connection to the world, but what world? a real world?

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