Girl using mobile smart phone. social media. shutterstock

Dr Hanne Knight is a Lecturer in Marketing at Plymouth Business School. She is the programme lead for the Master of Science degree in digital and social media marketing and also the leader for modules in digital marketing at undergraduate and postgraduate levels. She has degrees from universities in the UK and the Netherlands and her doctoral thesis explored whether businesses communicating their green and sustainability credentials has a positive impact on business performance.

To find out more about Dr Knight’s research and work, please contact her via email.


Social media can be an impactful and cost-effective way for businesses to engage with customers. It can be especially helpful for small business owners trying to get their business on to potential customers’ radar. With evidence suggesting that many of today’s ethically conscious consumers make purchasing choices based on a business’ sustainability credentials, I explore how small businesses can highlight these credentials through social media channels. I also investigate how such social media activity can help businesses engage with their existing customer base while also supporting marketing efforts to attract new customers.

On point

I look at how businesses, especially Small and Medium Sized Enterprises (SMEs), can use social media channels to communicate their sustainability messages to existing and potential customers.
I am now researching the different approaches businesses use to espouse their sustainability credentials and, in future, I hope to identify how social media channels support the communication of impactful and credible sustainability messages. Communicating these credentials can be a huge benefit to small businesses, yet many need to do more to promote their sustainability efforts better online.

Many SMEs in the South West have made real progress in reducing their environmental footprint and have taken positive steps to counter climate change. Despite this, most are not promoting and communicating their efforts successfully. Nowadays, consumers, and especially young consumers, look for and want to buy from a brand that takes sustainability seriously.

Many businesses know they need to engage with social media. Some find it tempting to outsource their social media operation and to pay others to tweet and post on their behalf. This is often not the most successful, cost-effective approach. SMEs need to do the front-end thinking on how to take advantage of social media platforms and really make it work for them and support their strategy. I consider three elements to be particularly important.

Truth be told

Firstly, social media channels facilitate the speedy sharing of information and messages across a wide audience. It can also help business build a stronger connection with their customers. To have impact and forge a genuine connection with customers, these messages need to be credible.

SMEs must think carefully about what information they share on social media. Their claims need to be honest and their social media voice and narrative authentic. Credible evidence and sources of information need to back up each claim.

No-one wants to face accusations of spreading fake news or of greenwashing. Where information cannot be evidenced, social media channels can cruelly expose this. Businesses can be called out in the online space, potentially causing a backlash and threatening their survival.

Once upo a time

Secondly, storytelling is important. Humans construct and respond to compelling narratives. 

Work to make business operations more sustainable can become extremely powerful when placed in context. Stories are memorable if they demonstrate how a business evolved its thinking to develop a sustainable solution; or how it built on its eco-friendly heritage over several generations; or how a family business developed a no-waste ethos.

Leaders and marketeers need to communicate how a business’ sustainability journey evolved, illustrating how they reached, or are working towards, specific sustainability goals.

Knowing me, knowing you

The third important factor is for an SME (and indeed any business) to know who their audience in the online space is. When I talk to small business leaders, most know their real world customers, but virtual customers are more of an enigma!

There’s an incorrect assumption that social media users are all young or that young people have ditched Facebook. Social media demographics show that Facebook is not the younger crowd’s platform of first choice, but many still use it. Pinterest, for instance, has a predominantly female user base and is currently the most product-focused of the social media channels.

It is important to align the social media channel with the product or service being promoted. Businesses and marketeers need to know who their audience is, where to find them and how to reach them: is it through blogs, Instagram or Tik Tok? How does their audience’s journey to sustainable purchasing align with the business’ sustainable positioning and ethos?

Back to basics

Businesses need to be strategic about their use of social media. 

Many business owners and managers argue it is difficult to find the time. It is no use outsourcing social media activity and thinking, ‘box ticked, that’s sorted for the next five years’ and paying agencies to manage all their posts and tweets. Social media is constantly evolving. Companies need to develop a strategy and approach to their social media use and engagement. Content needs to be compelling, creative and eye-catching.

Not fearing the worst

I counsel small businesses not to fear social media. 

We have all heard of stories where things have gone wrong. This has made people reluctant to use it. It can be a challenge to take that fear away, a sense of ‘fools rush in where angels fear to tread’. Ironically, social media channels can often be the most direct way for small businesses to recover customers.

If a business is receiving many complaints on its Facebook page or Twitter feed, we would never recommend that it should ignore them, disable posts or tweets or shut down its social media presence. Instead, they can use their response on these platforms to demonstrate attentive, responsive and caring customer service or to reinforce their brand messages.

The key is to use social media channels strategically, to identify how these channels can complement other activity in customer services, operations, marketing or PR. People are spending more and more time online. It’s a place to find customers. While it may seem daunting at first, going green with confidence and demonstrating that in the social media space can boost business performance.