How social media is helping make the switch to sustainability
Our new research explores how brands can maximise the power of social media influencers and create content that encourages sustainable living.
Unilever has partnered with one of the world’s leading behavioural science institutions to research the role social media content plays in encouraging people to make sustainable choices.
Working with the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) and a group of nine influential creators from TikTok and Instagram, Dove and Hellmann’s commissioned 30 pieces of inspiring social content about sustainability. These were then tested by BIT to measure their impact on consumers.
Our study’s findings show that social media ranks as one of the most influential sources for information on sustainability, and that influencer content can make people change their behaviour for the better.
- 75% of people polled are more likely to take up behaviours to help save the planet after watching social media content about sustainability.
- 83% think TikTok and Instagram are good places to get advice about how to live sustainably.
- 78% say social media is the information source most likely to encourage them to act more sustainably, much more so than TV documentaries (48%), news articles (37%) and government campaigns (20%).
The science behind the study
This study is the first large-scale, rigorous online trial of its kind. To make it happen, Unilever worked with a team of behavioural scientists at BIT and nine eco-conscious influencers drawn from three key markets (UK, US and Canada).
BIT began by conducting an in-depth review of existing social content being created by activists. Based upon their learnings, they built a set of guidelines for our group of content producers to follow when creating their posts. Working with Dove and Hellmann’s, the TikTok and Instagram creators then crafted content aimed at encouraging people to waste less food and less plastic – two consumer behaviours with real potential to reduce an individual’s carbon footprint. The posts were shared using a platform custom-built by BIT, which simulated a real-world social media experience.
6,000 participants from across the three markets were shown different versions of the content. This was broken down into branded and non-branded material and framed as either ‘climate pragmatist’ or ‘climate optimist’ in tone. Pragmatic content made heavy use of data and statistics, placed an emphasis on the scale of problematic behaviour and highlighted wide-ranging and far-away consequences. Optimistic content gave practical demonstrations of how to live sustainably, emphasised benefits to the individual and often took a humorous or unexpected tone. Alongside this, a stream of neutral content, with no mention of sustainability, was also included within the test materials.
After viewing the content, the participants were asked a series of questions to ascertain whether it had affected their intentions to change their behaviour. Two weeks later, 2,500 reported back on whether they had acted upon these intentions or not.
75% of people polled said that our content made them more likely to adopt sustainable behaviours, from saving and reusing plastic or buying refillable products to freezing and reusing leftovers. When measuring actual behaviour change, the study showed that people valued both facts and practical advice. Almost 70% of people shown ‘pragmatic’ content tried something new to reduce their plastic or food waste after watching, as did 61% who watched the ‘optimistic’ content.
Why we’re excited about the potential power of content creators
This research reflects the shifting information landscape and the need for sustainability-oriented businesses like us to use social media platforms to meet receptive audiences where they already are. It also highlights the fantastic opportunity we have to help encourage sustainable behaviour in our consumer, if we continue to work with key influencers to create inspiring content.
“People are finding it hard to make sustainable choices due to a lack of simple, immediate and trustworthy information,” explains Conny Braams, Unilever’s Chief Digital & Commercial Officer. “Our ambition is to continue to collaborate with our partners to improve the sustainability content produced by our brands and support the creators we work with. Together, we are learning what is all likes and no action versus content that makes sustainable choices simple and preferred.”
The study also revealed that branded content was viewed as just as engaging, authentic and informative as unbranded content, with participants supportive of social media creators making sponsored sustainable content.
This research shows that, by working with content creators to share compelling content on trusted platforms, we have a unique opportunity to highlight the practical environmental solutions already provided by our products, alongside clear messaging about the importance of their use.
“This study is a world-first of its kind and the largest online controlled trial to test the effect of different styles of social media content,” says Professor David Halpern , Chief Executive of the Behavioural Insights Team. “The behaviour change potential of social media is clear and the results show that there’s huge opportunity, providing fertile ground for further exploration in this space.”