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How sustainable is your digital content marketing?

Published Jan 05, 2024 – By Kasey Cwalina

In our rapidly advancing digital age, the shift to online platforms and, in our industry, digital marketing, is often perceived as a step towards a more sustainable future. After all, we’ve been made to believe that paper is the problem. So, problem solved, right? Unfortunately not. Behind the sleek screens and paperless processes lies a hidden truth: digital marketing, too, leaves a substantial carbon footprint on our planet.

At the heart of any digital marketing strategy lies not only great content, but an extensive network of data centres, the unsung heroes—or rather, villains—of our interconnected digital lives. Data centres, often called server farms, are essential for storing and processing colossal amounts of our data, and as a result, demand massive quantities of electricity for their operation and maintenance. This means that each time we upload our files to the cloud, engage in virtual meetings and immerse ourselves in digital content, data centres are working tirelessly behind the scenes to process and store our data.

While the convenience of cloud storage has become integral to our daily routines, the infrastructure supporting these services, and upon which we rely for our digital and social media marketing, exacts a hefty toll on the planet. The cloud's carbon footprint now surpasses that of the entire airline industry, and a single data centre can consume an amount of electricity equivalent to 50,000 homes. Of course, the transition to digital platforms has undeniably reduced the need for physical travel and minimised the demand for printed materials. But it has simultaneously given rise to a significant environmental cost (that unfortunately doesn’t cancel out).

As modern marketing professionals, the bulk of our daily activities are carried out online, and much of what we create as outputs of our marketing strategy lives in cyberspace – meaning it’s more important than ever to acknowledge the energy-intensive nature of digital content, data centres and digital content production and dissemination. But not to worry. There are plenty of ways that we, as marketing professionals, can make our digital content strategy and content creation more sustainable – so keep reading.

When it comes to sustainable digital content marketing, the little things count

In both our private and professional lives, the first step in making digital content more sustainable is scrutinising the hidden environmental costs of our online activities and exploring ways to mitigate the impact on our planet.

This could translate to any number of things, like spending less time scrolling social media in your free time. After all, an average Instagram post by footballer Cristiano Ronaldo (shared with his 614 million followers) uses as much energy as 10 houses do in a year according to Channel 4’s Dispatches.

In the workplace, reducing your carbon footprint doesn't have to impact the content marketing services you offer. It could simply manifest in sending fewer emails or clearing out your inbox. In fact, OVO Energy found that if every Brit sent one less thank you email a day, we would save 16,433 tonnes of carbon a year – the same as 81,152 flights to Madrid – so it’s important to “think before you thank”.

Creating a sustainable digital content marketing strategy

While individual changes can have a significant impact, the most change will come from companies and organisations taking a top-down approach to their digital content marketing strategy. This requires developing a marketing strategy that not only caters to the right target audience, but also minimises the environmental impact at every stage of content production and dissemination.

Precision is paramount

Tailoring content to resonate with the intended audience helps avoid the generation of irrelevant, energy-consuming content that contributes to digital pollution. As marketers, leveraging data is key to understanding your target audience, ensuring that quality content reaches the right person, using the right media, at the right time, on the right platform.

Reduce, reduce, reduce

Designing efficient email marketing campaigns (that avoid unnecessary data storage), steering clear of large attachments (by utilising platforms like WeTransfer for file sharing) and prioritising purposeful calls to action (that get your reader to the desired action faster) all contribute to a leaner and greener content strategy, and in all likelihood a more successful content marketing campaign too.

Cleaning up databases (by eliminating duplicate or unnecessary data) also minimises energy consumption and carbon emissions. And periodic audits of digital platforms to remove redundant or outdated content, coupled with the prudent use of images and multimedia, further lighten the digital load. This last point may prove difficult in today’s digital age, however, as Generation V’s propensity towards visually-led, energy intensive content (such as video, image, graphics, motion graphics and infographics) continues to rise.

And when it comes to content itself, less is more. Writing a blog post for the sake of it isn't going to produce valuable content, will add to your company's carbon footprint and, if it's not considered ‘helpful content’, it won't do well in terms of search engine optimisation goals either. Make sure you're producing truly relevant content that aligns with your wider content marketing plan.

Strive for carbon neutrality

Moving forward, content marketers should extend their focus beyond content creation to monitor and offset their carbon footprint. Measuring the environmental impact should be part of your marketing strategy and can be achieved through self-assessment or by engaging external organisations, depending on the company’s size and resources. After the evaluation, maximum carbon dioxide indicators should be set for marketing campaigns, paving the way for targeted solutions. At Wardour we are working with consultants to assess our own carbon footprint and to make a plan to reduce it.

Steer clear of greenwashing

As consumers increasingly prioritise environmentally conscious choices (in our case, in their bid to create content), companies need to showcase their commitment to sustainability authentically. Guarding against greenwashing – the deceptive marketing of environmentally friendly practices that are not substantiated – requires genuine efforts.

Get everyone involved

By raising awareness and educating workers about sustainable practices aligned with their digital marketing strategy, companies and marketing agencies ensure that every team member becomes an integral part of the company's commitment to a more eco-friendly and energy-efficient digital ecosystem. Encouraging employees to periodically declutter their mailboxes (particularly messages with images or videos), for example, reflects a commitment to responsible digital habits.

What about paper?

While digital content production and online content undeniably contributes to carbon emissions, paper's environmental impact is a complex equation. Climate for Ideas estimates that paper contributes to 8% of global emissions, whereas IT accounts for 2.7%. However, the stark difference in the life cycle assessments makes direct comparisons challenging when it comes to assessing the environmental impact of your marketing efforts.

Paper's emissions stem predominantly from manufacturing and disposal, while IT's impact is largely tied to electricity consumption during use. Notably, the sustainability of paper is underscored by its renewable nature; trees, the raw material for paper, absorb CO2 as they grow, and responsibly managed forests support this cycle. FSC and PEFC certifications ensure that paper comes from responsibly managed forests that conserve natural habitats and respect the rights of forestry workers and local communities.

Ultimately, the sustainability choice depends on context. If documents are merely glanced through, digital consumption is more sustainable; however, for frequently referenced or shared materials, printing becomes a greener choice. At Wardour we use digital when it makes sense, and paper (only from suppliers with FSC and PEFC certification) when it suits. This, of course, requires planning and weighing the environmental implications of our chosen content type.

Next steps

A careful examination of the ‘paper vs digital’ content debate reveals that both contribute to environmental challenges, with each leaving a notable carbon footprint on our planet. However, as companies navigate this sustainability conundrum, there are actionable steps to adopt greener content strategies. Targeted audience engagement, energy-efficient practices, genuine brand sustainability initiatives and employee education can collectively steer digital content marketing towards environmental responsibility.

Yet, the landscape is evolving, with the advent of big data, machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) raising new concerns about the carbon footprint associated with these new advancements. The environmental impact of AI, particularly in training models, underscores the need for responsible development and a critical evaluation of the industry's current ‘bigger is better’ mindset.

Despite these challenges, however, AI emerges as a potential ally in the fight against climate change, offering innovative solutions such as optimising flight routes, enhancing recycling efforts, combating wildfires and improving climate models. Striking a balance between the ecological implications of digital content marketing and the potential benefits of AI will be pivotal in shaping a sustainable future for the digital space, where engaging content wins.

For support with making your communications more environmentally friendly, email us at hello@wardour.co.uk.

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