Sustainability and the hidden cost of your media inefficiency

This post is by Chris Sewell, Business Director at TrinityP3. Chris has a wide ranging knowledge of all areas of the advertising and procurement world and specialises in helping companies understand the environmental impact of their marketing spend. 

For many years, CPM (‘Cost Per Mille’, otherwise known as cost per thousand as a dollar value) has been a staple metric used to calculate media efficiency and develop media plans.

That’s all well and good. But as we move into a carbon constrained future, there’s a growing argument which holds that the carbon cost of communication will become a much more important consideration in media planning and buying.

Sustainability and media

At first glance this hidden cost might not seem significant. But as the media market fragments, the carbon footprint of buying media inexorably grows.

Take television as an example. As the number of available channels grows (7, 9, 10, the affiliated ‘free to air digital’ channels within those networks, as well as the multifarious channel offering on Foxtel), so the audience fragments, and therefore becomes harder to reach.

This means that TV buyers, as time goes on, need to buy more individual TV spots to hit the same number of people.

Add to this the requirement of multiple frequency (the number of times an individual sees a commercial) often inherent in a low-CPM strategy, and suddenly, the amount of times that your TV ad needs to run has significantly increased, even in the last five years.

Oh, and did I mention multi-screen strategies? Yes, the fragmentation of TV extends beyond… well, beyond TV. People are watching on their mobile devices, on their computers, on their tablets… all of which offers more options for the media buyer to serve an advertisement.

And this is just TV related video content, you understand. I haven’t even touched on the broader internet yet.

So, in summary, the requirement for low CPM, coupled with the intense fragmentation of the landscape, ultimately causes a big bump in the carbon emissions caused by the same advertisement being placed many more times that it ever has been before.

Making the Right Strategic Choice

Let’s take a look at some of the choices being made here – not just from a carbon emissions perspective, but from a simple strategic viewpoint.

The biggest challenge is that with screen-based advertising, it’s so much harder to see, or even to think about, the potential effect on carbon emissions being caused by the advertising strategy. Thus it becomes much easier, environmentally speaking, to pursue a low-CPM, high frequency strategy.

Ask yourself a question; would you print 10 times as many brochures to hand out as there were potential customers who walked down your street?

Would you put a 48-sheet poster up and flood light it at night in a street with little traffic and completely the wrong customer demographic for your product or service?

In both of these examples it is easy to see the waste and how that can be translated into carbon emission waste that the advertiser has chosen to expend with little commercial return.

The run-on cost for the extra brochures brought the cost per copy down but the embedded carbon in the paper and the extra electricity (nearly always coal fired equaling carbon emissions) used by the printing machinery creates a larger carbon footprint.

Equally the out-door company may well have supplied the extra ‘bonus site’ as part of a negotiated package of sites that do fit your customer profile. In this case the carbon is created both by the extra printing and the power used to light it up at night.

Don’t think that ‘Going Digital’ is the Panacea to your Sustainability Future

As I’ve said; the carbon emissions are not obviously staring you in the face when we start to look at waste in the world of screen advertising. But the principles are exactly the same.

Spots, clicks, views or links all have a measurable carbon footprint from both the delivery and the consumption of the messaging. Yes, each individual digital action only equates to a small amount of CO2 but the digital universe is so vast that the numbers easily become very large so wasting a large percentage of this creates its own carbon problem.

To provide more context around the issue, let’s look at Twitter as an advertising medium.

When communicating to customers via this channel the carbon emitted is the marketer’s responsibility. Each Tweet that is composed and sent generates .05 grams of carbon. Small fry? Maybe, until you consider the sheer volume of tweets going out (with the accompanying marketing communication).

Based on total volume, Twitter accounts for 250 tonnes of carbon a day and rising. If there were a policy of offsetting all this carbon then sending these tweets would cost around $2 million dollars a year!  

LED Lighting and Recycling aren’t the ‘Be All and End All’ of an Environmental Policy

You can see that this carbon inefficiency would be a problem for an environmentally aware business. On one hand to promote a lean and sustainable image to the world at large but on the other hand doing so in a wasteful manner could be viewed as a bit hypocritical and also be a major risk to the brand’s reputation.

My prediction is that, eventually, the marketing efforts of organisations will start to be held accountable for their carbon emissions, just as other parts of an organisation are today. Consumers will only grow more aware of the environmental problems being created.

So what, as marketers, can you do?

Well – you could consider adding carbon efficiency, at a set per-unit level, alongside other metrics such as CPM. This, I recognise, is a difficult sell, that will not necessarily be evident to the consumer, unless you choose to publish it.

But it could bring marketing into line with your corporate carbon emission policy – and potentially, it could give you a reason to make a business case for additional marketing dollars to spend in an eco-friendly way.

But when all’s said and done, a re-calibration of your approach in this space is not purely commercial. It’s for businesses that understand that sustainability is not just about recycling in the office, it is a whole of business best practice approach, one which takes into account the overall effects of all business activities, including the promotion of brands, products or services.

My view as a specialist in this area is that marketing needs to grab its own environmental reigns to ensure long-term business survival. It won’t happen overnight, but organisations that wish to be competitive ten to fifteen years from now have to have a robust sustainability plan – which includes bringing their long-term business suppliers, such as agencies, along with them.

I’ve scratched the surface of a large topic here. To learn more, you have two options. First, a more comprehensive explanation of the impacts of the various channels can be found on the TrinityP3 Webinar Series: The challenges for Marketers in a carbon constrained future. There are also some very practical case studies.

Alternatively, you can contact TrinityP3 today and ask us about conducting an environmental opportunity mapping exercise to see what steps you need to start putting into place, in context of the unique requirements present in your business.

TrinityP3’s Sustainable Marketing Assessment provides a detailed evaluation of how your marketing strategy aligns with the required sustainability policy of your organisation. 

Why do you need this service? Read on to understand more

About Chris Sewell

Christopher Sewell is a TrinityP3 Business Director specializing in helping companies understand the environmental impact of their marketing spend. He is also the CEO of The Gaia Partnership who is building an on-line application ‘CO2counter’ to measure carbon emissions in all forms of marketing communications. Read his full bio here

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