Measure what you should - not what you can

Spark, our new publication designed to ignite and inspire fresh thinking, explores measurement across communications disciplines. Does better measurement inevitably lead to better communications? Or are metrics a distraction from building inspiring, enlightening and engaging messages? In this article we’ll explore how to improve performance in sustainability communication.

This article initially appeared in Spark, issue #1. Download the full report here


Sustainability - Driving maximum value from sustainability communications


Being a responsible corporate citizen has long since ceased to be an aspiration for good businesses; it’s a basic expectation. Businesses with shoddy practices can manage OK in the short to medium term but there are fewer places to hide and expectations are constantly increasing. The Volkswagen emissions affair was devastating not only to the company, but also for sustainability in general. VW’s change in senior management and commitment to leave no stone unturned is a start in the recovery of its reputation.

Reputations can be rebuilt

If VW successfully comes out of the affair remade anew it won’t be the first business to do so. Nike, now held up (with a great deal of justification) as a modern leader in sustainability, was the subject of boycotts in the 1990s for conditions in its factories. Since then Nike has built a reputation for ever-increasing transparency; even publishing an interactive map of its factory locations with employee data and factory audit details. MerchantCantos hopes VW will follow Nike’s lead and regain
its once-impressive reputation.

Quality sustainability reporting creates value

It’s common sense that investors would want to gain a greater understanding of opportunities and risks in their portfolio companies and 2014 PwC research has indicated over 85% of investors wanted clear links between strategic goals, risks, KPIs and financials.

Measurement of communication is often a lesser priority

Surprisingly, given the amount of communication in sustainability, the impact of communications has been somewhat left behind. While we wouldn’t advocate losing focus on impact, clear measures of success for communications are a valuable start point for ensuring they are the match of your impact.

Maximising the value of sustainability communications

While basic metrics such as report downloads or page visits are of limited use in isolation, their ready availability makes them great for trend spotting. Social media offers both an excellent channel for your content and a wealth of data; beyond measures of views and reach, you can establish what content your audiences really engage with through retweets, likes or discussion on internal platforms like Tibbr and Yammer. Beyond this is where the fun starts; are you using your materiality process for engagement as well as insight? Are you using creative tools such as infographics or video to make the most of content generated for your reporting? If you want to turn content into real communications we would love to hear from you.

What’s perhaps less obvious (but clearly indicated by the research) is that good quality reporting can generate tangible financial value. Almost three quarters of CEOs have said that reporting the impact of social, environmental, fiscal and economic activity contributes to long-term success. Investors said much the same thing; almost two in every three investors believed the quality of reporting could impact the cost of capital and a separate EY report in 2015 found that three in five investors consider sustainability reports either essential or important in making investment decisions.

Sustainability professionals tend to focus on sustainability impact

An unseemly proportion of the sustainability professionals MerchantCantos meet are obsessive about data. Data quality, confidence levels, comparability and reporting intervals are the stuff of many a discussion and sustainability measurement becomes more sophisticated, more robust and more granular every year. As a profession we usually focus on what our businesses actually do – getting more effective, more accurate and higher impact metrics, moving from inputs such as cash invested; to outputs such as projects delivered; from outcomes such as beneficiaries’ gains in skills; to impacts such as an increase in long-term employment rates.

Download the full report here