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  • Writer's pictureMichel Mahieu

Can Online Conversational Data Help Save Our Planet?

I recently watched David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet. What an incredible documentary! In an hour and a half I marvelled, I wept, I pondered, and I pumped my fists at the notion that there is hope for the survival of our planet.

During a recent camping expedition in the wilderness, I gave David Attenborough’s ideas some thought. He touched on something very interesting in the documentary. Over the years, he has pushed the message of “saving our planet”, however in this documentary, as he walks past the buildings that have become consumed by forest in Chernobyl since the departure of its human inhabitants, he shifts instead to a message of “saving ourselves”. He suggests that, contrary to what many believe, our planet will survive the impact of humanity and will eventually recover. It is the human race that will likely die out as a result of our actions. I do not purport to understand the science and research that supports this insight, but David Attenborough may be onto something.

But would this different angle be more effective in changing behaviours? What do humans really care about and what will get us to change our habits? The reality is that we are all different, and different messages will resonate with different people. In this article I will look at how we can use conversational data to help ensure that the right messages are communicated to the right audiences to make the biggest impact.

Identifying Audience Clusters

Messaging can shift people’s mindsets, but it only works if the communications really focus on something people personally care about. The reality is, if people don’t see a direct negative impact on their personal daily life, climate change is unlikely to be a priority. As such, sending a blanket message to the world would be the easiest approach, but it is unlikely to be effective.

Let’s take, for example, a small farm owner who can barely put food on the table for his family. The damage caused by plastic straws in the ocean is probably not high on his priority list. However, a more important topic for a person in this position could be the increase in droughts in his region, which impacts the growth of the crops on the family farm which is intended to be the primary source of food and income for his children, grandchildren, and the generations to come. For another person, the movements on the stock market might seem more pressing than a rainforest on a different continent, but drawing that person’s attention to the economic impact that climate change could be having on the stability of the stock market might evoke a more tangible response.

So, we need to understand what it is that people care about and circle back to that. One of the ways we can do this is to monitor what conversations are being had online across different geographies, and there are tools that allow us to do this, right down to specific coordinates. The example in the image below shows a breakdown of “CO2 emission” conversations versus “plastic straws” conversations around Europe for the past 30 days, and it is interesting to note how different the topic split is across various countries. We can monitor themes of conversation within different areas and identify insights that unveil what people within that country or region really care about when it comes to these areas. There is also the ability to break down audiences in different geographies by demographics and behavioural attributes, which will help in generating more defined audience clusters to target.


Monitoring of trends

Now, we can do research into different audiences and execute plans to reach them, but we always need to keep in mind that perceptions and priorities constantly change. COVID-19 has also impacted many people’s views, especially about the future of humanity and the environment. We need to be consistently monitoring conversations and adapting messaging based on what the present scenario and prevailing views are at any given time, to ensure that maximum advantage is taken of topical issues. For example, for a certain period much was made of the impact that the reduced air-traffic had on CO2 emissions. Monitoring this data in real-time is possible, and in fact messaging can be dynamic and automated in today’s world, making it even simpler to stay in step with current trends. I recently posted a basic example of this automated dynamic messaging, which you can find here.

Finding Influencers and Advocates

Everyone has their heroes and role models that they look up to, and many of these people genuinely care about the state of the environment. Yes, there is David Attenborough, who has millions of followers, but we also see famous actors, pop stars and fashion models getting heavily involved in promoting environmental awareness, including the likes of Leonardo diCaprio and Gisele Bündchen. There are also micro influencers, who in many cases are even more influential within their communities than popular celebrities. They also often have diverse types of audiences and know exactly how to effectively communicate with them. There are tools that allow us to identify these micro influencers, who are generally more approachable and open to collaborations with organisations than the more high-profile celebrities. Data has shown that influencer campaigns, when done right, can be extremely effective.

Measuring impact of communications

After identifying an audience and executing a campaign or messaging, it is key to measure the impact of communications using a consistent measurement framework. For example, big environmental organisations should be able to ascertain whether a campaign generated positive conversations, whether it provoked further action and engagement, and, in the longer-term, whether it resulted in lower pollution levels or waste in different areas. The below graph illustrates how responses and emotional reactions to topics and campaigns can be monitored over time, and these types of results can be valuable in assessing whether to repeat or modify a messaging strategy.


If we harness the power of data to identify the most impactful messaging angle and the most effective proponents of that message for a particular audience, and continually monitor and adapt the messaging to keep in step with prevailing views, we can really use conversational data to help our environment. I am hoping my kids and grandkids will have the privilege of experiencing time in the wilderness the way I have, and be able to see a polar bear or lion in real life and not just in old video footage. As dire as the state of our environment may seem, there is hope that this will be possible.


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