Social impact is a buzzword that has been bandied about a lot lately – businesses are throwing out claims willy-nilly and hoping to attract more customers, and better employees, as a result.
But how can we tell when the claims are legitimate? How can we differentiate between those that are affecting genuine social change and those that are simply jumping on the bandwagon? And if we are one of the authentic ones, how can we prove it?
It is vital that businesses are held accountable for their claims of social impact. We need to ensure that social impact in business doesn’t become another unfortunate case of ‘greenwashing’ when brands jump on the eco movement without any authenticity. Social impact cannot become another marketing gimmick; it is too important.
Social impact mapping, or measuring, allows us to validate a brand’s claim about social impact. It means that businesses will be held accountable, and we also have a way of proving our own legitimacy.
As the second instalment of a two-part blog series on social impact for regional brands (read our first one here), this article will offer up a step-by-step process to prove your social worth to employees, stakeholders and customers.
Why should brands measure their social impact?
Consumers are tired of being hoodwinked by ‘social’ marketing claims. Companies make ambiguous claims about their lofty ambitions, with no real processes or checks-in place.
We’ve seen it with tags such as ‘organic’, ‘sustainably sourced’ and ‘natural’ in our foods, and ‘environmentally friendly’, ‘recyclable’ and ‘biodegradable’ in our products. The ACCC’s recent greenwashing internet sweep found that 57% of businesses they checked were making potentially misleading claims. When that happens, consumer confidence is eroded.
Social impact is at risk of a similar fate. It is vital that brands use social impact mapping to uphold a level of validity and transparency to maintain consumer and public trust. Being able to provide clear data to back up your claims will help you to integrate your social impact into your brand’s marketing strategy in a more authentic way.
If your social purpose is a key value of your brand, then you will also want to know how to measure your team’s performance in this area, as you do with any KPI. This will help your brand leaders to see what is being done well and where there is room for improvement. The International Association for Impact Assessment (IAIA) suggests that social impact assessment isn’t just about recording the good stuff but ‘analysing, monitoring and managing’ both intended and unintended social consequences, whether positive or negative.
The barriers to measuring social impact
No standardised approach
It’s no secret that measuring social impact can be a challenge in business. The Australian Social Value Bank (ASVB) explains that there is currently no accepted standardised approach to social impact measurement. This means that organisations need to either engage experts to assist them, which can be expensive, or manage the process in-house, which can be time-intensive and require skills and expertise beyond their staff’s capabilities. This can be a particular barrier for regional brands.
Measuring social impact is complex. How do you measure, for instance, your organisation’s impact on such broad issues as poverty or mental health? You may be making small gains and steady progress, but on a larger scale, you are simply scratching the surface.
The IAIA suggests that social impact encompasses changes to people’s way of life, their culture, their community, their political systems, their environment, their health and wellbeing, their personal and property rights, and/or their fears and aspirations. Consider how challenging each of these would be to measure.
How to map your brand’s social impact
Because there is no standardised practice for mapping social impact, it will be up to you to devise a strategy that best measures its specific area of impact. This also means that social impact strategies will be vastly different between companies.
Here are some best practices to help guide the social impact mapping process for your regional brand.
1. Select a framework
Just as a house depends on its foundations and frames to hold it all together, so too will your social impact assessment depend on its framework. This will act as a guide to help your brand not only develop its strategy and identify its key goals (also known as benchmarks or metrics), but also measure its ongoing performance.
Ideally, you want to select a framework as your very first step. You can choose from the many options already created by institutions and academics around the world. For example, you may have seen ‘B Corp Certified’ written on certain brand’s products. This indicates they are using a B Impact Assessment to measure and manage their impact performance.
Alternatively, your brand can develop its own framework. A quick search online will offer many different models on which you can base your framework, such as the Theory of Change, which identifies long-term goals and the conditions that will be necessary to achieve those.
When thinking about your social impact strategy, Michelle DiSabato suggested on Benevity’s The Social Impact Show that it can be helpful to identify your brand’s mission (who you are) and vision (what it will look like when you achieve that mission). Then you can work out how your chosen program areas might contribute to society and your business goals.
For example, Michelle once had a client in the hotel industry who used its hiring program to benefit both its social impact and its business objectives. The hotel group made a decision to hire local staff and offer great job training opportunities, which helped to win over the small local community, who may have otherwise been cautious about this big global chain taking over. Talk about a win-win.
2. Choose your metrics
You may have heard these referred to as indicators, metrics, benchmarks or KPIs. These are the standards you set for your brand, which can act as targets and help give an indication of your social impact performance.
Start small and measure just a few metrics to begin with. Keeping your program very focused will help you to easily identify which metrics you should be using, which will, in turn, make your social impact easier to measure.
As discussed in the first article of this series, wellbeing is an important metric of social impact. Resources such as the free digital tool Workplace Wellbeing Assessment or other online resources may help you measure your brand’s performance in this area.
3. Establish baseline data
Foundational – or baseline – data serves as a critical benchmark that will allow you to evaluate your program's impact. It does this by offering you a comparative snapshot of conditions before and after the program’s execution. Without this baseline data, you won’t have the information you need to quantify your success or make adjustments or improvements.
4. Assign methods to collect data
Quantitative data is numbers-based and most likely collected through your technology systems, e.g. how many people your program reached. Qualitative data is information that cannot be easily measured, e.g. the personal impacts of your brand’s program.
Qualitative data is useful when measuring social impact and can be great for your brand’s marketing strategy. Personal stories can make stronger connections than numbers ever will. This kind of data will also be useful for repurposing content, such as using it in your company’s blogs, e-newsletters and even an animation or video.
5. Collate and organise the data
Finally, you will need to analyse the data. Put it into a spreadsheet and then use it to create graphs and charts, to help communicate how your brand’s performance measured up to the metrics. Are there any trends? What is working? And what isn’t? Be honest about your genuine social impact – even if it’s not the result you were expecting.
6. Share your data with your stakeholders
Next, you need to think about communicating your social impact performance with stakeholders, staff and consumers. Infographics and animated graphics are particularly helpful, particularly when using them as part of your social media strategy.
7. Regularly review framework and metrics
As Michelle DiSabato notes, “Measurement is really an art and not a science”. Be flexible to changing the metrics or tweaking the framework as needed, depending on what is or isn’t working, or if your business goals change over time.
Social impact strategies shouldn’t be rigid and unchanging. So, evaluate your framework at least every three to five years and be open to change and growth.