Changing trends in the conversations surrounding earth day and the environment
by Hephzibah Dutt on April 30, 2022
From postponed weddings to the cancellation of international sporting events, the onset of the pandemic derailed events, movements, and agendas across the globe. For some, (like Tokyo’s ghost-town version of the Olympics) there are no redos. Others, like BTS and numerous entertainers, are literally getting their show back on the road in 2022. As Earth Month, April 2022, neared its end, we decided to listen in on whether the critical global health priorities of 2020-2021 also wreaked havoc on the conversations surrounding environmental action.
In the midst of the pandemic, shortages, and resultant inflation, do people still care about the fate of Planet Earth? What does social data reveal about who these folks are, or how they feel about the current climate of environmental action (pun absolutely intended)? The short answer: Yes, people still care about the environment. But like everything these days, it’s not the same as it used to be. The conversation has seen some significant changes – from the volume of social media posts, to the top platforms that have become home to environmental hot-topics.
So, how do we – our brands, campaigns, company, messaging – adapt to join these conversations in a post-2020 scenario? We dove into the conversations surrounding Earth Day and critical environmental topics which unfolded on social media over the past three years. Here, we reveal three insights from social listening, and unpack how they may affect how you reach audience members who care about the environment.
1. Pursue topical analyses alongside trends for more contextualized insight
Analyzing the conversation around Earth Day over the past three years, we see high volumes of positive, supportive conversations and calls to action. In fact, measuring the sheer volume of the conversation (total posts, mentions, hashtags from around the globe), Earth Day 2020 actually exceeds the 2019 conversation (by nearly 2M posts). The sentiment analysis across all years, including 2020, reveals a high positivity score of 96%.
At first glance, the trends around Earth Day conversations suggest that despite the pandemic, Earth’s guardians have remained vigilantly on standby over the years: they remain hopeful about eco-topics and outcomes, and active about encouraging their peers to plant trees, recycle and conserve resources. The truth is that Earth Day chatter, and thereby social data on “Earth Day,” are not a true reflection of what the social universe has to say about the critical environmental issues affecting the planet today.
First of all, a true analysis of Earth Day conversations reveal extremely time-localized trends: they rise steeply, trending up early each April, only to decline soon after April 22, and remain near-dormant until April of the next year. These “Earth Day peaks,” are a perfect example of how a skimpy dataset and non-contextual query can lead to misleading insights. By stepping back to include critical environmental concerns and issues (such as sustainability, renewable resources, reducing greenhouse gasses, managing carbon footprint, and the ever-growing consequences of climate change), we arrive at insights that offer a comprehensive, contextualized picture of what people are saying, feeling and responding to when it comes to the environmental concerns. Examined over the past three years, this trend tells a very different story:
Conversation volume trends of Earth Day (green) and critical environmental topics (purple) from February 2019 - April 2022 (Graph/Infegy Atlas™)
All signs point to what we expected – that the Coronavirus pandemic did indeed subvert the conversation around critical environmental issues. Beginning in January 2020, conversations about the environment all but ceased. Trend analysis reveals a sudden and drastic drop in conversational volume, declining rapidly through August 2020. The trend continues downward, albeit less rapidly, through February 2021 when it levels off and begins to increase again – only to descend again in November 2021 with the Omicron variant surge. While the discussion is by no means dead today, it has not yet reacquired the presence and focus it had on social media prior to January 2020.
Nevertheless, for those of us planning, strategizing, devising campaigns, and gathering support for positive environmental impact, social listening has given us a dire, but honest perspective of the conversational landscape we’re trying to engage. In fact, a topical analysis of social data reveals that conversation topics have also shifted over the past year. The discussion on plastic waste, water conservation and plants has decreased, but topics such as the role of governments and systemic design are beginning to trend upward.
Another heartening revelation surrounds the increased discussion of greenwashing. According to CBC news writer Mark Ting, greenwashing is “the act of pretending you are doing things to address climate change without actually reducing greenhouse gas emissions.” Social data reveals that public censure and conversation against companies and governments engaged in greenwashing tactics was ignited in early 2020. Despite the health crisis of 2020, online activism and social conversations calling out greenwashing continued to rise.
Topical analysis and heat mapping of the social media conversation on greenwashing from 2019 - 2022. (Graph/Infegy Atlas™)
Given the flux in the conversation, and shifts in how people have been engaging with critical environmental topics since the onset of the pandemic, incorporating topical analyses and adjacent conversations into your social listening analysis will guide you to more accurate and contextual insights into your audiences.
2. Examine channel distribution to find your target audience now, and for the near future.
"Meet your audience where they're at."
With most of our audiences on social media of some kind, this adage is more than a best-practice; it's a budgeting priority! We dove into social data in search of the go-to platform for environmental activists and supporters, and discovered that the conversation has “surfed” from one channel to another since the onset of the pandemic ... and that the tide may shift once again, soon.
In 2019, Twitter was home to 53% of the conversation surrounding critical environment issues. At 23%, Instagram wasn’t even a very close second. Beginning in January 2020, however, channel distribution shows Twitter on a distinct downtrend, while Instagram began trending up. Instagram eventually overtook Twitter as the primary channel for environmental conversations in April 2020 and continued a gentle up-trend.
Critical environmental topics discussion on Twitter (blue) and Instagram (pink) from 2019 - 2022. (Graph/Infegy Atlas™)
Today, Instagram may be the best place to reach earth-champions, and promote eco-friendly entrepreneurship, but if you’re devising strategy for future campaigns, we have an even bigger takeaway for you!
Social data shows that over the past year, users in general are moving from Instagram to TikTok. In order to determine whether this shift includes the environmentally-conscious social media community, it’s necessary to examine conversational trends against channel distributions, using real-time and historical data.
Using Infegy Atlas, we were able to identify a very recent down-trend in the environment-focused conversations on Instagram. It began March 2022, and continued downward through April. This, despite all the social posting and conversation that happened during this Earth Month, signals that the tide of users turning from Instagram to TikTok includes eco-warriors and earth-friendly fans.
Examining the bios of users making this switch from Instagram to TikTok, we found some possible correlations. These users self-identify as (or having interest in) vegan, organic, nature, the world, fashion and shipping.
Our Earth Day exploration is a reminder that social networking sites emerge and evolve on a yearly basis (witness the meteoric rise of TikTok during the pandemic!). A close and constant eye on the channel distribution of conversations relevant to your cause or business will guide your content plan, media and budgeting. For those of us creating campaigns and promotions targeted at environmentally-focused audiences, campaign and creative strategy should prioritize the short-form video messaging typical of Instagram and TikTok users.
3. For true consumer insights and behavior, avoid generational divides and stereotypes
Our Earth Month social data exploration confirmed, once again, that generational stereotypes will lead your audience discovery and messaging astray.
While the 45-65+ age group may not be as vocal online on a typical day, they had a significant presence online on Earth Day 2022, showing up in support of this year’s Earth Day Theme – Invest in our Planet. Social data reveals that conversations from this age group doubled on April 22, 2022, as these users got online to encourage investments that will flourish the earth. In the overall conversation about critical environmental topics, the age group of 35 - 44 owns 20% of the conversation and the 25 - 34 group owns 18%, but they are followed closely by the 55 - 64 and the 65+ age groups at 13% and 14% respectively.
In terms of lifestyle changes that can have a positive impact on the environment, all age groups show strong engagement with the call to “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle,” with 25 - 34 year olds leading the conversation. The age group of 25 - 44 year olds are most interested in high efficiency appliances. While 45 - 54 year olds lead the conversation on home solar investments, it is notable the 65 + age group are not far behind in their interest and engagement with this topic.
Age distribution over various sustainable living conversation topics: electric cars (yellow), high efficiency appliances (orange), home solar (pink), and “reduce, reuse, recycle” (brown). (Graph/Infegy Atlas™)
What we’re seeing is that social data and traditional research both debunk the myth that older generations don’t care about the environment as much as Gen Z. In fact, research conducted by The Policy Institute of King's College and summarized by Prof. Bobby Duffey, author of “Generations,” insists that older generations are just as likely to support big lifestyle changes in order to protect the environment. Case in point: home solar requires a strong financial commitment; social listening data regarding the 45 - 65+ age group’s interest in home solar bears witness to the lifestyle changes and investments older generations are willing to make in pursuit of sustainable energy.
Our takeaway regarding this social data revelation is two-fold:
- Don’t miss out on target audiences! Lean into the whole conversation to acquire a true picture of consumer behavior.
- When it comes to the environmental causes, eco-friendly products and investments on behalf of planet earth, plan messaging around generational unity, rather than messaging on false divides created by generational stereotypes.
As the world adapts to a life alongside COVID-19, the constant flux might initially appear daunting. For those of us looking for insights into consumer behavior, and even working to locate supporters and partners, however, the lesson is simple: leaning in and listening to the whole conversation is more important than ever. The people invested in sustaining Earth are still here, and they are still engaging, discussing and sharing ideas. Looking at trends and topics over multiple years offers an extended view into their thoughts, behaviors, and ideals. Robust demographics data can dispel unhelpful and inaccurate stereotypes. Together, these practices in social listening can facilitate how your strategy and planning teams create meaningful and timely messages to reach your environmentally conscious audiences.
Data analysis contributor: Morgan Lindgren, Client Success Lead, Infegy