The year 2007 was a low point for the U.S. airline industry. The worst year in a decade for on-ground delays, almost a quarter of all flights were leaving late. Passengers were stuck on the tarmac for hours at a time with no water, no food, no toilet service, and no chance of disembarking.

Less than three years later, JetBlue, one of the airlines involved in what Harvard Business School dubbed the “Valentine’s Day Crisis”—in which 130,000 of its customers were stranded in New York’s JFK airport—has regained consumer loyalty. According to a 2010 Vivaldi Partners study on social currency, JetBlue is now the strongest brand in the U.S. airline industry.

This is due in part to how it handled the 2007 situation: The company publicly apologized, offered free ticket vouchers and other forms of compensation, and made changes to its operations, including instituting a customer bill of rights. It’s also due to the company’s long-term investments in connecting with its community, a process in which social media plays a key role. With nearly a million followers, JetBlue is featured as a Twitter case study. “JetBlue was formed with the idea of bringing humanity back to travel, and our engagement with our customers is central to that mission,” JetBlue Chief Commercial Officer Robin Hayes told FastCompany.com in a recent interview. To be “properly in touch with community, it requires the ability to understand and react to the collective conversation,” Hayes added.

Whether companies are using social media to connect with customers, partners, or employees, the opportunity to augment corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives using social media is significant, as we explored last week. Even though it is hard to predict the next “big thing” in social media that will be useful to companies in achieving their CSR goals, here are 10 lessons about using social media toward sustainability initiatives that are likely to last:

  1. Know why you’re getting online. In an interview with Business Insider, eBay’s chief blogger Richard Brewer-Hay pointed out that it’s not enough to start a social media campaign just because “everybody’s doing it.” It’s important to “have specific goals and stick to them.” It’s notable that Best Buy’s Chief Ethics Officer Kathleen Edmond (profiled in part one of our series) found a technological solution for a business need: Tasked with training 150,000 employees on the company’s policies on employee dismissals and firing, she started a blog. She didn’t have to search for a business need for a desired technology. As Cone’s New Media Director Mike Hollywood put it, “The technology is a means to an end. The dialogue is what you’re looking to create.”
  2. Find your audience. There may be 450 million people on Facebook, but establishing a presence there doesn’t guarantee you’ll reach the audience you want for your CSR efforts. Likewise, even if you know sites like Justmeans convene people who are interested in sustainability, if your aim is to broaden your reach, you may need to identify other avenues to capture the attention of mainstream consumers. Edelman’s Senior Vice President and Group Head for Digital Monte Lutz said some companies have found success by partnering with smaller organizations or NGOs that already have an existing online community that matches their criteria for a target audience.
  3. Be authentic and credible. This means being honest about what your policies do and do not cover, and focusing on real, credible messages that align with your company’s core CSR strategy. “We report the good and the bad in our CSR disclosure, which is embedded in our reporting ethic and core business values of humanity, humility, integrity, and excellence,” said Beth Holzman, Timberland’s CSR strategy and reporting manager. “Especially on the web, it’s important to make sure people understand, we’re doing the best we can, we don’t have all the answers, we’re going to make mistakes, but we are being transparent.”
  4. Tell stories. Part of being authentic and credible is sounding human. If you’re trying to reach a more mainstream audience with your CSR messages, the academic-sounding language of sustainability reporting isn’t as effective. “You need to understand your market,” said Justmeans CEO Martin Smith. For instance, if your main audience is consumers, not sustainability experts, Smith said, you may need to “dumb down your message enough so that people will know what you’re talking about.” Or you may need to tell the story about what’s in your CSR report in a different way, focusing more on the narrative of your company’s sustainability impacts and challenges than on the scientific metrics.
  5. Hold up your side of the conversation. One of the defining characteristics of social media is its socialness. As Lutz pointed out, developing a relationship means listening to your audience, and, of course, offering a response. “Regardless of whether you know or don’t know the answer, it’s important to be responsive,” said Timberland’s Holzman. “Let people know their voices are being heard.” The opposite extreme is when companies are completely absent from the conversation. “We view the biggest failure of all when companies are letting the dialogues happen without them,” Hollywood said. “Without participation, there’s nothing you can do about it.”
  6. Be consistent. It’s also important to ensure that your company’s social media communications are aligned with your broader communications around CSR. (In recent reports on preventing greenwashing and on communicating on climate policy engagement, BSR also promotes aligned communications.) At Timberland, the company was careful to ensure that it used the same messages in a quarterly call on the climate challenge as it did in a white paper that was released on the same subject at the same time. On the call, Timberland encouraged people to continue the conversation online, so it was important that the messages were consistent regardless of the media tool used.
  7. Understand your limitations. You can’t control the conversation online, you can only be part of it—and the conversation will happen whether you join it or not. “A lot of companies are scared of social media because they don’t have control,” said Lutz. “But the dirty little secret is that they never had control.” Edmond agreed: “The thing that’s hard for people to accept is that control in the traditional sense is not realistic anymore in this space.”
  8. Go deep. According to a 2009 social media study that looked at 100 top companies, the most successful firms that experienced the biggest business impacts had deeper social media relationships. Some of these firms—nicknamed “mavens”—were active on multiple channels, but others—the “selectives”—demonstrated a lot of activity on fewer channels. According to the Vivaldi study mentioned earlier, the companies that most successfully developed social currency were those whose conversations went deep: “Online buzz does not equal conversational value to customers. Only if conversations are meaningful to customers, brands will profit from increased social currency among their customer base.”
  9. Measure ROE, not ROI. Especially with initiatives related to sustainability, the better metric is what Lutz calls “return on engagement.” “It’s not the sheer number of people you’re reaching,” he explained, adding that it’s important to look at things like whether people are commenting on your blog—and what they’re saying. “If you have a blog and you’re writing about an issue, are you only talking to yourself? If you’re on Twitter, are you being retweeted? Are people finding value in what you’re doing? It’s also about relevance. Are you talking to people about issues that are important to them? Lastly, it’s about clout. In social media, it’s not just about how many followers you have, it’s how many followers your followers have. What’s the potential echo? And all of this is not just about the number of people, but about the quality of engagement—the dialogue that’s happening.”
  10. Just do it. This space is evolving fast. Just five years ago, there was no Twitter and there was no YouTube, and yet, as Lutz pointed out, seven of the candidates in the last U.S. presidential election cycle launched their campaigns on YouTube. Accept the fact that you won’t always know what will work, and if you fail, change course. “It’s a fair amount of risk-taking,” acknowledged Edmond. “I think that folks who study this too long are going to be left in the dust.”