May 11, 2011

Social Media for biomass industries

Last week at the BBI International Biomass Conference and Expo Greg Veerman of Astronaut Studio, Matthew Spoor and John Nelson of BBI, and I held a two-hour conference panel titled "Social Media and PR Strategies to Grow Your Business and Win Over Industry Skeptics." I know panels on using social media are frequently held at conferences for business-to-consumer industries and I imagine that other business-to-business industries address them, too, but I hadn't seen one at any bioenergy conferences (and I've been to many) in spite of frequent calls for educating the public and informing their support.

It is well past time to recognize the double-edged sword potential of social media to either educate and galvanize public support of the industry or stop it dead in its tracks. So much of the success of emerging enterprises is dependent on the public perception of industry credibility and relevance - yet, we bury ourselves in technology issues and financing. If we are learning anything in marketing, it is that we must reach out and engage communities early in consensus-building on goals. We must engage with them on the development of solutions before we try to deploy ours in their midst. Social media can help us do that.

Biofuels Digest has started a three-part series this week titled "Brazilian renewable energy: Attitude before altitude" talking about the great environment of Brazil. Why - because of its vast resources? No - it's because of their positive attitude toward renewable energy. They are the flip-side of California - which has money, R&D, ample resources, but a terrible highly resistant attitude toward bioenergy. Brazil, in contrast, is happy to take the money, benefit from the R&D, allow access to the sustainable use of its resources - but most of all the Brazilian people are proud to grow as leaders in the development and deployment of bioenergy. They experience the benefits every time they compare prices at the pump. Choosing is empowering.

So many of California's bioenergy assets are moving to foreign markets like Brazil. No wonder the state's finances are in shambles! Frustrating development and deployment in other parts of the country hurt national finances as well. Iowa and the Midwest is the Brazilian experiment in the United States. They have emerged from being one of the most energy dependent states in the union thirty years ago to being one of the most independent now thanks to ethanol and wind power. Again the regional attitude is great and they have choices at the pump.

It is time to get to work providing links to postings about the progress, aspirations, and commitment of the bioenergy industry to sustainability. First we need more content. Greg Veerman made that point during his presentation last week. Working with Nathan Schock and Jeff Broin at the Broin Companies he was a major architect of the shift of corporate identity to POET, LLC.

Bioenergy companies need to realize (like POET did) that they have content that can help script the future for the growth of their industry. Ignoring the responsibility to communicate cedes too much of the idea battlefield to the interests of project obstruction. It is disheartening to see the NRDC as bedfellows to the fossil fuel industry. They may not agree on much but they are united in their stance to see a slow-down in bioenergy and biofuels development.

Part of my role in the conference panel was to talk about the accelerating rate of change of media and the explosion of personal channels that characterize the social media paradigm. Companies were empowered by the internet and business websites. Individuals have been greatly empowered by social media. Just look at Wael Ghonim's Facebook impact on Egypt's overthrow of Mubarek and the fear the Chinese authorities are exhibiting with the incarceration of artist Ai Wei-wei - a social media acolyte in that country. Discussions, links, and group networks are democratizing communications and developing consensus on key issues.

But, again, social media is a double-edged sword. Waiting for someone else to take the reins could slow the domestic rise of the industry, lose valuable ground to foreign competition, prevent the development of new resource management tools for environmental sustainability, and further erode our balance of trade. We need to convince emerging companies that it is time to get involved at the local, state, and national level to build consensus on the urgency of these issues. Joining associations and taking an active role online are ways to get involved.

We need to admit that many of the bioenergy technologies we have are at bench-level, pilot, or demo scale. They aren't perfect - and they won't get better until we deploy scale-ups so we can deal with technical issues. In the meantime, we all need to support technologies that are at scale so we can build the infrastructure of distribution and alternative fuel vehicles for the day that new, better technologies have been allowed to mature.


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C. Scott Miller said...

One addendum sparked by an email I received recently:

I am afraid that most in the bioenergy industry think of themselves as strictly business-to-business marketers so no warmth is required - just credibility. But there is more emotional content in sales than most technical and number-crunching businesspeople realize. Furthermore, we can't very well deploy multimillion dollar facilities if we haven't successfully addressed the fears of the host community.

Social media can provide a human face of an enterprise so necessary if we expect to be accepted enough to build loyalty and move forward.

C. Scott Miller said...

Here's another tweet to follow. Biofuels Digest has just created an online portal for comments called "The Community" and I have started two groups - The Biosocial Channels group and the Biomass Feedstock group. Please do the following:

Join the Biosocial Channels Group at @BDigest Please RT