Substantive Sustainability Gets More Clicks
How we proved the Seaborne hypothesis
At Seaborne, we help modern internet businesses become better stewards of the environment and climate.
As part of ensuring the effectiveness and resonance of our work after our first few years in business, we realized it was time to test one of our key hypotheses: that doing substantive sustainability work and communicating it to customers is good for our clients’ businesses.
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To put this hypothesis to the test, we spent real money (~$10k USD) and made real ads using Meta’s Ad network on behalf of milli mylk, a real Seaborne client. Here, we share what we learned, and how we proved that substantive sustainability gets more clicks.
The Seaborne Hypothesis
At Seaborne, our team and clients frequently confront the reality that our economy and business incentives are mostly aligned to wreck the planet, not care for it.
Too often, the “greener” option is the more costly one, and without robust regulatory frameworks for limiting businesses’ CO2 emissions in the U.S., taking action to emit less is mostly voluntary.
Yet, we all (and hopefully you, too) hold a glimmer of hope that businesses can find a way to do the right thing by the planet and be successful.
This idea is core to what we do at Seaborne. We help businesses take corporate climate action that is effective and resonant. We call this approach substantive sustainability.
We firmly believe that taking on substantive, thoughtful sustainability work like implementing emissions reduction plans, decarbonizing product supply chains and purchasing high-quality carbon offset credits can all be powerful points of difference for modern businesses that are truly good for business.
This hypothesis presents two challenges: (1) proving that it is quantifiably true, and (2) learning to do it with consistent success in practice. Frankly, our team at Seaborne got tired of looking for published, robust evidence of (1) and decided to take on proving it ourselves, in a way that resonates with modern internet businesses.
This article walks through how we went about proving it, and how businesses can start to do this work well.
We ran ads to test our hypothesis
Our team developed a product ad campaign for our client milli mylk, a subscription-based plant mylk company, to answer the questions:
a) Does including science-backed sustainability messaging in online ads lead to higher click through rates (CTR) when compared to the same ads without any sustainability language included?
b) How about when compared to ads that use greenwashing language? Does our rigorous and transparent approach to sustainability resonate differently with potential customers?
All too often, corporate communications about climate are more about greenwashing than taking effective action. We’ve written about the how and why of corporate greenwashing in this space before, and we had a hunch that it might not hold up when tested against our substantive messaging.
We used ad click through rates (CTR) as an indicator of an ad campaign being “good for business” because this metric is a key performance indicator for modern businesses who sell through the internet.
To answer the research questions and measure relative ad click through rates, we designed an ad campaign to market milli mylk’s plant-based products using three language variants: generic, greenwashing, and substantive or “science-backed” sustainability. These ads all used the same background images of milli’s plant-based products for videos and stills, with the copy variants superimposed on product imagery.
What makes ad language substantive vs. greenwashey?
Substantive language is based on quantitative, science-backed measurement of a specific sustainability attribute (like compostability or product lifecycle CO2 emissions). In our campaign, substantive language included headlines like “3X less CO2 than other plant-based mylks” (a stat we proved through our work with milli mylk), “100% Carbon Neutral” and “100% Compostable Packaging”.
Greenwashing language mimics a sustainable sensibility without tangible evidence or specificity. Words like “greener”, “cleaner”, and “friendlier” are all greenwashing tip-offs. For this study, we developed greenwashing phrases like “Easy on the Planet”, and “Cleaner Supply Chain”. While these phrases are true for milli mylk, they’re also so vague that companies can make these claims without actually taking sustainability seriously, and they’re really hard to fact-check.
To round out our study and pursue both research questions, we also ran a control variant ad set with generic copy that didn’t mention the environment or carbon emissions. These ads had the same background images, but mentioned the plant mylk product benefits like being “easy to prepare”, or “creamy and delicious”.
We tested our ad sets with real consumers
We ran these three groups of ads as videos and stills on both Instagram and Facebook, basically doing multiple massive A/B tests to compare the three message groups against one another. We measured impressions and clicks through, giving us Click Through Rate, or CTR as our key metric of success (CTR = Total Ad Clicks / Total Ad Impressions). We ran these campaigns for 9 weeks, with a total ad spend of $10k to get results that were, as much as possible, statistically significant across our sampled age groups (18 - 65+).
What we found
Our study showed that our substantive sustainability messaging in ads yields higher click through rates than generic and greenwashing messaging, with a high degree of confidence. What does this mean?
For audiences ages 25 - 54, our substantive sustainability messaging in product ads produces a significantly higher Click Through Rate (CTR) against both greenwashing and generic approaches to messaging.
The age group where this is most true is 35–44 (hello, Millennials!); we observed click through rates up 97% for substantive sustainability ads compared to generic ads when served to this age group, and up 86% for substantive sustainability ads when compared to greenwashing ones.
Below, we show the relative divergence in click through rate for substantive sustainability and greenwashing messages compared to generic messaging, across ages 18-65+. Generic ad click through rates varied significantly with age group, so the scatter plot below shows results for each cohort normalized to their respective generic ad click through rate. The plot shows how the relative performance gains of substantive sustainability messaging peaks in the 35–44 age group and falls steeply thereafter, with increasing age.
Substantive sustainability gets more clicks
Substantive sustainability outperforms greenwashing. This result was consistent and statistically significant in every age group we studied between 25 and 54 (that includes some of GenZ, plus Millennials, and GenX demographics).
Across ages 25-54, ads that used substantive sustainability language yielded click through rates that averaged 62% higher than those for the same ads with greenwashing language.
In short, these results prove our hypothesis that substantive sustainability is a winning business strategy for brands that sell products and services online. Substantive sustainability boosts ad click through rates when compared to ads without sustainability messaging, and just greenwashing won’t cut it — customers engage the most with ads that are based on scientific facts, not just vaguely green vibes.
What this means for businesses who sell online
This means a few things for companies who sell online. One, if you’re going to talk about sustainability in your ads and with customers, we encourage you to communicate work that is substantive, not greenwashing.
Also, we can all take some comfort in knowing that, for ages 25 - 54, substantive sustainability messaging ads had meaningfully higher CTR than the same ads that used greenwashing language. This might suggest that as consumers, we’re starting to develop an ability to quickly recognize an authentic commitment to the environment and climate when it comes to communicating about sustainability.
A second lesson for brands is that investing in substantive sustainability work has a clear return (i.e. that genuine environmentalism, clearly communicated, pays for itself). This is especially true if your target audience is 25 - 54 and you’re looking to increase clicks (who isn’t?).
Click through results from these age groups showed the strongest signals in favor of substantive sustainability language, with CTR increases of 50-97% when this language was included in ads, as compared to generic copy.
A few twists
In analyzing our results, our team unearthed a few additional insights for brands communicating about sustainability online. We were surprised, but not too surprised, that the story of substantive sustainability in ads is quite different for audiences over age 55.
While click through rates increased with increased audience age for every ad variant, substantive sustainability messaging performed worse than both generic messaging and greenwashing in terms of CTR when served to audiences over 55. This was a statistically significant result in both cases.
Relatedly, we found that the younger an audience was, the lower their click through rates in general. We saw relatively few clicks from younger audiences across all ad sets, perhaps because they view internet ads with the most scrutiny. This meant that we were only able to report 85% confidence for the CTR difference that suggests substantive sustainability outperforms greenwashing for audiences 18 - 24 years old.
Finally, we also found that in a few demographic groups, even when substantive sustainability ads performed the best, greenwashing ads also performed significantly better than generic ones.
This might explain part of why companies continue to greenwash – it is easy (requires no measurement or commitments) and it sometimes works. While our findings don’t fully explain the effect of greenwashing vs generic language across all groups, what was clear is that greenwashers would do better in terms of CTR boosts by doing substantive sustainability work.
In short, our research proves that producing ads that include science-backed sustainability language boosts click through rates when served to audiences 18-55. Clicks usually lead to increased conversions, and thus our approach to substantive sustainability offers quantifiable and tangible business returns.
So, how can you develop and run a substantive sustainability campaign? It won’t happen overnight (that’s the substantive part), but you can start by shooting us an email, and taking the first step on your climate journey. At Seaborne, we help teams like yours start doing right by the planet and communicating about it transparently and effectively to customers.
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