Sustainable Development Goals Provide a Framework: Here’s How You Can Use Them

Many impact entrepreneurs feel overwhelmed when it comes to communicating the positive impact they’re making.

Either they’re unsure exactly what metrics they should be recording, or they don’t feel confident that they’re delivering enough value to avoid accusations of greenwashing.

Without a standard framework for impact measurement, it’s difficult to know what to include and how to share the difference you’re making with your customers, stakeholders, investors and other agencies that may be interested.

That’s why having an impact story can be a powerful tool. You can pull together a compelling picture of why your business exists, what difference you’re making, and what you plan to do going forward to build a business that matters even more.

Thankfully, the UN Sustainable Development Goals provide a framework to make preparing and communicating that story even easier.

Communicating your impact is an essential part of your marketing strategy.

Inc. reports on an international 2017 survey in which more than one in five consumers said they’d “actively choose brands if they made their sustainability credentials clearer on their packaging and in their marketing.”

And according to Trendwatching, “it’s now simply assumed your organization is working to reduce its impact. For example, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation announced in October 2018 that over 250 organizations, including PepsiCo, Coca-Cola, Unilever and H&M, had signed its pledge to eliminate single-use non-recycled plastics by 2025.”

So with consumers actively seeking out evidence of your impact, and 93% of the world’s largest 250 companies now publishing annual CSR reports, there’s never been a more important time to tell your impact story.

Your impact story brings your vision to life.

As a changemaker, you started your business to have a positive impact in the world. To change a social or environmental issue you feel strongly about. 

You’ve got a big vision, and your impact story is a chance to share it.

When it comes to measuring your impact, your vision is your guiding star. You’re not going to create that change overnight, so how will you know if you’re making progress? 

What indicators can you look for, and measure, to be confident that you’re creating a better world?

For example, if your big vision is to create a world where women have equal opportunities to men (in line with achieving Sustainable Development Goal 5: Gender Equality), you might be bringing that to life by providing training to the women in your supply chain.

You can measure the impact of this by capturing data about how many women you’ve trained, how many jobs you’ve created, how much more money they can earn as a result of being trained – and collect personal stories from the women themselves about how the training has helped them.

As part of your impact story or annual report, you should include targets for how many women you will train next year, and what impact that will have for them, their families and their communities.

The Sustainable Development Goals are a roadmap for change.

Unless you’re part of a wider movement like Fairtrade or Bcorp, there’s no industry standard or set framework for recording, measuring and communicating your impact. 

There are probably a wide range of credentials you could include – for example, if your products are vegan, your suppliers are paid a living wage, or your supply chain is plastic-free, but it’s essential that you provide evidence to support any claims. Vagueness is one of the warning signs of greenwashing, so the more specific you can be about your impact, the better.

You should also aim to balance out your facts and figures with testimonials, case studies and stories about beneficiaries you’ve helped. This will make your impact feel more real and will help build an emotional connection with customers and stakeholders.

This is where many impact entrepreneurs get overwhelmed – without a guiding template or the budget to hire an impact measurement expert, many struggle to fully convey the power of their impact story.

Thankfully, the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are here to help.

In 2015, a global agenda was developed to create a better, more sustainable future for us all, where major global challenges (like inequality, lack of education and climate change) can become a thing of the past. 

The UN Sustainable Development Goals that were agreed cover 17 areas, with 169 targets to be achieved by 2030 – providing an actionable plan for business, governments, communities and even individuals to play a part in creating a better world.

The Global Goals showcase your positive impact on a larger scale.

These goals give us a common language to communicate how we’re going to tackle global problems. The targets set out in this agenda provide a practical roadmap for exactly how the goals will be achieved, and by aligning your impact to the relevant Sustainable Development Goal(s), you can explain the difference you’re making in a global context, in ways that everyone will understand.

When you communicate your impact through the lens of the SDGs, you can show the wider impact you have on a range of different issues.

All the goals are connected, and progress towards one area also helps others too. For example, if we achieve Goal 4: Quality Education, it will help to achieve Goal 1: Zero Poverty, Goal 5: Gender Equality, Goal 8 : Decent Work & Economic Growth and Goal 10: Reduced Inequalities too.

Often impact entrepreneurs who have embedded ethics and sustainability throughout their supply chain and business practices find it difficult to communicate their impact without overwhelming their customers. You have to choose which bits of your story to tell carefully, and plan when to tell these within your customer journey.

By picking one or two SDGs as your core focus, you can showcase the impact you’re having and demonstrate how it’s helping to achieve the other goals too – which gives your impact story more depth without making it too complex.

Impact reporting doesn’t have to be an annual exercise.

Larger corporations often produce an annual CSR report, but as a smaller ethical and sustainable business, you’re in the fortunate position that positive impact is embedded in your DNA. It guides every decision you make, and it’s constantly evolving.

You can use this to your advantage by making your impact story a living, breathing part of your marketing strategy.

There are many different ways you might choose to make an impact, and these will influence how you communicate your impact story. For example, if you operate a ‘buy one give one’ model – made famous by TOMS Shoes – you may wish to update customers after their purchase about who received the item you gave on their behalf and how it helped.

If you make a monthly donation to charity, you might choose to share monthly updates about how much you’ve given so far, how much you’re aiming to give by the end of the year and how the money is being used.

You could include your impact on your website, in your regular newsletter, on your social media, and in your customer service processes. Don’t forget to thank customers for the part they’ve played in helping bring your impact to life!

Customers impressed by your impact will sell your story for you.

Humans love to share stories. Telling your impact story to existing customers will show them you appreciate their support, and will encourage them to spread the word about your business too.

Measuring and communicating your impact isn’t always about data and reports – sometimes it’s simply telling a story in a social media post, or emailing your customers to let them know how they’ve helped you make a difference.

You might feel like you’re not doing “enough” or you’re too small to create the global change needed, but by connecting your impact to the Sustainable Development agenda, you can show the world why your business matters and what you’re doing to “be the change you wish to see”.

Here are some more resources to amplify your impact marketing:

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4 Reasons Your Marketing Strategy Isn’t Making Impact

Are you feeling stuck, constantly comparing yourself to the competition, wondering why they seem to be doing so much better than you?

Are you lying awake at night wondering where your next customer is coming from or how you’re going to survive the market uncertainty the current political climate is creating?

Has the constant pressure to create more content and get more social media engagement left you feeling burnt out?

These might seem like perfectly natural obstacles to overcome in the daily life of an entrepreneur, and many business owners accept these worries and pressures as one of the sacrifices they have to make to live the entrepreneurial life they dream of.

However, with the right marketing strategy driving your impact brand, these concerns can be lifted. you can feel confident about where your next customer is coming from. When you’re marketing strategically, you’re working proactively instead of reactively, so your business growth is consistent and not tied to the number of hours you put in.

When you take a strategic approach you can weather the market storms, stay adaptable and be confident that you’ll survive. Social media and content creation feel like an effective tool for business growth, not another draining chore or obligation.

Most social entrepreneurs know they need a marketing strategy, but get so busy with the tactics that they lose sight of their goals and quickly get overwhelmed. If this picture of the calm, confident and in control business owner feels a million miles away from where you are right now, it might be time to take another look at your strategy.

As a marketing strategist and business mentor, I’ve coached many entrepreneurs through this overwhelm and there are some common mistakes I’ve observed which often hold people back from a strategy that truly serves them:

#1 You’re overwhelmed and distracted by too many different techniques.

There are so many different techniques to raise brand awareness, grow your audience and convert them into customers – from blogging to social media, email marketing, pay-per-click ads and more.

As impact business owners we’re lucky to have the opportunity to connect with collaborators and customers all around the world (often for free!) thanks to the internet. But the pressure to be “always on” across all the platforms can leave us feeling overwhelmed.

There are algorithm changes to keep up with, content to create and new platforms to master. When you’re feeling overwhelmed and getting distracted by all the different things you could be doing, you end up falling into the trap of “churn and burn” marketing – trying (and often ditching) different techniques instead of doubling down, building on what works for you and growing momentum long term.

No technique will work in isolation. Nobody is going to see a post about your product on Instagram and purchase it then and there, unless they already know, like and trust you.

Without a strategically planned customer journey which builds and nurtures that relationship sitting behind the techniques you’re using, your marketing will be less effective.

It’s knowing the right sequence these techniques should be implemented – and how to tackle them with confidence – that allows you to grow your business in a meaningful way.

That’s what a marketing strategy will achieve for you, but too many entrepreneurs confuse their marketing plan (the list of techniques and content to try next) with a strategy, leaving them confused and overwhelmed.

#2 You’re on too many platforms.

You’re feeling the pressure to be on all the different social platforms at once. They all work differently and you don’t fully understand what you’re doing, so growth is slow and you feel guilty for not spending enough time creating content and engaging online – even though you feel like you live on social media!

You know you’d probably get better results if you focused on one platform and learn how to use it properly and invested your time in creating quality content and building your audience there – but you don’t know which one to choose what’s right for your brand and you’re scared of getting it wrong.

The best place to start is with your ideal customer – what problem do you solve for them? What content can you create to help them? Where are they hanging out online and likely to see that content?

Your marketing strategy should include a detailed customer profile to help you make strategic decisions about what content to create and where to post it.

Plus your strategy will save you time by identifying ways you can repurpose content across platforms (when you choose to expand your online presence) to make your social media marketing easier and more impactful.

#3 You’re stuck in the DIY danger zone.

In the past, marketing meant buying expensive advertising space to raise brand awareness. With the rise of the internet, the cost of growing a brand has fallen and it has never been cheaper to market yourself.

Anyone can start an email list, blog or social media account and business owners can learn how to market their own brand – often for free, with the help of online experts sharing their tips in blogs and podcasts.

But with so much advice out there, it can be hard to know who to follow and where to turn, and the accessibility of these platforms means everyone else is doing it too. When you rely purely on free courses, mini training and sporadic information from a range of online experts, you end up piecing together parts from everyone else’s strategies.

In the short term these techniques might work, but without a targeted strategy of your own underpinning what you’re doing, your marketing won’t be as effective as it could be and you’ll struggle to stand out from the crowd.

Hiring an expert and developing your own strategy will give you access to a tailored plan designed with your business goals in mind and created for your ideal customer – making your marketing more effective and increasing your return on investment.

This will actually save you time and it’ll give you a competitive advantage over everyone else who’s doing marketing DIY!

#4 You’ve been given bad advice.

The internet is full of experts and “gurus” dishing out advice in an unregulated space. Anyone can call themselves a marketer or a strategy expert, but there’s still so much confusion about what a strategy really is that often these “experts” are doing more harm than good.

The latest trend seems to be “do as I did” techniques, where someone who has set up a business for themselves gives you the “exact blueprint” so you can replicate their success.

When choosing a marketing strategist to work with, look for someone who has successfully implemented tailored strategies time and again for different brands, products, and services in different niches. Your strategy needs to be as unique as your business – a cookie-cutter approach isn’t going to work.

If you’re following someone who’s track record of success is entirely based on their own business growth, you’re likely to fall for the same mistakes they did at the start because nobody begins with a watertight strategy in place.

Without a background in strategic marketing, it’s hard to foresee the pitfalls of different techniques and remove the trial and error from your approach.

This is the real value a professional strategist can bring, so choose who to work with care and always ask about their track record with products or services in your niche.

Is it time to revisit your marketing strategy?

If one or more of the roadblocks above resonated with you, it might be time to revisit your marketing strategy. Give yourself some time to do this without the daily distractions that come from working in your business, so you can reflect and think long term.

Start by revisiting the problem you solve for your customers, the impact you make and the big vision you want to achieve – this should act as your North Star, and your marketing strategy should become the roadmap for where you want to go.

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