Sustainable marketing: how to limit the impact of your digital campaigns

By Early Metrics Team - 05 December 2022

As companies accelerate the environmental transition of their operations, one source of emissions remains largely underestimated: the digital world. While digital activities are growing at an annual rate of 6%, they account for up to 4% of global CO2 emissions. Moreover, because companies were cut off from physical relationships with their consumers during the Covid-19 crisis, they largely reinforced the digital channel of their sales strategy. Indeed, spending on digital marketing has exploded, with 30% growth in 2021, and a record $600 billion in spending surpassed in 2022, nearly 2/3 of total marketing spending. This brings us to the emergence of sustainable marketing.

Although difficult to assess and relegated to second place in companies’ strategies, the environmental impact of marketing campaigns is nonetheless significant:

  • According to Anne Coghan, co-founder of Scope3, “one million digital ad impressions generate as much carbon emissions as a round trip flight from Boston to London for one person.”
  • The recent Purpose Disruptors report found that the advertising sector may be adding up to 28% to the annual carbon footprint of UK citizens
  • According to a recent estimate by Fifty-Five, a marketing agency, a typical digital advertising campaign – from production to delivery and measurement – for a single advertiser produces 323 tonnes of carbon dioxide, the equivalent of 160 return flights between Paris and New York

The adoption of a sustainable marketing strategy is therefore necessary for any company seeking to reduce its impact on the environment.

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How does digital marketing generate CO2 emissions?

While only 10% is related to the production phase (travel, filming, post-production editing), the remaining 90% is mostly related to distribution on digital channels. Broadcasting, viewing, programmatic display, calculation and optimisation of the targeted audience, storage of consumer data are all sources of energy consumption. The main inefficiencies can be summarised as follows:

  • A large, complex, often siloed and almost always inefficient technology stack
  • A huge data load carrying content and campaign assets, as well as programmatic bidding to reach users
  • Unreliable data leading to mistargeting and unnecessary expenditure

How can you adopt sustainable marketing practices?

1) Measure the impact of your digital campaigns

By analysing the entire production and distribution process, advertisers can define an appropriate action plan to control their carbon emissions and thus engage in more sustainable marketing.

Several marketing agencies and startups now offer tools to do this:

  • Scope3 has developed software to map the end-to-end emissions of a digital ad’s life cycle. The company uses public and private data to enable advertisers to measure the carbon footprint of the key inputs and outputs of each of their digital advertising products. For example, the company worked with eBay to reduce the carbon emissions associated with its “Sneakers Authenticity Guaranteed 2022” campaign
  • Impact+ also enables brands, agencies and publishers to measure the environmental impact of their online advertising. This is done through a tool that integrates into the advertising delivery systems. It then provides them with appropriate recommendations, as well as solutions to offset the residual carbon footprint
  • D-K* offers software that enables advertisers, agencies and advertising sales companies to monitor the carbon impact of their marketing campaigns. The tool can be adapted to any communication channel: web, radio, audiovisual or even urban display

2) Reduce the size of your digital assets

Online videos account for 20% of total digital greenhouse gas emissions, and nearly 1% of global emissions. Yet it is a particularly popular communication channel for advertisers. Spending on video ads has increased by 49% in the last two years. According to a 55Lives report, this is a particularly critical decarbonisation lever. For example, reducing a video by 3s would reduce the CO2 emissions it emits by 20%. Reducing the resolution from 1080p to 720p would also help reduce them by 30%.

Young innovative companies have also developed innovative sustainable marketing solutions for the sector:

  • Vidmizer aims to reduce videos’ carbon footprint by 70%. The company offers a SaaS platform that optimises encoding, display speed, defines the most energy-efficient delivery medium and monitors the performance of video marketing campaigns
  • SeenThis allows advertisers to reduce loading times for video and image ads. The ads appear instantly and receive more views per impression, reducing the amount of data required. By working with SeenThis, the Toyota Group has reduced the carbon footprint of its digital advertising campaigns by 20%
  • Good-Loop, which raised £4m last June, offers brands the opportunity to improve target engagement through ethical video ad campaigns. For every 10 to 15 seconds of viewing, the target will unlock a free donation to a charity. This donation is funded by the advertiser

3) Optimise your programmatic advertising campaign system

Programmatic advertising refers to the automatic purchase of advertising space through a real-time bidding system, carried out at the moment the user opens a web page. Programmatic advertising currently accounts for 64% of display advertising revenue, with growth of 38% forecast for 2021. This mode of advertising is particularly favoured by:

  • The abundance and diversity of digital spaces
  • The automation of the value chain thanks to high-speed broadband
  • The accumulation of consumer data collection

However, this has made the advertising value chain particularly complex by multiplying the number of intermediaries. Between the moment a web user opens a web page and the moment it is displayed, their profile is screened and qualified according to a number of predefined criteria, and then allocated at auction to a buyer, who operates on behalf of an advertiser. In a few milliseconds, the bids are compared on exchange platforms in order to optimise the buying and selling price. Finally, once allocated, the effectiveness of the impression is measured and analysed.

This aggregation of operators and the almost instantaneous processing of data increases energy consumption, both on the end-user terminal and on the internet network. While advertisers cannot do without programmatic ads overnight, the challenge is to simplify the architecture of this system and optimise the link between advertisers and publishers.

We can list a few examples of news and startups linked to this issue:

  • By discontinuing its use of the Open Bidding platform, The Trade Desk is saving the equivalent of 5.387T of CO2 per year. The company has created Openpath, a product that allows advertisers to directly access ad impressions created by qualified publishers
  • Irish platform Converge Digital directly connects advertisers and publishers by enabling them to create their own customised marketplace
  • Scibids aims to optimise the performance of programmatic campaigns through the power of AI. The software integrates with programmatic buying platforms and cross-references around 50 cookie-independent variables. This helps buyers find the most favourable delivery conditions and the best price for each auction

4) Optimise your targeting strategy

According to a study conducted by the marketing agency Adloop, 47% of budgets invested in online advertising are ineffective. Indeed, targeting is critical here. Measuring engagement rates, conversion rates and socio-behavioural analysis of visitors is key to refining the profiling of the right consumer.

Today, the amount of data generated by poorly targeted advertising poses a two problems. Email campaigns, newsletters and Facebook ads all result in an overabundance of unused consumer information. Finally, the number of digital impressions a consumer experiences increases considerably, with the resulting risk of losing attention and engagement.

In order to avoid overproduction of data and the waste of their resources, advertisers must favour quality over quantity. To this end, the rise of artificial intelligence in advertising presents an initial answer to the problem. AI allows advertisers to create a bespoke data set that evolves as the algorithms learn. As a result, the technology can continuously adapt to avoid irrelevant targets and deliver waste-free campaigns.

  • To ensure accurate measurement of the level of attention paid to an advertising message, Lumen has developed a predictive indicator of seconds of attention per 1,000 impressions, based on eye tracking technology. The model, based on machine learning, adapts to the actual performance of digital campaigns
  • Ad.creative increases the online conversion rate thanks to artificial intelligence. The platform offers to generate advertising visuals adapted to the distribution site and the target typology

5) Opt for an eco-friendly cloud

The creation and distribution of content, the collection and processing of data, personalisation and bidding algorithms… All these processes induced by digital marketing require significant computing and storage power, managed by physical infrastructures: data centres. However, the operation of these servers is extremely energy-intensive. Estimates show that data centres consume between 1-2% of the world’s electricity. Using the services of sustainable cloud providers could therefore allow advertising operators to reduce some of their CO2 emissions and move towards sustainable marketing. Here are some examples of green alternatives to traditional players:

  • Leafcloud* reuses the heat generated by its servers to power their cooling system and the water and heating systems of collective housing
  • Also thanks to the reuse of waste heat, Qarnot’s* platform reduces the carbon footprint associated with calculations by an average of 75%
  • Windcloud powers its data centres solely from wind power

The shift towards sustainable marketing

The carbon impact of digital advertising campaigns is still difficult to measure. Nevertheless, the growth of this communication channel coupled with the multiplication of the data generated make it a key lever for companies seeking to reduce their emissions.

Several initiatives are moving in the direction of more ethical and responsible digital advertising:

  • The SRI and Alliance Digitale are currently working on the development of a standard for measuring the carbon impact of digital campaigns. Major media outlets (SPNTV, radio, press, etc.) will then benefit from a harmonised calculation benchmark to help them orient their choices towards more responsible digital advertising strategies.
  • Google has announced the removal of third-party cookies by mid-2024. This will lead to a drastic reduction in the amount of personal data collected, and therefore of digital pollution. However, this loss of targeting capacity creates a risk of ineffective campaigns for advertisers

The road to greener digital marketing is now paved. It is up to advertisers to find their way.

*Startup rated par Early Metrics

Written by Nathan Abecassis

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