LONDON: General Electric, IBM and Starbucks are among the brand owners most effectively utilising social media to engage consumers with issues like sustainability and corporate social responsibility.

Custom Communication, the consultancy, assessed how 287 major companies from across the globe were adapting their activity in this area to meet the requirements of the digital age.

Overall, 244 members of its sample promoted products and advertising via sites like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, but only 65 ran dedicated accounts covering initiatives relating to the environment and CSR.

Some 55 firms relied on general social media feeds to discuss such matters, and 167 - or almost half - had "no conduit whatsoever".

More specifically, 36% of North American enterprises constituted early-adopters in this field, falling to 33% for their European counterparts.

Organisations in the tech sector displayed the greatest take up, contributing a fifth of the leading American operators, while oil and gas specialists were the worst performers.

Custom Communication also ranked individual companies based on factors from providing "engaging content" to offering channels for consumer feedback.

General Electric, the conglomerate, led the list on 98 points, having "raised the bar" with its clean energy "Ecomagination" platform.

The Ecomagination Challenge, which concluded this month, saw it "crowdsource" new proposals for modernising the electric grid, and was publicised on Twitter.

It also partnered with YouTube, Flickr and Foursquare in the "Tag Your Green" scheme, spreading tips and recommendations online, securing 10m video views during the three weeks after a mid-October launch.

"While traditionally, GE has targeted business executives and influentials, with Ecomagination we're broadening our target audience to include younger consumers," said Judy Hu, GE director, advertising and branding.

"They are our future investors, customers, and employees, and we want them to know what GE stands for and engage with our brand."

IBM claimed second place on 97 points, and boasts more than 50,000 staff on internal network SocialBlue, over 17,000 in-house blogs and substantial representation on LinkedIn and Facebook.

In championing the "Smarter Planet" programme, it established a presence on services like Twitter, and also sought to support existing online groups discussing core themes.

"There are communities that are passionate about this, and maybe we can help to amplify some of their voices and really make some of this just happen," Adam Christensen, of IBM's social media team. "Social media plays a big role in it."

Ford posted 95 points, and was recently named "Automotive Green Marketer of the Year" by Nielsen, credited for its TV output, alongside social media tools such as the "You Speak Green" Facebook app.

Starbucks, one of the most popular brands on Facebook, received the same index rating from Custom Communication, and believes focusing on this subject generates multiple benefits.

"We actually know that our customers care about this issue disproportionately," said Ben Packard, Starbucks' vice president of global responsibility. "It's actually a matter of customer retention."

Connecting with formal stakeholders proved relatively easy, although consumers have been difficult to reach, meaning social media assumes a central position.

"It's toughest to get to our customers. Our partners are eager for this information, and have expectations for the company to deliver this way," said Packard.

"We used to write 60- or 70-page beautiful reports. But not a lot of people were reading them. It's the art and the genius in distilling it."

Other leading firms identified in the Custom Communication study included financial services brand BBVA, telecoms provider Telefoncia, healthcare titan Novartis and utilities group PG&E.

Data sourced from Custom Communication, Smart Planet, AdAGe, Social Media Examiner; additional content by Warc staff