Green Website Finds Sustainable Model in Creating Custom Ads

Mother Nature Network Attracts Coca-Cola, Aflac, AT&T to Its Sponsored Channels

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- A couple years ago Joel Babbit, the veteran Atlanta ad executive, traded in his Porsche 911 for a Honda Civic Hybrid, and it is not just his car that moves a little slower these days.

"I can tell you I get treated much worse at the valet stand," said Mr. Babbit, who sold his agency, 360, to Grey Global Group in 2002, and stayed on with Grey. "I stand in line with my ticket a lot longer."

Mother Nature Network
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The Mother Nature Network's 35 channels include less predictable categories like beer, with a custom ad from sponsor MillerCoors.
While his new car may not turn heads, his new venture that prompted the purchase is. Mr. Babbit left Grey to launch Mother Nature Network, an environmental website targeted at mainstream consumers that went live in the first week of 2009. The co-founder of the site is Chuck Leavell, the keyboardist for the Rolling Stones and an avid environmentalist, while James Berrien, former publisher of the Forbes Magazine Group, serves as chief operating officer and Emily Murphy, who has worked as an editor and producer at USA Today, National Geographic and CNN, serves as managing editor.

In October, Mother Nature Network drew 874,000 unique visitors, according to ComScore, making it the fifth most popular in ComScore's "green" category, which also includes nonprofit groups and governmental agencies. (The Environmental Protection Agency website drew 861,000 unique visitors, the Sierra Club's 204,000.)

And while many have swung blindly for a web publishing revenue model, Mr. Babbit whacked that pinata quickly, becoming profitable in only 18 months. In 2009, the site earned $3 million, and Mr. Babbit projects that will more than double, to $6.5 million, in 2010, and top $9 million in 2011.

With 10 bloggers and a pool of freelancers, the site publishes about 50 pieces of content daily, 70% of it original and the rest from third parties. The site is divided into 35 channels, such as Climate Change and Recycling as well as less predictable lifestyle categories where green options are emphasized, such as Pets & Animals, Arts & Culture, and Beer.

For $300,000 a year, a brand becomes an exclusive sponsor for a channel, commanding a box about halfway down the page with thumbnails for six videos. Sponsors include major advertisers such as Coca-Cola, MillerCoors, Dell and Aflac, but they tend not to run actual commercials. Rather, the videos, most produced by Mother Nature Network as a component of the sponsorship deal, tend to be branded content that highlights environmental stewardship.

Coca-Cola, for example, features its Give it Back recycling program as well as Hopenhagen, which supports the United Nations Climate Change Conference.

"Consumers more and more value not only the quality of your product but the character of your company," said Joe Tripodi, chief marketing officer at Coca-Cola, in explaining why the company highlights its sparkling deeds over sparkling beverages on the site. "It is at one level advertising but it's really much more about explaining and talking about the character of your company."

Another advertiser, AT&T, highlights eco-friendly actions, like updating its fleet with hybrid vehicles, and has broadened the scope of its messages beyond the environment.

"Corporate responsibility is a significant initiative for AT&T," said Stephen Governale, executive director of marketing communications at the company. To that end, the marketer is also featuring TV spots discouraging texting while driving that, Mr. Governale said, "may not necessarily be an environmental message but it's about overall safety and well-being and what's our position in the global community."

An advisory board of scientists, academics and journalists evaluates the environmental profile of prospective Mother Nature Network advertisers -- and not everyone makes the grade. Mr. Babbit said the site has turned away three would-be sponsors, an oil company, an insurance carrier, and manufacturer, which he declined to name.

Some companies that did pass muster, though, are considered foes by some environmentalists.

Georgia-Pacific, the forest products company, which sponsors channels for two different divisions at a cost of about $600,000 annually, is owned by Koch Industries. Paul Krugman wrote in The New York Times in July that Koch Industries "has been sponsoring anti-environmental organizations for two decades," including contributing about $1 million to an unsuccessful November ballot campaign in California to overturn a law that requires more energy-efficient cars, buildings and appliances, and for power plants to use alternative energy sources.

A Facebook group called Boycott and Defeat Koch Industries, which was formed shortly after an August New Yorker article about the company, has about 6,000 followers.

Newsweek, which in its annual Green Rankings judges the 500 largest publicly traded companies on their environmental impacts and policies, recently ranked another Mother Nature Network sponsor, Southern Energy, near the bottom, at 494, with a score of 32.87 out of a possible 100.

Southern "is one of the most significant greenwashers globally," Casey Harrell, an analyst at Greenpeace, wrote in an email message, using the term for green PR efforts by companies with questionable environmental records. "They spend more time lobbying against climate and energy legislation than any other utility."

Mr. Babbit defended both companies' inclusion as sponsors, explaining that Georgia-Pacific, which he described as "probably one of the largest recyclers in the world," was judged on its individual merits rather than the actions of Koch Industries.

As for Southern, Mr. Babbit pointed to a deal announced in January between the utility and Ted Turner, the media tycoon and environmentalist, to develop solar power projects.

"The greatest environmentalist I know is Ted Turner and that's one of the things that encouraged us that they're moving in the right direction," Mr. Babbit said.

While there is plenty of content on the Mother Nature Network about sustainable practices, the real story of sustainability might be the website itself.

"Not many companies have found a way to monetize the internet for journalism, and this is what I would consider to be a rare model of sustainability in a medium where there's lots of uncertainty," said Coke's Mr. Tripodi.

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