Two creative people with different strengths can sometimes team up to make money in an arena where many others have failed.
That seems to be what’s happening at Atlanta-based Mother Nature Network for Rolling Stones keyboard player Chuck Leavell and outside-the-box adman Joel Babbit.
Two years ago, they co-founded the environmental news website with the hope of appealing to a wider audience than academics and activists.
“We concentrated on what the need was,” said Leavell, a respected environmentalist. A “comprehensive, engaging and informative” website that spoke to mainstream consumers was missing, he said in a recent interview after returning from New York where he played on a upcoming John Mayer record.
Leavell and Babbit started with at least two strikes against them. Media firms have had a tough time figuring out how to make money on the Web, since most content is free, including stories on MNN.com. What’s more, the environmental space already was inhabited by many government and nonprofit sites, although some drown readers in technical reports.
Today, MNN ranks as the world’s third-most visited environmental site (first among for-profits), surpassing the U.S. National Park Service, EPA and more than 7,000 others in the category, according to Alexa Information Services. (The No.1 site is the government’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.)
More important than the 57 million page views last year — a fivefold increase from 2009 — MNN makes money. Revenue climbed to $6 million in 2010, from $3 million in 2009, Babbit said. Profit rose, but he would not disclose by how much.
Leavell, 58, has helped MNN by providing some of the environmental gravitas. He’s a tree farmer in Bullard, about 20 miles southeast of Macon. In two weeks, he’s coming out with his fourth book, “Growing A Better America — Smart, Strong, Sustainable.”
Babbit, a veteran ad exec known for taking risks, came up with a business model that seems to work in this niche. Essentially, MNN has adopted the Olympics ad formula of selling exclusive sponsorships to one company per category for an entire year. There are 31 categories (not all spoken for), from energy (Southern Co.) to green workplace (Georgia-Pacific) to fitness (Coke). For $300,000 a year, companies can try to wrap themselves in green — something that sells these days.
The ads on the website are different. There are no annoying pop-ups like those on many sites. Instead, many of the companies use two-minute to three-minute videos to highlight their green efforts.
“Companies have legitimate reason to make their environmental steps known,” Babbit, 57, said. At the same time, I hope consumers remain cautious and check out the claims, as they should for any ads.
One final note. As an over-the-hill Rolling Stones fan, I couldn’t leave the interview before asking Leavell if the group will be touring soon. He said nothing has been arranged yet.
I have no inside knowledge, but I wonder whether next year might bring the Stones to the stage. The 50th anniversary of the founding of the group will be in 2012, as will London’s Olympics. And the economy should be better than it is now.
- Henry Unger, The Biz Beat
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