TechKnowledge: A Conversation with Joel Babbit, CEO of Mother Nature Network

We are seeing a real tipping point today as "green news" becomes truly mainstream.   Just last year, the number of unique visitors to green websites went up over 80%  and blogger discussions on Sustainability increased by more than  160%.  I view this as great news and I was particularly intrigued to see the launch of a new site, called Mother Nature Network or MNN, that is already starting to make a major contribution to reaching the tens of millions of people interesting in learning about our earth.  I recently caught up with Joel Babbit, the CEO of MNN to learn more about their approach.   

Q: Joel, you started Mother Nature Network (MNN) in the same city that started CNN.  Coincidence or is it symbolic?

A: Well, I happen to be one of the very few native Atlantans left in the city, so I wasn't about to start our new venture anywhere else.  And yes, there is no question that Ted Turner has had a huge influence on our city and on me personally.  I actually just got a very nice letter from him to congratulate us on the launch.  But don't forget that WebMD, Coca-Cola, The Weather Channel, and The Home Depot were all also started here in Atlanta-so we have lots of good role models in our hometown-including CNN.

Q: We are seeing a tipping point in Green where the mainstream public is becoming increasingly interested in learning about the environment and what they can do.  What trends are most important and how are they influencing the development of MNN?

A: Many folks don't want to admit it but a lot of the growth in the green movement is not a result of people coming to their senses and wanting to save the planet.  A lot of it is being driven by other factors.  Many of the buyers of hybrid cars are making that choice more to save gas money than for environmental reasons.  That's especially true of the shift you're seeing  in large corporate fleets.    A lot of it is also  being driven by regulations-LEED certification increases in both commercial and residential building is a good example of that .  And, I think its very safe to say that the new President has and will continue to put a tremendous amount of  focus on the environment-which will only continue the dramatic increases we have seen in media coverage-and in turn, consumer awareness.   A main component of his plan, for example,  is the creation of millions of new green jobs.  Not all of those people who take those jobs are doing it because its good for Mother Nature-the bottom line is they need a job. Finally, a lot of people are now doing it for image reasons-they see a lot of the celebrities involved and think its cool.     But I don't think the reasons behind this  interest and these actions are really that important.    I like to say its like a charity dinner where companies buy tables.  Why do they buy a table??-maybe for business reasons-maybe for networking reasons-maybe for reasons of friendship-very few buy it because they simply want to support whatever charity is involved.  But does it matter??  They still bought a table.

Q: You have some very noteworthy backers, such as Chuck Leavell, long-time keyboardist  for the Rolling Stones and an avid tree-farmer and environmental champion.  What did they see that led to their involvement?

A: Yes we have a tremendous group of investors and board members-most have served as CEO's of Fortune 500 companies.  And we have a great Board of Advisors as well-including leaders from the science, academic, media, and business sectors.  The main attraction I believe was the realization that, while the number of people who now have an interest in the environment has soared, there wasn't a resource on the internet that provided environmental news and information in a way these newcomers could understand.  These tens of millions of people who have recently come onboard are not scientist or experts-its now a mainstream movement ,as you said.  But prior to MNN , the resources available on the internet have been very academic and technical and usually very narrow in their scope.  And that is the void we hope to fill.

Q: Imagine you are speaking to the Fortune 500 right now, why is MNN important to their company, their employees and their customers?

A: One, for all of the reasons provided in the question above.  But-from a business standpoint-I can tell you that nobody offers the marketing opportunity that Mother Nature Network offers.  99% of marketing on the web is banner ads that pop on and off along side those of many other companies.  Its still sold like newspaper ads were a hundred years ago-by the inch, by the day, and on the same page as a hundred other ads.  And,  now of course, most sites have commercials that you have to watch before any videos.  This system is so ineffective for the company-there is no real communication delivered-no real connection is made with visitors.  And-for the visitor-its intrusive and irritating.   Our model is totally different.   We have 30 categories and each is sponsored by one single company-24 hours a day, 365 days a year.  The sponsor is the only marketing presence for all landing pages, story pages, and video pages in that category.  Finally, each sponsor has 6 video screens on their sections landing page-providing them the opportunity to offer in-depth communication on a variety of topics.

Q: You have created an amazing amount of content so far.  What are a few of your favorite stories to share?

A: I'd like to think most people have better taste than I do,  but-since you asked.    My favorite stories so far are "THE 10 BEST ECO-DISASTER MOVIES OF ALL TIME"  and our stories covering the Detroit Auto Show last month.  Next month we start airing  the Captain Planet cartoon series that Ted Turner developed in the 1990's-and hasn't really been available on the internet-in spite of a huge cult following.  I'm very excited about that.

Q: Who does your team want to interview the most?

A: Michael Dell.  Think you can arrange it for us?

Q: What's around the corner?  Can you give us some hints on what's ahead?

A: Well, you know we just started 2 weeks ago-so there is a long list.  We are looking at international expansion.  We are looking at dramatically increasing our content .  We have an incredible section we are introducing in March-called MNN LOCAL REPORTS-which will offer state by state coverage from college correspondents.  As I said, there is a long, long list.

Thanks Joel, appreciate it.  Good luck and I'll have to check on your interview request..:)

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