EcoGeek of the Week: Jonathon Colman


Jonathon D. Colman is the Senior
Manager of Digital Marketing at The Nature Conservancy. As such, it's
kinda his job to understand the wild ways of the internet and then to
harness it's raw power for the forces of awesome. Of course, The Nature
Conservancy is one of the big players in the "International Alliance
for Awesomeness." He'll be giving us his take on the web, digital
media, and saving this world. We're excited to have Jonathon as this
week's EcoGeek of the Week.  

 

EG: OK...lets get this out of the way...briefly, what do you actually
do... 

JDC: Sure thing! As you know, the mission of The Nature Conservancy
is to preserve the plants, animals and natural communities that represent
the diversity of life on Earth by protecting the lands and waters they
need to survive. 


So I help the Conservancy accomplish
that vision by leading the strategic management, marketing, and promotion
of our flagship web site, www.nature.org. That means that I've got my fingers
in a number of cookie jars every day: web development, web traffic recording
and analytics, blog and online community outreach, search engine optimization,
online ad placements, and posting our stories to online social networks
and other "web 2.0" sites.  Not to mention organizing a redesign
of our web site, developing an RFP for a new web content management
system, implementing a new web analytics system, and chatting with my
coworkers about how great LOST and Battlestar Galactica
are. 


Now, if you're like me —
and I am — then you're a geek and would love all that stuff. 
So I tend to think of my job as just a way of being paid to have fun
and work with the best and brightest. 

 

EG: I've seen some resistance among big environmental organizations
to embracing online media. Do you run into that at The Nature Conservancy,
and, if so, how do you deal with it?
 

 

JDC: I think that we face similar challenges with online media as many
other organizations: lots of great ideas and very little staff and budget. 
The way we've overcome this hurdle is to invest our efforts where
they'll have the biggest bang for the buck (like bidding on search
engine keywords using Google AdWords) as well as using all of the great,
free tools and networks that are now available, like Google Analytics, Google Video, Care2, and Gather.com.  We've also found a great
partner in the Public
Radio Exchange
,
which produces our weekly Nature Stories
podcast



I also think that nonprofits
have been stymied by online communities, what they're for, how to
build them, and how to engage them.  Our guiding philosophy here
is to engage people where they're already being active rather than
spending time in R&D building our own version of things that already
exist.  For example, rather than building our own photo-sharing
application, the Conservancy ran a photo contest
on Flickr

Rather than build our own GIS mapping system, we put together a Google Maps mashup with the locations of our nature preserves. 


Why try to reinvent the wheel
when a best-in-class web presence or tool already exists and has a huge
audience of millions of people?  We'd much rather leverage the
expertise of existing communities to find new supporters and engage
our existing audiences with fun, exciting opportunities.


 

EG: Why do you think it took the environmental movement so long to
catch the wave? And do you think we've suffered because of it? 

 

JDC: A lot of people working in nonprofit technology (or as we call
it, "nptech"), are "accidental techies";
that is, they've been slated with web or technical projects because
there's literally no one else to do them.  Furthermore, if they're
lucky, these folks might get to spend 5-10% of their time working on
those technology projects when they're not also doing media relations,
fundraising, organizing events, and managing the office.  It's
hard enough for someone like that to publish a web page, let alone adhere
to XHTML standards compliance, optimize their pages for search engines,
and — God forbid! — keep up to date with Zeldman, Eric Meyer, Beth Kanter, Holly Ross, and Seth Godin


A lot of nonprofits invest
heavily in program work — after all, that's what the donations are
supposed to be supporting, right?  And that's what gets you a four-star rating
on Charity Navigator

So having a nifty, helpful web site that establishes a strong, trustworthy,
credible brand is sometimes seen as an afterthought. 


What we've found at the Conservancy,
however, is that the web can bring in new supporters, new ideas and
resources for project work, and new passion and emotional investment
from existing members.  Leveraging the strength of your offline,
"bricks-and-mortar" brand can help you reach new audiences online. 


The environmental movement
isn't suffering for falling behind; we're embracing the online world
and are catching up quickly.  Look at the success of TreeHugger.  Look at the Google Trends curve
for searches on "global warming"
.
Look at how EcoGeek is getting dugg every few minutes.  I'd say
that green is bringing sexy back in a pretty big way.


 

EG: We at EcoGeek love readers of sites like Digg and Reddit and
Slashdot. Has TNC had success with social news?
 

 

JDC: Social news is a big, growing area for us. The type of things we
post regularly on Digg and Netscape and Newsvine are real-world events,
announcements, and discoveries — so our online efforts dovetail with
what we're doing offline.  We're becoming popular on Digg and
a number of the other big social news networks regularly because of
the strength of our content.  We've brought huge amounts of new
visitors to our site through these tools and have worked hard to develop
engaging communities on them at the same time. 


We see these emerging web sites
and news venues as being important because they dictate, for a growing
amount of people, how news and information are now being discovered
online.  There are a lot of good, engaging stories that end up
on the cutting room floor of the daily newspaper and nightly TV news,
even though they're worthy of broadcast, solely for lack of space,
right?  Well, social news networks don't have to plan their layout
in picas, charge for home delivery, and never run out of space for breaking
news.  And because they're fairly democratic, our organization
has just as much chance at engaging people with our news and stories
as does anyone else. 


As far as demographics, my
sense of the folks using social media and "web 2.0" sites is that
they're very advanced in their grasp of technology and the online
world.  They have access to many sources of information and are
used to looking at multiple perspectives of issues.  They're
also not afraid to speak their minds where they see fault — or inspiration!
— and, indeed, expect to be able to share their thoughts directly
with the entities making the news. 


Me, I don't want to play
it safe and only talk just to the folks who I know are going to agree
with my ideas about the importance of conservation that's way too
easy and it leads only to a lack of growth.  I want to talk with
the ones who are skeptical, who aren't so sure of the science, who
don't believe everything that they're told.  Ultimately, if
I can help them to convince themselves to support the environment, then
they'll be much more passionate about it and motivated to make a real
change than if I just spam them with e-mail day after day.  In
reality, they'll do all of the hard work of conversion; I'm just
helping them by making resources and information available. 


I love meeting new people on
these networks and finding out what they're interested in, so EcoGeek
readers, please send me your connection requests!


 

EG: I've been really impressed by a lot of TNC's current projects.
Are you proud of what you guys do? (why) 

 

JDC: You bet! It's a great adventure each day, just getting up, walking
out the door and taking public transportation to work.  We could
be focusing on the Great Bear Rainforest
in Canada
, the
endangered coral reefs in tropical areas around the world,
or even the oft-overlooked connections between HIV/AIDS and wildlife
conservation in Africa

It's great to work with such dedicated, passionate people.  No
two days are ever alike and while there are always little things that
get in the way, we try to keep in mind that everyone wants to help protect
nature to benefit people, animals, and the environment as a whole. 


The bottom line is that The
Nature Conservancy is an organization that gets things done or as
one of my colleagues often states, "Conservation plus adrenaline equals
100% job satisfaction!" 

 

EG: Sometimes this business can get a little overwhelming. Is there
any issue that particularly scares your pants off?
 


JDC: Climate change is
no joke
— it's
not the sort of thing we can play around with and ask for a do-over
if we get it wrong.  I sincerely believe it's the single biggest
threat facing our world right now.  The upside to this is that
it's not all doom and gloom — there are many things that we can
do in terms of science, technology, policies, business practices, and
personal behaviors to help slow the effects of climate change. 


To this end, the Conservancy
recently launched a carbon footprint
calculator
to help
our visitors determine their impact on the climate.  Our web application
helps you see that even little changes in our daily routines can make
a big difference when everyone works together. 

 

EG: It's a pretty scary world...at the end of the day, what keeps
you hopeful? 

 

JDC: The passion of our supporters, the dedication and persistence of
the Conservancy's staff, the discoveries that we're making every
day in conservation
science
, the way
that people are using the web to get closer to each other than ever
before, and the strength of human creativity and imagination. 

 

EG: What's the most powerful tool in your marketing arsenal? (In
other words...please give me all your secrets!) 

 

JDC: Coffee.  No, really!  I drink like five or six cups of Fair Trade, songbird-friendly,
organic coffee

a day and I couldn't be efficient or effective without it.  Gotta
feed the machine, you know? 


OK, I understand what you're
getting at here and I'd have to say that, as a marketer, it's the
strength, longevity, and credibility of The Nature Conservancy's
brand
. I think
that marketers often get in trouble for promising things that they can't
deliver — and that's just not the case with TNC. 


We've been around for over
55 years and part of people's families for generations.  I think
people look at us and understand that we're the conservation organization
that works both locally and around the world, that we use the best available
science to guide our work, that we achieve tangible and lasting results,
and that we create solutions that benefit both nature and people, all
while using a non-confrontational approach. 


And no matter how much coffee
I drink, no amount of search engine optimization or Technorati authority
or MySpace friends can add up to that.


 

EG: Do you love the internet?  Why? 

 

JDC: It's often hard for us to remember that, just a little over a
decade ago, the InterWeb as we know it didn't exist.  Not a drop
of Wi-fi to be found in coffee shops, no way to pay bills online, and
it was about the last place you'd go if you were trying to find a
job, an apartment, or even a movie to see.  In fact, I can specifically
remember not loving the Internet when all the discussion on it
was about how people were going to use it to make money, if only they
could figure out how! 


But what I see happening today
is people from all over the world getting to know one another, breaking
down barriers, and discovering new and innovative ways to make change
happen on issues that they care about.  And that's damn exciting! 
We couldn't have guessed fifteen years ago that my job would even
exist, let alone the Internet as it is now.  I love it, I live
it, and I spend a good portion of my waking moments using it. 
I think it's the tool that humanity is using to turn our dreams into reality and construct the future from the present.

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