Buoyed by the breakaway success of An Inconvenient Truth, the film documentary of Al Gore's environmental lecture, publishers like The Washington Post, National Geographic and others are increasing their offerings of "green" content, hoping to attract readers and advertising revenues from.
On Saturday, for instance, Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive, the online arm of The Washington Post Co., introduced Sprig.com, a new Web site aimed at environmentally conscious women. The site is the first new property the company has built from scratch; it bought Slate.com and operates BudgetTravelOnline.com in partnership with Arthur Frommer's Budget Travel magazine and Newsweek. Analysts said the initiative is well-enough timed and executed.
"If you looked at 10 new markets to go after right now, this would probably be close to the top, becausein the next couple of years," said Josh Bernoff, an online media analyst with Forrester Research, a consulting firm. "And having an established company behind it is a good way to kick something like this off."
Sprig features articles in five categories: food, fashion, beauty, home and lifestyle, with videos liberally mixed into each section. In the beauty section, a video features an eco-friendly manicure and pedicure, while in the food section, visitors can watch organic cooking demonstrations. The site will post about six new articles a day, written in a way one might characterize as Green Lite.
"We're targeting this to the 95 percent of people who want to be 5 percent green," said Jeanie Pyun, Sprig's editor in chief. "Not the 5 percent of people who want to be 95 percent green."
According to Mark Whitaker, the vice president and editor in chief of new ventures for The Post's online division, Sprig has already signed up more than 100,000 subscribers to its daily e-mail newsletter, which it marketed on other Post sites like BudgetTravelOnline.com, in addition to sites outside the company.
Whitaker said the initiative follows a mandate from The Post's chairman and chief executive, Donald E. Graham, to expand the digital division beyond its four Web sites, which last year generated more than $100 million in revenue (an increase of 28 percent from 2005). Sara Levinson, a former executive at Rodale, NFL Properties and MTV, pitched the idea to The Post last fall, Whitaker said.
"We thought the idea was very, very ripe," Whitaker said, "so it was important to us to get it out there as quickly as possible."
Selling ads, hedging risk
According to Goli Sheikholeslami, Sprig's vice president and general manager, ad rates should "be in line" with those on other Post Web sites. Finding interested advertisers, she said, has been less of a problem than it would have been had the company not started life as a Post property. The company's advertising sales staff is pitching Sprig to existing clients, many of whom are major brands.
One advertiser already lined up is the Clorox Company, which produces a range of consumer products including Hidden Valley Ranch salad dressings. Sumona Pramanik, associate marketing manager for Hidden Valley, said she chose Sprig to carry ads about her brand's new organic ranch dressing partly because Sprig is aimed at a mainstream audience.
"Their positioning as a stylish green site made them a perfect fit," Pramanik said. "And having that female target consumer, that's definitely a place where we play."
Analysts acknowledge some, given that in past decades, the interest in environmentalism eventually waned.
But, they said, the Internet offers media companies a good way to hedge. Even though a new Web site costs much to get off the ground, it is less expensive than starting a magazine or television production. And, a Web site can be adjusted more easily for shifting tastes.
Lauren Rich Fine, a former media analyst with Merrill Lynch, said it is too early to tell if the site will have any meaningful impact on The Post's sales. "But there's a good business reason to be green right now," she said. "And The Post has been, bar none, the most innovative newspaper company when it comes to online."
Bernoff, of Forrester, said that despite such innovation, Sprig still carries a whiff of old-media hubris because it has not done enough to incorporate the voices of its readers, with comments and social networking features, for instance.
"They have a lot of that in Sprig, but compared to what else is happening right now on the Web, they could have a lot more," he said. "It's a typical media company attitude to say 'We control the editorial because we're the smart people,'" Bernoff added. "And I think these days, you have to admit the readers are the smart people, too."
The National Geographic Society also will roll out a new site on Monday, Green.NationalGeographic.com. That site will include more than 2,000 pages of environmental news, how-to videos and tips on eco-friendly travel and activities.
According to Betsy Scolnik, president of National Geographic's online division, the new site follows last month's acquisition of TheGreenGuide.com, a Web site that, among other things, offers buying guides in various categories. TheGreenGuide's content, she said, will appear both on NationalGeographic.com as well as the new "green" site.
To build out the content on Green.NationalGeographic.com, Scolnik said the organization is relying on its National Geographic News division, in which more than 200 correspondents file daily reports on environmental news from around the world. Advertising support for this type of news, Scolnik said, has grown briskly in the past year.
"We've definitely seen more advertisers interested in this type of content," she said. "It's thrilling to us that everybody's interested in the planet--finally."
Scolnik would not comment on advertising revenues or traffic to the organization's Web sites, but she said: "The growth in our Internet business reflects what's going on over all in the Internet industry."
As more established media companies focus on the green movement, independent green sites like TreeHugger.com are in an interesting position. Do they accede to acquisition offers from traditional print publishers, or do they watch those companies build sites and try to compete against their formidable sales and marketing teams?
Ken Rother, TreeHugger's president, said he has declined, among others, partly because revenue and traffic have increased at a breakneck pace since Gore's big-screen success. Hertz, Sundance and other mainstream marketers have advertised on his site recently, and traffic has roughly doubled since November, to about 1.6 million monthly visitors.
Rother said he is bracing for a possible drop in advertising revenue once Sprig's sales pick up. "We absolutely worry about it," he said. "Advertisers will have a tough choice in front of them."
"It could be that the market will segment in different ways, and we might see a drop in our fashion advertising because Sprig might take ownership of that," Rother added. "But it also depends on how good they are. We have trust with our readership. These other organizations will have to develop that if they're going to succeed."