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The Green Army's Social Network March

The Green Army's Social Network March

Green advocates and sustainability proponents are making their power known to corporations through the sophisticated use of social networking. From personal blogs with large, active readerships to social networks forming on mainstays like Facebook or platforms like Ning, activists and companies alike are doing a delicate dance as they learn more about the benefits and pitfalls of using social networking.

By Kimberly Hill
03/19/10 5:00 AM PT

Companies of all sizes now routinely field the question, "What are your sustainability practices?" What's more, the people asking that question are increasingly organizing through the use of social networks large and small. Bloggers like Sharon Astyk of Casaubon's Book, for example, have thousands of regular readers and a series of books in print. Colin Beavan of No Impact Man even had a documentary made about him last year.

When it comes to high-profile green coverage, though, Deanna Duke of The Crunchy Chicken has perhaps the broadest reach. Her "Freeze Yer Buns Off Challenge," encouraging people to turn down their thermostats for the winter, garnered press this year in The New York Times and USA Today, among many other outlets. She's a sustainability force to be reckoned with as she publishes clips on YouTube about shopping at farmers markets and posts to Facebook about the health implications of toothpaste with fluoride.

Is anybody besides the tree-huggers listening? You bet they are. Duke gets e-mails every day from the manufacturers of products, she told TechNewsWorld, and those companies are eager to reach the growing market of consumers seeking green approaches to even the most mundane aspects of their everyday lives.

To Review or Not to Review

"Companies are definitely targeting bloggers to spread the word about their products, particularly if they can get a review," Duke said. While she will indeed review products sent to her if she thinks the topic is relevant to her readers, it may not necessarily be a positive appraisal. "My readers expects my honest assessment about a product," she stressed. Interestingly, she's observed that more often than not, the products she publishes the best reviews about are ones she's found on her own.

Still, as green bloggers have moved from daily or weekly blog posts to more frequent, shorter updates through tools such as Twitter, the companies seeking to garner their much-coveted approval have done the same. "There definitely is a push for companies who do provide review copies or giveaways through blogs to require that as part of your entry you have to Facebook or Tweet about the product," Duke explained. "I don't support those types of giveaways as it seems somehow predatory."

Walking the Line

In fact, sustainability activists and companies are doing a delicate dance as they learn more about the benefits and pitfalls of using social networking to advocate for their cause -- which is, in the case of corporations, the bottom line. One community garden organizer thought long and hard about where the boundaries might be as she set up a group on a local food social networking site in Cleveland, Ohio.

"I had to decide whether or not to retain authority to approve group members or posts," Samantha Provencio, coordinator of two community gardens in the Cleveland area, told TechNewsWorld. The gardens are associated with a range of government and state organizations, such as The Ohio State University. However, no one group has the gardens entirely under its purview.

With no official online home for her group members, Provencio decided to use Local Food Cleveland, a site built with social networking platform Ning, to provide space for community gardeners in her own and surrounding counties. In the end, said Provencio, she left membership open, and one big aspect of that decision is the possibility that corporations will indeed come bearing gifts. "If Home Depot wants to offer garden tools to local community gardeners, I want them to have a way to reach us," she said.

It's Not Easy Being Facebook

With Facebook's rapid rise in popularity among activists of all stripes, one obvious question is why the site isn't the de facto standard gathering place for all sustainability communities. For Provencio, the issue was one of usability. "Facebook has changed its format so often recently," she noted, "I was concerned that people would have a hard time using it." Recent changes in the site's terms of service also gave her cause for concern, she added.

For some groups, though, Facebook's enormous reach simply is too important to ignore when time and resources are very tight. Such is the case for a grass-roots citizen action group that came together quickly when the 144-acre Oakwood Country Club and golf course, which sits on the border of two eastern suburbs of Cleveland, went up for sale. Within just a couple of weeks, the group's Facebook page had tallied over 1,000 fans, steering committee member Wendy Donkin told TechNewsWorld. For some time, the page was used simply to gather ideas and build a network around the goal of keeping the acreage as green space rather than let it fall into the hands of a commercial developer.

Right now, the fate of the Oakwood land remains up in the air. However, Donkin thinks that the Facebook group will be crucial as a specific action plan comes into focus. "Once we have a series of concrete steps, we can ask all these people to help," she noted. What they have done already is to ask fans of the group's Facebook page to fill in a form that lists the skills and resources they have that might be useful as the movement gathers steam.

Who's Your Buddy?

A question both activists and corporations will have to tackle is when to use which social networking tool to achieve any given goal. In Deanna Duke's case, targeting her blog's readership has become easier over her three years of publication. "I know my audience fairly well and have a good feel for what they want to read about," she said. "I've learned from feedback over the years what is popular based on page hits or number of comments."

What's harder, explained Duke, is deciding what portions of content she wants to publish via Twitter or Facebook. Like all sustainability advocates, Duke has a life outside her activism as well, and she connects with those people via the same social networking tools she uses in her "green" life. "I have a lot more personal friends and colleagues that follow me on Facebook but don't necessarily read my blog posts," she noted. "Those that follow me on Facebook get the whole shebang -- links to my blog posts, plus personal and other environmentally related links and thoughts I have that I don't want to write a whole post about."

What those friends and colleagues will see if they browse Duke's recent Facebook status updates would interest any public relations person responsible for the online presence of a major corporation: kudos to the makers of LEGOs for making sure its toys are free of polyvinyl chloride (PVC), a link to a buying guide for dog toys also made without PVC, and a re-post of a link originally distributed by organic dairy product maker Organic Valley about the dangers of overuse of antibiotics in industrial livestock operations.


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