Sell Green to Make Green

For online marketers, green could be the new gold. The events of the past year opened the eyes of many consumers to the importance of being Earth-friendly, which in turn has created an unprecedented opportunity for the sellers of green goods.

Hurricane Katrina, the popularity of the global warming documentary "An Inconvenient Truth" and President Bush’s epiphany about alternative fuels have collectively vaulted caring for the planet from being the grist of environmentalists to the forefront of consumer consciousness.

"There is no better time than right now to talk about [green] products and services," Cheryl Roth, co-founder of marketing and public relations firm OrganicWorks Marketing, says. Consumer receptiveness to the green message is at the highest point since Roth began promoting healthy living products six years ago, she says.

However, many green companies are just that in their know-how of connecting with customers on the Web. Several companies offering environmentally friendly products online contacted for this article have never engaged in online marketing beyond creating a website. When asked about affiliate programs and search marketing, many company executives openly admitted that they were unfamiliar with search engine optimization, affiliate networks and RSS feeds.

The challenge for online marketers is to assist green companies in learning to master the tools of the trade before the green wave loses its appeal to fickle consumers.

NEW ECONOMY STUCK IN OLD MEDIA

Marketers of environmentally friendly products are spending big bucks to deliver the message through old media, but have done comparatively little online. During the past year General Electric (with its Ecomagination campaign), General Motors and BP (now Beyond Petroleum) gave the green movement national exposure through multi-million-dollar advertising campaigns through broadcast and print media. Hybrid vehicle makers including Toyota, Honda and Ford continued successful marketing campaigns of the past few years as a receptive public snapped up twice as many of the air-sparing vehicles in 2005.

The biggest green marketing campaign of 2006 demonstrated the effectiveness of simultaneously advertising online and with broadcast media. General Motors’ "Live Green Go Yellow" marketing effort explained the benefits of ethanol and promoted the company’s 12 flex-fuel vehicles that can use the fuel derived from corn.

The campaign included extensive TV, radio and print ads and coincided with extensive banner advertising and search marketing. Display ads on AOL generated 336 million impressions as "one of the most successful campaigns in AOL history," according to Bob Kraut, the director of brand marketing at General Motors.

GM launched the TV campaign during the Super Bowl and at the same time bought key search terms including E85 and ethanol to drive traffic to the website LiveGreenGoYellow.com. GM also drove ads to the website by buying banner ads on environmentally themed sites including GreenNature.com, Nearctica.com and MSNBC News Environment.

Kraut says the bounce rate (people leaving a website after visiting the first page) during the campaign was half of GM’s usual percentage, indicating that general consumers were receptive to its Earth-friendly message. Later this year GM will reinforce the green message by emailing registered flex-fuel owners to remind them that they can use E85, Kraut says.

"Buying green has become part of the American vernacular," he says.

THE EDUCATION CHALLENGE

While GM had a substantial budget for interactive advertising, many green companies’ online efforts are as lively as a wind farm on a breeze-free day.

Lawrence Comras, president of e-commerce company GreenHome.com, estimates that 30 percent of consumers would buy green if they knew that products comparable in performance to what they currently purchase were available.

While the market may be ripe, green companies have a threefold marketing challenge: 1) They must differentiate their products versus conventional competitors for quality; 2) Explain their environmental benefits; and 3) Justify why consumers may be expected to pay a premium, as is often the case.

Since the definition of green can be subjective and varies from category to category, the messaging can be complex, according to Comras. For some products, conserving energy is the goal. Other products are considered green because they are made from recycled materials, while using non-toxic chemicals defines others.

"How do you know what’s really green?" asks Comras. Also, chemicals that would be permissible in paint would not be allowed in green soap products, which requires additional education, he says.

"There must be more emphasis on education [than with traditional marketing]," agrees OrganicWorks’ Roth. Consumers previously may not have considered the environmental and health impact of their everyday purchases, so websites need to explain how their products are planet-friendly.

Finding green products within the comparison shopping portals (such as Amazon.com and Half.com) can also be a challenge, as they do not flag their environmentally friendly products, according to Marty Coleman, the president of marketing and public relations firm Green Communications Group.

EXPERTISE WANTED

For many green companies who are passionate about their cause, marketing is not second nature. The lexicon of online marketing is as unfamiliar to many green entrepreneurs as the chemical composition of the greenhouse gases is to most consumers. Marketing companies that partner with green companies should expect to do extensive hand holding throughout the process.

For example, Green Mountain Energy, a clean-electricity company that was founded in 1997, has advertised for several years on TV and radio, but the company doesn’t advertise online. The company’s website is an informational and commerce site that allows customers to order renewable energy power, but the company does not market the website online. We are "using the Web primarily as a response vehicle," says Gillan Taddune, Green Mountain’s chief environmental officer.

The Austin, Texas, company has not pursued affiliate relationships or marketing through blogs or RSS feeds, says Taddune. "The Web is not a leading part of the business," she says. That may change later this year as the company is considering expanding its online profile through marketing initiatives, according to Taddune.

Limited financial resources prevent some smaller green companies from aggressively pursuing online marketing. "Many of them don’t have the dollars to do advertising," OrganicWorks’ Roth says. Several for-profit green companies also donate a portion of their revenue to environmental causes, further reducing the amount of money that can be reinvested in the company.

David R. Kaufer, the president of shopping site GreenForGood, says that when he experimented with search engine marketing last year, he did not purchase category words such as "household cleaner" because the big brands put the price out of reach.

Instead, Kaufer focused on purchasing eco-friendly terms, but ended the program because of poor conversion rates due to his admitted inexperience with online marketing. His ads linked to GreenForGood’s index page rather than specific items for sale, which made them ineffective, he says. He plans on resuming a Google Adwords program soon, but this time with landing pages optimized to promote purchases.

While GreenForGood does not have an affiliate program, the company created a store within the environmental group Sierra Club’s website, with the nonprofit receiving a share of the revenue, according to Kaufer. The company prefers to partner with like-minded environmental websites rather than advertising on general-interest publishers or having its products listed on shopping engines. Kaufer believes he’ll get the greatest return by targeting readers predisposed to his message.

AN ATTRACTIVE AUDIENCE

The demographic of consumers interested in environmentally friendly products is appealing to online marketers. Consumers of green products are more likely than the average consumer to shop online, according to Green Communications Group’s Coleman. A 25-year veteran of marketing research, Coleman says green consumers are more technology- savvy and "are more comfortable with buying online," than the general population.

Green shoppers often go online out of frustration in attempting to shop locally, Coleman says. "Green products are not easy to find in brick-and-mortar stores," she says, as they are often not clearly labeled as such and are mixed in among the rest of the items on store shelves.

For several years Minneapolis-based Caldrea used the Web solely as an information resource to support the retail sales of its luxury home-cleaning products, according to founder and president Monica Nassif. The biodegradable products, which are sold under the Mrs. Meyers and Caldrea brands, are available at Whole Foods, Fred Meyers and other supermarket chains.

Nassif said Caldrea’s website was managed from 2000 to 2005 by an outside organization that had restrictive policies limiting design, which prevented her from optimizing the content for search engines. To enhance the company’s online marketing and sales, she hired Andrew Janis as e-commerce manager and brought management of the website in-house in January of this year.

Caldrea is participating in search marketing with several search engines, and Janis says Google provides the best return for green companies. "We get the majority of traffic from Google," he says. Keyword purchases that focus on "environmental" or green tend to outperform more generic terms, according to Janis.

Caldrea sells its products and advertises through several shopping search engines, and Janis says Froogle "outclasses everything out there." The clickthrough and conversion rates are terrible on other shopping sites, he says.

Janis says the company recently made small advertising buys of banner ads on environmental websites, and Caldrea has contacted a few bloggers and lifestyle publishers to spread the word. The company has not joined any affiliate networks as yet, but Janis may pursue a relationship in the near future.

CAPTURE THE COMMUNITY

Communicating with customers through email marketing is part of Caldrea’s strategy, as the company prominently displays a form to sign up for special offers on the home page. The company does not have a blog, according to Janis.

Consultant Coleman doesn’t recommend corporate blogs. "You should go to the places where the community already is," she says noting that one of the most effective methods of organically growing traffic is to get a positive buzz about your business in the blogosphere. "Community blogs are powerful tools if you can get customers to post good experiences [with products]," according to Coleman.

Coleman says encouraging visitors to become members of a website can be successful because "people who buy green products enjoy being part of a community." Once they join, continual communications from the publisher through email newsletters and promotions will drive traffic to the website, she says.

GreenHome’s Comras says affiliates are helping to grow his business, which has doubled sales for each of the last four years. GreenHome’s 50 affiliates receive a share of the revenue for promoting the company’s products, which include appliances, furniture and clothing.

The retailer has not advertised online because Comras views promoting its products to the general public as not being cost-effective. "It’s tough when you break out of the green bubble because you are probably scattering your seed to the wind," he says.

Comras believes that intelligently partnering with like-minded publishers and nonprofit groups can attract the target audience. "We have to equal the clout of mainstream companies to get [the green] word out."

Green marketers have years of catching up if they want their fledgling online efforts to take root while environmental concerns are still top of mind with consumers. This newfound interest in environmentalism may not last forever, so they must be quick studies in mastering the art that online marketers take for granted.

Many green companies also have a global reason to quickly succeed online. As GreenHome’s Comras says, "the planet can no longer afford for [green] companies not to have online stores."

JOHN GARTNER is a freelance writer in Portland, Ore. He is a former editor at Wired News and CMP. His articles regularly appear on Wired.com, AlterNet.org and in MIT’s TechnologyReview.com.