Practically Green, Led by Former Globe Exec, Uses Social Media and Game Mechanics to Spread Green Living

Everyone has their own green environmental “a-ha” moment. Maybe it’s seeing birds drowning in oil, or paying $4 a gallon for gas, or reading about the plastic trash heap the size of Texas swirling around in the Pacific Ocean. For Susan Hunt Stevens, it was discovering her young son had serious food and environmental allergies, which prompted her to examine which ingredients and toxins were causing the health problems.

Her discovery came back in 2007, and it roughly coincided with Stevens and her family moving into a 19th-century Victorian home outside of Boston. So, in part to create a better living environment for her family, she decided to do a major “green renovation.” This effort has included generating electricity from waste energy (boiled water), using light-emitting diodes and compact fluorescent lamps for lighting, buying energy-saving appliances and plywood cabinetry made without formaldehyde glues, insulating the roof with healthy spray foam, installing bamboo shades and cork floors, using low-flow faucets and toilets, composting kitchen waste, and so on.

Along the way, Stevens decided to blog about the experience. She knows a thing or two about online media and consumer marketing, having been a longtime senior executive with The New York Times and Boston Globe, where she oversaw the news site Boston.com, among other things. [Disclosure: Stevens joined Xconomy’s board of directors last month—Eds.]

But when she originally started blogging about green issues, she got questions from readers about the industry that she couldn’t answer. That started her on the road to taking classes at the Boston Architectural College, where she learned cutting-edge green design.

Stevens is now the founder and CEO of Practically Green, a stealthy Web startup based in Boston that combines many of the things she has done in her career. I sat down with her last week to talk about the company and its significance to green sustainability issues, online business models, and technology trends like social networking and videogame mechanics.

The first thing to know about Practically Green is that it’s not just another “green content” site, or how-to blog about sustainability and the environment. Instead, think of it as being like Foursquare or FarmVille for the green lifestyle, mixed with WeightWatchers.com in terms of accessibility and support networks. And throw in a little Amazon.com and TripAdvisor for consumer reviews and e-commerce. The site uses social networks, gaming mechanics, and expert content to help consumers figure out “how green” they are, find reputable green products and services, and connect with other like-minded people so as to stay motivated to live a greener lifestyle. The big idea is to help consumers lead healthier lives, while also aiding the environment—and saving on their electric bill.

It’s also an intriguing example of the “gamification” trend we’ve been reporting on lately, whereby consumer websites and companies are trying to boost traffic, engagement, and customer loyalty by incorporating rewards programs, badges, competitive goals and objectives, virtual currency, and other social gaming features. What makes Practically Green interesting is that it combines deeper ideas around wellness, social change, and online media—and it seems to have a real revenue model (more on that shortly).

“We want it to be fun. We think friends are the most important influencer for you changing your behavior,” Stevens says. It’s like “social gaming but with real life impact,” she adds.

The site has been up in beta form since the end of June, with an official commercial rollout planned for September. Here’s how it works: You sign up and take a five-minute diagnostic quiz to evaluate how green your lifestyle is. Then you can start looking into various “green actions.” Want to add insulation to your roof, or upgrade your dishwasher to an energy-saving model? Practically Green has a page for each of those actions—about 400 in all so far. Each page gives detailed how-to information and rates the ease, cost, and benefit of the action. It also recommends products and services in each category, based on consumer feedback and a personalized profile of each member. A dashboard interface helps you keep track of the points you earn in four categories: water, energy, health, and “stuff.” Those points will eventually be redeemable for goods online, or in retail stores.

The tech wizardry behind the personalization and recommendation engine comes from co-founder Jason Butler, who previously worked with Stevens at the Boston Globe and has experience from Abuzz, The New York Times, and Amazon.com. Butler says the technical problem has a lot in common with local search and information discovery. “How do we get people the information they’re looking for based on what we know about them? It’s an interesting challenge,” he says.

Building up the site’s scientific content (about various green actions) and presenting the information in the right way at the right time to each consumer is particularly important, Butler adds. “We have to earn the customer’s trust and provide great information,” he says.

So how will this thing make money? Mainly through lead generation—sending companies prospective customers for their green products, say—and affiliate marketing, Stevens says. The idea is that people in the Practically Green network, and casual visitors to its content pages, will buy stuff from companies whose products are recommended on the site. The company also plans to do some syndicated or customized research in the green sector.

Butler points out that they have to be “careful not to burn the relationship with the consumer just to maximize short-term lead generation” revenues. Instead, the more important goal is to become a trusted advisor to green consumers.

Stevens, for her part, is well acquainted with the balancing act of providing authoritative online content while also doing effective marketing. She admits her company still has to “prove that consumers will purchase from these pages,” but she seems to have a strong plan to get them to show up there. It involves a combination of search engine optimization, social media, and other marketing techniques. But the key, of course, is to first build a compelling service. “People approach green with, ‘what’s the thing I want to change,’ then ‘what are the products, and what are people saying about them?’” Stevens says.

Practically Green is self-funded so far, and it currently has three employees and a few interns. The company plans to raise an angel investment round later this year. Stevens says it will remain “a pretty small company through 2011,” and that the plan is to “start small and grow it organically.” By the end of 2011, the goal is to have a couple hundred thousand unique visitors per month, and about 100,000 registered members, she says.

Lastly, I asked Stevens about her own home’s green renovation, and when it would be done. She sounds like she’ll be personally combing through the Practically Green site for ideas on keeping up with her greater green mission.

“You’re never done,” she says. “Line-drying the laundry is next.”

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Editor in chief. E-mail him at gthuang [at] xconomy.com. Follow @gthuang

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