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The Big Spill and the Enviro Group of Ten: Why Isn't Their Web Traffic Surging?

BY Micah L. Sifry | Friday, June 18 2010

On April 20, the news broke of an explosion on BP's Deepwater Horizon drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico. Since then, public attention has steadily risen as the spill has spread, and people are definitely going online in rising numbers for more information on topics like "BP" and "oil spill." You would think that these would be banner days for America's big environmental organizations, notable the "Group of Ten" that have been around the longest and dominated public awareness for many years. But a look at web traffic going to the big enviro groups' websites is surprising.

When you compare the number of unique visitors they got in April to the month of May--which has been soaked with headlines about the Big Spill--some sites, notably the Wilderness Society, the National Audubon Society, and the National Wildlife Federation, show a healthy jump in traffic. This is unique visitors, as tracked by Compete.com. The Wilderness Society is up 35.1%, Audubon up 34.5% and NWF up 23.7%. Greenpeace is also up, by 12.6%.

But what's with the Sierra Club, Defenders of Wildlife, Friends of the Earth, the NRDC and the World Wildlife Fund? Despite the massive attention on America's biggest environmental disaster since the Exxon Valdez, traffic to their websites is down for May. The Sierra Club shows the biggest drop, off 21.6%, with Defenders of Wildlife down 12.4%. FOE is down 7.9%. NRDC down 4.5%. WWF down 2.4%.


[Note to early readers of this post: I mislabeled the data in my spreadsheet; these are definitely Compete.com's 2010 traffic numbers, not 2009--thanks for catching the error, @mariancw.)

If you total the raw numbers up, the overall change in unique visitors to the Group of Ten's websites between April and May is a paltry 3.3% increase, from 2.19 million to 2.27 million. Obviously there's double-counting in here, but you get the larger point. (Looking beyond the Group of Ten, a glance at Treehugger.com's stats shows something similar: a modest 1.4% increase in unique visits from 1.48 million in April to 1.49 million in May.)

At first glance, I'm hard-pressed to explain this. All of these groups' websites include front-page content about the spill. And it's not as if the groups that appear to be really emphasizing the spill are the ones seeing their traffic go up, or vice versa. The Wilderness Society's homepage barely makes note of the spill, but its traffic is up the most. Half of the Sierra Club's homepage content is spill-related, and its down the most.

One possible reason for these numbers is that some of these groups did a big push around Earth Day, April 22nd, and thus might be showing a decline from a high-water mark. (How ironic is it that Earth Day was two days after the Big Spill started?) Again, Compete's data confounds that theory. The Wilderness Society, for example, saw a big drop in traffic between March and April, and then a big jump in May. Greenpeace, which undoubtedly did a big push around Earth Day, saw its traffic rise moderately over both months.

Another explanation, which is undoubtedly true, is that many advocacy organizations, including the enviros, are focusing less on driving traffic to their websites and more on social media engagement. Kombiz Lavasny, director of new media accounts at New Partners and a longtime Democratic online activist who is now working on the Clean Energy Works campaign to pass the climate change bill in the Senate, explains: "One problem you're going to run into is that most linkable and usable work of a lot of these groups now sits on their social network accounts, especially Facebook and Flickr," adding:

If you take Greenpeace which has been producing tons of valuable photography from the gulf coast, most of the links from outside sources embeds and links to social media. A lot of Facebook and twitter traffic have been linked directly to their Flickr account and not to their website. Same is true of the push for climate bill. Their ads have been on Youtube and getting embedded on blogs and websites. This doesn't explain the numbers fully but it's an important and hard to track part of online organization traffic today.

The result, he says, is greater direct engagement between Greenpeace and online activists through a tool like Twitter, where he points out, "Greenpeace has jumped 20% in followers in the last month."

While this shift in tactics is real, I still find it surprising that any enviro group would be seeing a decline in its organic web traffic during this crisis. Part of the reason may be tactical: None of these groups appear to be buying AdWords placements against searches for "BP" on Google. Nor do any of them show up on the first page of search results for BP. The same is true for searches or placements around "oil spill." Compete's data also shows that the top referring terms to all ten of these groups' sites have nothing to do with the spill. Is it possible that the digital strategists at all ten of these organizations have no budget for online advertising and no interest in organic search?

Part of the reason may be cultural. Many of these organizations are legacy institutions that still approach the web with a "fortress" mentality, to use Beth Kanter and Allison Fine's useful image. We're the professional environmentalists, they've been saying to the public for years--leave the issue to us! People looking for direct engagement with the problem of the oil spill and what to do about it will go elsewhere. For example, The Oil Drum group blog has seen its unique visitor traffic almost double in the last month, from 105,000 to 206,000. And the blog hosts an always-on Internet Relay Chat channel (go to http://webchat.freenode.net/, pick a nickname and join the #theoildrum channel) where hundreds of people seem to be hanging out constantly, watching and interpreting the live pictures coming from beneath the ocean, together.

It's also possible that Compete's data is just...odd. I don't have access to any of these groups' web analytics, which would clearly shed more light on what is actually going on. (If you know more, please share!)

Finally, this may be a symptom of a deeper disconnect in America. As I've written before about the Big Spill, what if we're transfixed by the spectacle and NOT driven to take action? This could be the fault of the attention-engines (CNN.com et al) not pointing more people toward environmental groups' sites. Or it could be a sign of society's reaching a saturation point on the environmental issue: people who already care deeply about issues like climate change or pollution are already going to these groups' sites; and the oil spill hasn't changed the underlying numbers of environmentally-minded activists. Maybe some people just don't buy the solutions these groups are selling, so even in the face of a new disaster, there won't be a surge in traffic (I doubt that theory because public opinion polling shows a clear shift in recent weeks towards greater support for ending offshore drilling, for example.) Or maybe the energy is flowing elsewhere online--not to the Group of Ten but to some new forces worth paying attention to.

This subject is worth more inquiry. If you're inclined to pitch in, the next step would be to look at some social media metrics, like changes in these groups' Twitter followers, Facebook fans and Flickr friends. And if you have other theories for what's going on, feel free to chime in below in the comments.