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Go green, get rewarded. In a nutshell, that's RecycleBank's business model and value proposition. The company teams with municipalities to add chips to recycling bins to monitor activity. Consumers receive points, redeemable for goods and services, from companies ranging from Coca-Cola to Yoplait to eBay. Everyone wins: localities have less landfill, consumers are rewarded for good behavior, and brands can bask in a do-gooder, green glow.
The company recently expanded to the UK, and has also gone beyond its recycling roots into other green activities. We caught up with CMO Ian Yolles, whose own green cred is impeccable. He joined the company following stints with Outward Bound, Nike, Patagonia, and The Body Shop.
Q: Let’s start with a brief overview of what RecycleBank is.
Ian Yolles: The core part of our business and brand pertains to building a platform that motivates individuals in communities to engage in green actions that have a positive impact on the environment.
Q: Now that's primarily about earning points and advertiser premiums for activities like recycling. Any other activities?
A: Let me talk to you a little bit about the genesis of the business, then I can talk a little bit about the evolution of the vision and the direction we’re going in. The genesis of the business pertains specifically to motivating individuals and communities to increase recycling rates. The proposition was that if we could increase recycling rates, which correspond to a diversion of waste going into the landfill versus waste being recycled, there's a significant economic savings for the municipality. So we built a rewards platform that motivates and incentivises people to increase their recycling. We put a chip in a recycling bin. We know it’s your bin, so we know when you’ve recycled. There’s a weigh scale on the recycling truck that picks up your recycling. Based on the amount that you’ve recycled on a weekly and a bi-weekly basis, we reward you with points corresponding to the amount you recycled. It’s that sort of positive motivation, that carrot-versus-stick approach, that now has resulted in significant increases in recycling rates in a wide variety of communities across the country. We’re now in about 300 communities and over 20 states in the United States. We also have launched the business in the UK. That was really the genesis of the business.
We've sort of expanded the vision. The idea is to take this same methodology, but instead of just focusing on recycling, we now are motivating people to engage in a series of progressive green actions. For example, we’ve just recently launched a program in Chicago in conjunction with the Citizens Utility Board where we are motivating people to reduce their energy usage in their home environment. First of all we can measure and track energy usage in the home environment. That’s information that comes to you on your monthly statement. So it’s similar to the recycling scenario. It’s measurable and trackable. Then again we’re overlaying this rewards platform as the carrot to motivate and incentivise people to reduce energy consumption.
Q: Discuss how you get sponsors and advertisers involved with the program, and how that exchange works.
A: There are all kinds of data to suggest that increasingly, consumers are considering the kinds of purchases they’re making and the brands that they’re entering into a relationship with. I think we’re at the beginning of a deep cultural and structural shift in that regard. It’s also increasingly the case that major brands, major businesses are also thinking and acting upon these issues, whether it’s from a supply chain standpoint, thinking about the environment and sustainability as a lens to drive innovation from a product creation and product design standpoint, or from a consumer communication and consumer engagement point of view.
With that context in mind, what is becoming increasingly interesting about the community we’re building at RecycleBank is that these are individuals who over time have one particular thing in common, which is that they’ve engaged in some number of specific green-related actions, behavioral actions pertaining to making an environmental choice associated with their life and their products and services. That community is of great interest to marketing partners. That’s kind of the core value proposition.
Q: Who are some of your marketing partners, and how are you going about finding them?
A: eBay is an interesting marketing partner, because obviously one of the core propositions at eBay has to do with the buying and selling of goods that are already used. From an environmental standpoint typically that is a preferred purchasing behavior, because you’re extending the product lifecycle. eBay has developed something that they call the eBay Green Team which is part of their community that has expressed a particular interest in environmental related issues they engage with.
We have been introducing members of the RecycleBank community to the eBay Green Team. We’re sort of driving sign-ups and engagement for eBay via their Green Team, and we’ve had terrific success doing that. Another really interesting example is Nature Made, the vitamin company. Nature Made was very interested in creating awareness around the fact that their vitamin bottles are recyclable, which is not something a lot of their consumers know. They wanted to focus on consumer education around the fact that their bottles are fully recyclable, and they also wanted to inspire action.
We entered into a relationship with them where consumers could pledge to recycle their vitamin bottles by entering a code that was on the vitamin bottle packaging at RecycleBank.com. In return, they would receive points that rewarded them for pledging to recycle the vitamin bottles, and Nature Made is a reward partner as well. They could opt-in for a reward to buy a Nature Made product with a discount. It sort of continues that sort of circular connection with Nature Made.
We launched a marketing campaign via RecycleBank.com where we had ad units and editorial content devoted to telling the story of Nature Made and their bottles. We also have a monthly newsletter, and we used that as a venue to tell the story. We had an interactive educational video we call "The Cycle," which educates people on what actually happens to a product when you put it in the recycling stream. That was another piece of educational content Nature Made was associated with. Then we also promoted the effort through Facebook and Twitter. Earth month was the timing for this particular campaign. Nature Made also promoted the activity through NatureMade.com.
We had over 35,000 people pledge to recycle the vitamin bottles and all the education that went along with that. Users engaged with the educational content an average of two to four times. We had very strong click-through rates on the ad units that were posted on RecycleBank.com. On the social media side, we propagated the message via the blogging community. I think about 60 different bloggers talked about this initiative. The average reach of those bloggers was about 60,000 monthly unique visitors. Overall, we had about 65 or 70 online articles that were written about the campaign, promoting the opportunity to learn points and the recyclability of the vitamin bottles. So that’s an example of how we would think about using the platform to build consumer engagement that combines demonstrable, trackable action, education, awareness and brand building.
Q: I understand, having spoken to people at RecycleBank, that with some of your larger and more corporate sponsors there are elements of greenwashing you have to police. How hard is it to keep your advertisers honest, so to speak?
A: The first part of the answer begins with us and our business. As we’re building our brand, one of the cornerstones - the sort of core DNA of our brand - is that we are having a measurable, trackable, positive environmental impact. So the way I would begin to answer the question is that it starts with us building an authentic, credible brand in the green space. RecycleBank has been recognized and lauded by many influential individuals and groups within the sustainability community as a result of the very practical, real world impact we’re having by increasing recycling rates and now, by thinking about energy conservation. We also have an electronics waste platform where we reward people to send us electronic waste, so it can be properly recycling and disposed of.
So it begins with us, with our own credibility and authenticity as a result of real world positive impact. As far as our marketing partners are concerned, I would say from my point of view, there’s no such thing as a sustainable company and a sustainable product. It is much more about a journey, a continuum. Whether you’re talking about individual products or whether you’re talking about sort of brands and businesses, you know every brand and business is somewhere along this continuum to becoming more and more sustainable.
What I am very mindful of when it comes to greenwashing is the notion that there is anything that resembles a truly green product or a truly green brand or a business. It just doesn’t exist.
What we’re interested in is educating consumers about what they can do, and positive impacts that they can make, and also rewarding them, giving them this sort of economic carrot to do so. In terms of our marketing partners, what we’re interested in is telling the story and building awareness of the positive things that our marketing partners are doing that are moving them further down this road towards greater and greater sustainability as a brand and business.
Q: How are you leveraging the social media community? You obviously had a big presence in New York at BlogHer. I know you’re very into tweeting. How are you harnessing and encouraging consumers, bloggers, tweeters and other users of social media to market on your behalf?
A: Engaging in the social media landscape all begins with having an interesting story. I think where there’s an interesting story, there’s a natural inclination [to pass that story along], whether it’s person-to-person or whether it’s via Twitter or whether it’s on Facebook. This is an almost ancient tradition, if you will. When the story’s interesting, you want to tell the story to other people. That story gets told, and retold, and retold.
We are very fortunate in that to begin with, there’s a very interesting story of innovation associated with what we’re doing, the nature of our business, the nature of the brand we’re building. Also, it’s a story that has global resonance in terms of the implications, but the level of engagement is at a very micro, local level. Another interesting dimension is the action that an individual takes happens in the physical, real world at a very local level. But we’re building this community online in the digital world to sort of enable and empower individuals to take hyper-local actions. All of that lends itself very well to the social media space, because essentially there are tools there that enable people to pass along stories and experiences that they’re excited about. That’s been a real benefit for us.
The second thing is we have economic currency in the form of the points. As we evolve some of our relationships, we also can use the points as a mechanism to encourage people to pass along the story, whether it’s a piece of educational content or whether it’s the ability to refer a friend to become part of the community that we’re building. That’s another critical enabler.
We’re certainly evolving the consumer experience, but if you think about it and you think about the idea of a currency, we have an economic currency: the points and rewards. That’s very powerful as a motivator. But we also have other forms of currency. As we move forward and develop our consumer engagement platform we’ll turn to these in a much more focused way. There’s also the idea of social currency and social status. For example, as people recycle more or reduce their energy, we can honor that achievement and recognize them in the form of some sort of social currency. So that’s a second kind of currency we’re very interested in.
We also have informational currency, which is the ability to serve up data and create an interesting visualization of data, that will further motivate people to engage in the community and tell the story. Then the fourth form of currency is the environmental currency, because we measure the impact people have. That currency lends itself very well to promoting dialogue, promoting engagement, and motivating people, not only to engage as an individual in taking these actions, but to engage with the broader community.
Q: Any additional points related to marketing and advertising and RecycleBank you'd like to make?
A: Well, what’s heartening is to see firsthand the effects of this deep cultural and structural shift I referred to earlier - the kinds of conversations we’re having with brands regarding the integration of their sustainability agenda into their marketing agenda. The growing confluence between those two agendas suggests there’s this really interesting potential as our business and brand evolve to bring value to marketing partners who are increasingly thinking in innovative ways about these issues.