Q&A with Mother Nature Network’s Matt Crenshaw

The network’s president explains why a strong web presence is crucial

You’ve called MNN the Discovery Channel of the web.
If Discovery Channel were started today, it would start out like MNN. The idea is we’re web first. We’re starting there, and whether that leads to other things down the road, we’ll find out.

One of the biggest misconceptions people have about MNN is, they go, “You guys must be all hippie-crunchy, wearing Toms shoes and everything.” And certainly some of us are, but it’s really about taking a mainstream audience and nudging it toward this green lifestyle. I look at it almost like a Whole Foods for content.

You recently passed 10 million monthly unique visitors. How do find your readers?
I knock on a lot of doors. [Laughs] I think we find them by knowing a lot about the people who came before them. We look at the content that resonates and content that people are sharing. A lot of people find our content through organic search, so where are we ranking in Google? Like everybody we’ve been super focused on social media.

Are most of your readers liberal?
You would think, but actually the data doesn’t support that. We’re kind of straight up the middle. MNN isn’t about the people who already get it. It’s about the people who are getting it and who are thinking, “You know, there’s something to all of this.” It’s a movement that doesn’t have a name yet. As I said to somebody in New York, for the rest of the country it’s called Brooklyn—this whole reclaimed wood, organic food, you need to think about the city you live in. We’re trying to find this new definition of what it means to live well.

This is where green websites screwed up, and credit to [CEO Joel Babbit] and team before I came on. What he realized was that there was this whole currency of guilt, this very prescriptive tone of, “You need to be doing this. Why aren’t you doing this? Polar bears polar bears polar bears.” And those sites came and went because people can’t live with that every day.

MNN isn’t a household name, yet you boast readership on par with established media outlets.
More people come in the side looking for a specific piece of content than come to the homepage saying, “Here’s my daily read of MNN.” I think that’s a statement of where the web is going. Content is serviced to you through Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, whatever. That’s a better picture of how the web is growing as opposed to—this is going to date me—but back when Salon.com was king, you’d go to the Salon homepage, have a cup of coffee, and scan the headlines. People don’t use the web that way.

What drew you to MNN?
I was flying to New York every week with Discovery Chanel and realized there was a huge opportunity in my own backyard. There’s a lot of excitement in building a media company and doing something really unique and interesting with digital. I don’t know that the best place to do it is with a traditional media company.

You work with Chuck Leavell, this soft-spoken Southern conservationist with an awesome music background, and former advertising exec Joel Babbit? How do you mesh with two such big personalities?
Joel has a personality? [Laughs.] I like to think that for their many, many gifts, there was a gap of not having someone who came of age in the digital era, so to speak—and I’m clearly trying to make myself sound younger than I am.

I’m a UGA grad, went to the journalism school. I’ll never forget—I was dating a girl, now my wife, who had another quarter before she was done, so I had to kill some time in Athens. The day after I graduated, I went to the bookstore and checked out a book called Marketing and the Internet. This was 1998, so I barely knew what the internet was. I remember reading this book at the Grill cover to cover. And I remember thinking to myself, “I am so screwed. I just got this degree in journalism and can tell you everything about magazines and television and newspapers, and this is where the world is going.” From that point forward I thought, “This is the tidal wave I need to ride.”

Full story: High-tech tree hugging: Meet Mother Nature Network’s data-savvy president