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Rob Greenfield Interview: Using Social Media to Spread Good
Posted on December 6th 2013
Rob Greenfield is not your typical entrepreneur. As an eco-activist inspiring a healthy, happy earth, his job is to help people discover ways to improve the environment, their own communities, and themselves. He’s the man behind RobGreenfield.TV, and he uses social media every day both to tell his story and to inspire others to share theirs.
After completing a cross-country bike ride earlier this year, Rob’s about to fly off to Mexico on the first leg of the “Change the World With Rob Greenfield” series -- but this isn’t your ordinary trip. Rob’s travel partner, Valerie Frere, was chosen via Facebook, and their travel adventures will also be determined by choices made via Greenfield’s many social media fans and friends.
I was able to catch up with Rob before he left for his flight, and he happily answered my questions about his work and the role social media plays in his mission.
What prompted you to start the Change the World project?
RG: I’ve had very good interactions with people, and I’ve been able to inspire people through my adventures to start living a more sustainable lifestyle. What I wanted to do next was step it up a notch and come up with a way to actually get people involved. To get people to put themselves out there, get excited, and take action.
The action, with this project, comes in two parts. First, the travel partner: people got really excited about writing in and describing how they were the right person for the project. They had to sell themselves and describe what they would do if they were accepted.
Secondly, this community that we’ve built is now going to vote on what Valerie and I do while we’re in Mexico. It’s another way to encourage people to really think about things and get excited.
You haven’t met Valerie yet, right?
RG: No, we haven’t met yet. I’ve talked to her on the phone for about five minutes. The first day we meet is the first day we travel together.
What is the goal of the Change the World project?
RG: The important thing in a project like this is not to come in and say you’re going to do something, but instead to ask the locals what they want and then do that. We’re hoping to use some of the project money to create food security for a local community, but really what we’re going to do is ask people what they need, find a project down there, and use our resources to help.
Change the World also has another goal, and it’s to inspire Americans to take similar action in their own communities. To encourage people to work together and live happier, healthier, more sustainable lives. You don’t have to travel the world to do good -- in many cases, American communities need the help just as much.
How did social media affect the way you developed the project?
RG: Social media affects everything I do, because I live a life based not only on what happens in the real world, but also what happens in the social media world. So it affects my interactions with humans in the real world, and it also affects the way I think about how I’m going to do things. It really changes my world, both online and offline.
Do you still make a distinction between the “real” world and the social media world? It seems like these two worlds are growing closer all the time -- we start conversations on social media and then continue them offline, and vice versa.
RG: Social media has become the real world. It’s crazy, because 20 years ago this method of communicating didn’t exist! I still call it a different world, though, since it is such a unique perspective on life.
Do you think you communicate differently on social media than you do in other venues?
RG: Unquestionably. When I approach things on social media, I have the time to decide how I want to portray things and what words I want to use. It’s the same as writing a book vs. giving a spur-of-the-moment speech. By having that time, it gives me the chance to really clarify what I want to get across, as well as all the details I want to include.
What made you choose Facebook as the primary social media tool for the Change the World project?
RG: I’ve always liked Facebook the most because it paints the picture of a real person. The profile represents a real person. Since I’m a person who really enjoys real human-to-human interaction, I’ve stuck to Facebook because it’s the closest thing to that in the online world.
You’ll be able to continue posting to Facebook and your website throughout the Change the World trip, but what about the Off the Grid Across America trip you took earlier this year? Your site said that you only used five electrical outlets during the entire trip -- how did you stay connected?
RG: I was addicted to social media for the entire trip, actually! The only thing that kept me from social media was when my batteries ran out of electricity from my solar panels. I loved taking what I learned on the trip and trying to use it to inspire others. Social media is all about sharing personal stories and personal observations and learning from each other.
From what I understand, it was the Off the Grid trip that really helped your work take off and gain support, right?
RG: Yeah. There was this campaign I did, for example, called Drip by Drip. I was biking from New York to Boston during a heat wave, it was about 100 degrees every day, and I lived solely off of leaky faucets during the entire seven-day bike ride. I launched the campaign the day before, I think it was a Sunday night, and I said “Here’s what I’m doing, tell me if you’ve got a leaky faucet, and I will come to your house if you live between New York and Boston.” Social media provided me water.
That post got about a hundred shares, people spreading it and saying “Help this dude get some water!” I’ve always been very interactive on social media, so I always had a large amount of Facebook friends, but it wasn’t until this trip that I started to collect followers as well. By the end of the trip I had my first 3,000 followers.
What do you think is important in building a unique social media campaign, something like Change the World or Drip by Drip? Because these projects are really interesting, and they’re things that people aren’t doing.
RG: I think what’s most important is having real content that people can actually benefit and learn from, and providing something that people want to see. You can talk about going viral and SEO and all of that, but the true key to being successful with social media is by providing good-quality, unique content that people want.
What advice would you give people who want to use social media to promote their own cause?
RG: If you really, really want to make an impact, doing something crazy definitely helps. Maybe you aren’t able to bike across America, but you can say that for one week, you’ll eat only from dumpsters. This type of project is great because it doesn’t cost any money, you can do it from home, and it’s unique content that people want to see. Or, for a week, you can monitor how much water you’re using at home. Maybe you try to use only three gallons of water a day -- the average American uses 100, so you’ll try to use 30 times less. There are all sorts of unique things you can come up with that don’t cost any money and you can do from home. It just takes a little bit of creativity.
Also, if your stuff doesn’t catch on right away, don’t give up. Keep trying. Everything like this takes work.
How does social media fit in with your other areas of marketing?
RG: I don’t think of what I do as marketing. My true success comes from being a real human being who is out and about every day making real human interactions and talking to people. The reason that people are interested in talking about what I’m doing is because I’m out there showing people what I’m doing.
One more question, of course: what’s next after the Change the World project?
RG: I have a very exciting trip coming up, and it’ll actually be my first break from social media in several years. In January, I’ll be flying one-way to Panama City, Panama with just the clothes on my back and my passport. No money, no cell phone, no camera. I’ll land there, 4,000 miles from home, with seven countries to cross to get back. I’ll be relying on pure human interaction to find food, to scrape together a couple of bucks to get a bus ticket to the next country, and I’ll just be living with humans.
I’ll also be creating a documentary, working with people whom I meet along the way who have iPhones or cameras. They’ll take 30-second clips and email them to my buddy Sean, who will post them to my social media accounts while I’m gone. When I get back, we’ll compile them into a documentary that is completely formed by the people that I meet in that 4,000 mile path.
If you want to follow Rob Greenfield’s adventures, contribute ideas to his Change the World trip, or see what happens on his 4,000 mile trek from Panama City, visit his website or follow him on Facebook.