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Interview: Deron Triff on building a business that draws out stories of change from 30 countries

   /   Oct 6th, 2010International, Interviews, Tech

After spending six years at PBS as the vice president of digital ventures, Deron Triff saw a need for more first-person stories generated by changemakers themselves. So, he launched Changents.com, a for-profit social venture that provides storytelling tools to people addressing social problems around the world. We chatted with Triff about how he went from leading a multi-million dollar joint venture between PBS and Comcast to helping 300 people in 30 countries tell their stories.

Dowser: You had a stellar track record at PBS.  What made you decide to make the leap and start Changents.com?
Triff: I always thought there was something lacking in traditional media: the first-person voice. Then one day I was at a restaurant in SoHo and had a chance encounter with Scott Harrison of charity:water.  He had just spent a year on a ship that had been equipped with modern technology to help treat patients. I thought, this guy is incredible. He had this unbelievable story.

I thought, what if we built a platform for people in their 20s, 30s, and 40s working in great places telling great stories? Let’s use that content to generate a following. I had the idea of creating a world-class suite of storytelling tools for change agents around the world and syndicating those stories to develop backers who feel connected to the person and the organization.

But aren’t there other organizations that allow people to tell their own stories? What makes your organization unique?
There are a lot of sites out there about causes and issues, ways to help nonprofits, ways to volunteer, ways to use social media for social change, from Just Means to change.org. What sets us apart is that we are a personality-driven experience.

We are about change agents. We are about problem solvers rather than problems.

We don’t come at it from, ‘There is a global water crisis; you should care.’  We say, ’Have you met Sol Garcia? This woman has launched a great idea, Parties with a Purpose. She is amazing. If you like her and want to get behind her, you’ll help drill water holes in Uganda.’ It’s a much different approach than saying, ’There’s a water crisis.’ You feel like you’re on an extended team.

Could you tell us a little bit more about your business model and how you support the people who sign up to be change agents?
We offer three levels of support to our change agents and all of them are free.  The first is editorial support: help with story telling strategy, search engine optimization, developing topics, and how to use tools.  The second is marketing support, we give them social media training and find guest blogging positions on websites.  The last is strategic support where we partner them with good corporate citizen companies who are looking for change agents for social campaigns.

We are able to provide these services for free because of the revenue we generate by working with socially responsible companies.  They pay us to connect them with change agents.

I notice you were able to recruit some high-profile changemakers, like Scott Harrison of charity:water, to become a change agent and tell his story on the site.  How did you do this?
People usually discover us organically because so much content is generated by the site.  We consider ourselves change agent experts. We provide a custom level of support to people who we think have off-the-chart storytelling potential. And we maintain a database of change agents who aren’t on the platform.

What are some other key successes your organization has had?
We are a for-profit social venture, a rare breed. We measure success in a double bottom line – financial and social impact.

Our business success has been getting companies to partner with us on scaling initiatives. Our campaigns with companies must generate corporate, civic, and cultural value. A major success has been helping Procter & Gamble (P&G) with its Children’s Safe Drinking Water campaign. Socially, they are providing safe drinking water to communities around the world who need it. From a corporate perspective, they have developed 30 relationships with influential bloggers that reach tens of thousands of consumers that care about what P&G values. Culturally, we talk about blogovation, bloggers as change agents. Using new language and vernacular is great at getting people to think about different issues in different ways. The very act of blogging is making clean water available.

From a social perspective, I have so many stories! We have enabled change agents to rapidly accelerate because we help them build followings. We’ve pitched their stories to influential bloggers, we put them in music videos. Sony Music reached out to us about change agents and we identified four change agents to be in their video. We help people who are changing the world get the help they need. There is so much potential. We haven’t even scratched the surface.

What do you wish you had known when you began launching changents.com?
How tough it was going to be. For example, we could have been much more strategic in how we leveraged our advisory board. We are working on ways to more deeply involve them in the goals of the venture. I wish we had spent more time understanding our technology options. We use Drupal, which is a great content management system, but it can be difficult to incorporate high design in the presentation layer.

Given these challenges, was there ever a time when you wanted to quit?
Yes, of course! But something always happens when we hit a low that picks us back up the hill. We waste very little money. We have 300 change agents in 30 countries and we are working with some of the best companies in the world. What keeps us going is that we’ve tasted the potential. It becomes an addiction, you can’t stop.

This interview was edited and condensed.

Photo: Changents.com

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