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Saving endangered species, one tweet at a time

For a social media guy, Australian Nigel Allan is remarkably polite. At no point during a recent lunch interview did he excuse himself to check his email.

For a social media guy, Australian Nigel Allan is remarkably polite.

At no point during a recent lunch interview did he excuse himself to check his email, update his Facebook status or tweet about how good (or bad) the soup tasted.

Nor was he compelled to tweet about how good (or bad) the interview was going.

But this wasn’t just good manners. It was a subtle example of how social media has come of age.

It’s no longer just about cute kittens or what Justin Bieber had for breakfast.

Twitter and Facebook are now being used to promote businesses and bring down dictatorships.

They’re also being used to save cuddly panda bears.

Allan recently ended an eight-year stint working for the World Wildlife Fund - one of the world’s largest environmental organizations.

For the last three years, he was the organization’s content and social media manager.

And for the last two years he’s been doing it from the Yukon.

“It’s the whole idea of signal versus noise,” he explained to a slightly insulted News reporter, after admitting that he hadn’t tweeted the upcoming interview.

“There’s so much noise out there and if you’re just sort of saying random things that aren’t that interesting, you’re just adding to the noise.

“But if I find a good article in the New York Times about rhino poaching, I’d probably send that out.”

Allan began working for WWF as an intern in its Arctic program, then based in Oslo, Norway.

Although the internship only lasted six months, Allan stayed involved with the organization through consulting work, helping build its website and working as an assistant editor on a magazine it put out.

All of this was back in those dark days before Facebook and Twitter.

Flickr was the first social media site to catch Allan’s attention.

“I just thought it was a cool website,” he said. “That was the first time you saw things like tagging and all this networking with other people.”

Allan started a Flickr group called North of 60 and was pleased to watch it take on a life of its own.

“People just started submitting photos and it took off,” he said. “I thought WWF should be looking at this stuff.”

Allan and his panda-loving colleagues around the world began creating accounts on their own and then using them to promote WWF images or video.

“WWF started realizing that it was a bigger thing, that they needed to be co-ordinated a bit more,” he said. “So we were asked to set up official accounts and all that kind of stuff.”

Similar to any organization adopting something new, there was a lot of resistance at first, said Allan.

“There were some people who just didn’t get it, weren’t interested in it at all.”

But the benefits of social media quickly became apparent.

When a WWF Facebook account was set up, 8,000 people immediately signed up as friends.

That was a lot at the time, but the account now has over 750,000 friends.

There was similar support for the organization’s Twitter feed.

After six months in Norway, Allan came to the Canadian North, spending more than a year in the Northwest Territories.

In 2006, he returned home to Australia for a while. Three years later he and his family decided to move permanently to the Yukon.

There were no huge challenges working from the North, said Allan.

Being in a different time zone was a little difficult, considering that most of his colleagues were located in Switzerland. And it could be difficult to properly manage one’s time when working from home.

But Allan said he would have found these difficulties had he been in Vancouver instead of Whitehorse.

Recently Allan decided to move on from WWF and is now doing slightly more conventional communications work for the Yukon government.

Allan still spends his evenings helping with WWF’s website and social media, while the organization makes a transition toward a new manager.

“Like anything, when you’re leaving a project, you want to see it continue on and you want to see it done well,” he said.

“Having been with the organization for eight years, you just kind of have that intimate feel for all of the issues that are going on and for the people in the organization. It’s a little bit hard to say goodbye to that.”

But after eight years of working from home, doing what many would consider to be a dream job, Allan is looking forward to more traditional office work.

“It’ll be nice to be in an office and be surrounded by colleagues,” he said. “It’ll be nice to get to talk to people directly and get some immediate feedback.”

Allan hopes to teach a night course on social media at Yukon College in the spring, if there’s enough interest.

Even though everyone seems to be doing it these days, there’s a lot for governments, businesses and non-profits to learn when it comes to social media.

Allan’s course will talk a lot about strategy and creating a social media plan.

He’ll also teach how to track and measure success as well as dealing with some of the more practical and technical aspects.

Contact Chris Oke at