Taking Your Gardening Dollar

About those garden-center blogs…and social marketing altogether

Fullscreen capture 8122010 92555 AM Thanks to Amy for surveying you all about what you want from your local garden center, including: "Social Networking:  IGCs should be blogging, doing Facebook, Twitter, email newsletters, YouTube
videos, etc."  But let's dig deeper coz that's my particular interest. (Full disclosure: it's how I'm paying the bills these days.)

Calling all Writers and Publishers
First, I'm happy to announce the launch of the brand-new blog of the family-run Boston-area garden center company Mahoney's.  To make it useful, lively and frequently updated, they've hired not just me but Layanee DeMerchant as their local blogger, and a bunch of their own in-house experts are contributing posts, too. (Sara here is the first up.) 

PLUS, with dozens of awesome gardening experts there in New England, Mahoneys is inviting them to become contributors as Special Guest Bloggers. Here's what they're looking for:

  • New England garden writers. And so far we've gotten commitments from Carol Stocker, the Boston Globe's top garden writer; book and mag writers Tovah Martin and Karan Davis Cutler; and Dominique Browning former editor-in-chief of House and Garden Mag.  Writers will be paid for their guest posts.
  • Other New England experts - like people at the U.Mass Extension Service, and at great public gardens like Harvard's Arnold Arboretum, Tower Hill, and Blithewold.
  • Publishers and authors of gardening books that are relevant to New England gardeners are invited to send us excerpts of their books, or specially written guest posts promoting their book.  And how about a copy to give away to a lucky reader? We've already heard from the web-savvy publisher Cool Springs Press, volunteering special guest bloggers for the cause.

So, drop me an email if you're interested in being a part of this fun new venture. (susan[at]sustainable-gardening.com).

What Customers Want their Garden Centers to Tell Them
How about I just lay out what I think they should be telling their customers, and subject my advice to your scrutiny?  A  consultant's nightmare?  We'll see.

On a garden center's website I think these essential bits of information are super-useful, and will create reader/customer loyalty to the site – and the company.

  • Specials – because as loyal as they may be to supporting local, family-owned businesses, customers still really want to save money.
  • Arrivals of new plants in the store.
  • Upcoming events of interest to gardeners in the region (whether in-store or local tours, Master Gardener events, etc)
  • Blurbs about "What's new on our blog"
  • A meaty resources section full of gardening how-to's.

Okay, what else?

Now about garden center blogs.  Without naming names, we've all seen them stuffed with long, academic plant profiles with not a single photo of the plant being profiled.  We've seen them looking (and I'm being kind here) really outdated.  We've all seen them being updated, oh, once a month – usually because the business owner himself is the blogger.  And oh, we've seen them simply fail to accomplish anything.

So what WOULD you like to see on your garden center's blog?  Here's what I'd like to see: good writing, photography, and gardening advice.  Profiles of local public gardens and gardenersFullscreen capture 8122010 92349 AM, nearby Master Gardener projects. Write-ups of workshops and talks by the garden center's own experts or others in the region.  Whatever is useful as hell.

Finally, there's Facebook and Twitter.  Facebook especially is proving to be a terrific medium for keeping in touch with customers, and even a way for them to ask questions of the business. (A couple of companies making good use of Facebook are Williams and Homestead.)  Twitter, too, though extremely annoying to some, is the preferred medium for many younger customers, so needs to be used, at least minimally.  I think garden centers should update Facebook and Twitter about events, specials and their new blog posts, but I wouldn't expect them to be chatting and updating all day.  But do you think they should?

As you've been reading here (repeatedly, sorry!), the Ladies of GardenRant will be telling garden centers what you think next week at their big kahuna indie garden center show in Chicago, so speak up now or forever hold your peace.

Posted by on August 12, 2010 at 6:39 am, in the category Taking Your Gardening Dollar.
Comments are off for this post

24 Responses to “About those garden-center blogs…and social marketing altogether”

  1. Elle says:

    Gardening blogs definitely need to have pictures to go with their descriptions. One I subscribe to has led me to several instances of “Oooh, so *that’s* what that plant is called! It’s so pretty. And it’s native to my area, you say? Brilliant. I must have this plant!” Of course since this blog isn’t associated with a garden center, I have to write down the name and some sort of description to remind myself later when I can buy that plant.

  2. Angie says:

    I want my local garden centers to get garden wise! Stop offering English Ivy and Vinca Vine as ground cover. Stop selling mindless amounts of water hogging plants and focus on plants that are more suitable for this area. More native, more natives and oh MORE NATIVES! I’d also love to see the plants labeled as such, native to where, China, California, Maryland??? I’d be happy to support my local garden center more often if they would stop pushing the old stand by’s and make the native plants, trees and shrubs that I want available. Since they don’t I’m forced to shop online for those items!

  3. commonweeder says:

    I want garden centers to offer at least a few interesting annuals each year – besides the old standbys. I want them to suggest which flowers might be good for flower arranging, and combinations. In fact I guess I’d like them to talk a lot about combinations for the garden and containers. It seems to me that would be a good money maker for them. Instead of one plant they could sell three! Or five! And I do not want them to sell plants like burning bush that are on the Invasive list.

  4. I want garden centers to offer more seminars on how to create sustainable gardens for my area. I want them to resist selling chemicals even if it is profitable and start helping customers make better choices. I want their blog to be much more than selling their products, but creating a place when I can find helpful advice, tips and creative ideas. Inspire me.

  5. Stacy says:

    I like what High Country Gardens does with its FB presence. It’s a nice mix: sales, news, and blog posts, of course, but also questions to get customers chiming in about things like favorite plant combinations, best hummingbird plants, etc. One of the HGC staff often comments on reader posts, and I’ve gotten some good ideas from the other customers.

    When companies just focus their online presence on sales advertising, I quickly learn to tune them out unless I’m in the market for something right that minute. When they mix it up, I’m more likely to pay attention whenever they post.

  6. Hmm… the blog you are working for sounds cool — but I don’t know that it would make me buy more plants at that particular nursery. I choose where to shop based on what they sell, not how many cool people they have talking (or not talking) on their blog.

  7. nobody says:

    Actually, I want none of this from my local garden center. I noticed when I looked at one of my local garden centers websites in response to the recent survey here that they’ve gotten rid of the information-free page filled with herbicide and pesticide logos and replaced it something that is so packed and cluttered with stuff that I can’t stand to look at it. They’ve definitely got more information, but it looks like it was laid out by a 13 year old with his first geocities account. Maybe my eyes would’ve lingered on it a bit longer if front and center hadn’t been a slightly more flashy herbicide special they were running.

    This blog is the extent of the clutter I can emotionally handle. From a business website rather than a blog, I’d expect something a bit sparser. I expect blogs to run long vertically; I know that what I’ll see if I scroll down is comments, then previous blog entries. I expect a business website to prioritize its information and not make me scroll down 10 screens to find it all. It should be separated out and accessible from menus, because I’m not going to scroll down to guess what’s there. I should be able to easily pick out things I care about from the menu and not be assaulted by information I could care less about. The front and center herbicide add is just going to turn me off, I don’t care if it’s a special. You want a section of your page for specials? Throw in a menu item for specials and let people who care click on it.

    Look at any successful mail-order nursery and copy their layout. Look at gardeners.com. It’s a little on the busy side, but not offensively so. Note the clear menu on the left with all the content on the right. Note the extra content that customers might or might not care about neatly and unobtrusively stuck at the bottom of the page? I wouldn’t expect something as flashy from a local place that isn’t primarily a catalog order business. But I would expect the information laid out in a similarly useful fashion. Although to be honest, I’d be very surprised this day and age if suppliers didn’t have photos and copy all digitized and ready for garden centers who stock their product to use in promotions.

    I’m not going to subscribe to spam, either on facebook or twitter. I’m not going to go to my local garden center for gardening advice, since I’ve already determined that I know way more than them about anything, despite the fact that I’m really new to this climate. I just want to know what they sell, plain and simple.

    Too many times since I moved here, I have given the local garden centers (note the plural; they all suck) the benefit of the doubt and driven out there to see if they have a stake or a plant, only to leave disappointed and turn around and drive back to the big box with my tail between my legs. It’s not happening again. I will drive out there again if and only if they get a website that makes it clear to me in as painless a fashion as possible that they actually have product I care about.

    That might mean they have to stock a plant or several, crazy as that sounds. Gardening isn’t all grass seed and herbicide. But that wouldn’t do it for me; I honestly feel like the big box has earned my patronage through their consistent willingness to stock plants and a few mainstream organics. No, to get me back as a customer, my local garden center would have to learn about this wacky new trend of organic gardening that’s only been around for the last few decades and stock any sort of organic amendment. They want to stock nothing but pesticides? They might, minimally, learn about the more ubiquitous organic options like bt and neem. They’d have to one-up lowes and have more than just the big brand all purpose organic bag of additives. They’d have to have particular additives like greensand that I need to tweak my particular soil because I don’t need the all-purpose proportions and I’d rather combine things myself. They’d have to do more than grass seed and a bedraggled impatiens or two. If they regularly stocked something native or local heirlooms (instead of just brandywines because that’s what everyone’s heard of as The Heirloom–which, btw, they don’t stock either, because that would involve having a tomato, which in my experience they would never, ever do). I’m betting the big boxes had tomatoes. It’s seriously pathetic that I can order heirloom vegetable seeds advertised as coming from My Town from a seed company several states away but I can’t get a plant (any plant) from my local nurseries.

    And, since I’m really picky, if my local garden centers were to go nuts and start stocking plants, I’d want them in season. Back when I lived someplace with good local garden centers, I learned to expect them to have a local clue. That meant they payed attention to the local weather. If I mail order something from across the country, they don’t need to know about my local weather. But if it’s an unusually warm year, I expect my local nursery to start selling plants just a little earlier so I can capitalize on nature’s bounty.

  8. Benjamin says:

    At least I get monthly email newsletters. But yes, updated websites with sales and EVENTS–workshops, readings, community stuff, art sales in conjunction with plant sales, literary readings, make your own fountain day…. And facebook! Why aren’t these guys on facebook??? God writing? Good luck with that–even though that’d be swell. I think nurseries can do a lot more to diversify their client base, but I may be a nut. You know, wine tasting, plant auction, partial benefit to a local cat or plant shelter, guided tours of some planting in the community the nursery did, tours of nearby PRAIRIES, if even only sponsored by the nursery in some way. I feel like nurseries are like nursing homes some day–quiet, clinical, faded, disconnected.

  9. Stacy says:

    Sorry to tease you just a little bit Benjamin, but I loved the typo “God writing.” Talk about the ultimate guest poster… But that might be a bit too much to hope for even on a garden blog. :)

  10. Laura Bell says:

    One of my favorite IGCs just hosted a “Dog Days of Summer” event – bring your pet for portraits, dog paw art, doggy splash zone & obstacle course … and info on pet-safe plantings along with discounts on recommended plants ! I didn’t go ( my terrier forgets her manners in the company of more than a few furry friends), but this is certainly the type of thing I’d like to see more of. In the Fall, they host a sort of carnival with games & face-painting & pumpkins. Near Christmas it’s all about care packages for the troops & Toys for Tots. It’s a fabulous way to pull in customers during certain lulls.

    A blog helps – don’t need the sales alert so much as I’d like new ideas & inspiration, or to have advance warning of special events (many times our local newspaper’s garden section only tells us of an event on the day of – usually I already have other plans). And photos. Give me lots of photos. Of single flowers in detail, or whole garden projects – it’s all good.

  11. Many garden blogs are the same to me. They talk about a plant, either the blogger’s problems with it or how well it worked. Beautiful images, of course. But who cares when one blog seems to be the same as the next. So make your blog stand out. Good luck!

  12. Wow. Critical thinking and speaking here. The comments were as good as the post. I put in my two cents on the survey about the IGC, I agree that many just plain reek of mediocrity, but are Big Box stores the answer? I find mail order with interesting finds tempting, yet I prefer to actually see what I am purchasing first hand. As per online for every business, there are enough bad commercial sites already.

  13. Pam/Digging says:

    YES to your ideas for a garden center’s ideal blog content. Of course, from my perspective, independent bloggers in Austin already create this sort of content for Austin gardeners, but there’s always room for more. More is more.

    Regarding Nobody’s comment, above, I agree about the importance of a clear, non-fussy design for a business website. But a business blog is a different animal and is there to engage the customer. It should have a more personal voice and feel, and by all means the blogger should respond to commenters, who, after all, may turn out to be customers.

    I have to wonder though, respectfully, whether hiring an “outside” blogger like you (as smart and talented as you are, Susan) will have the same effect as if the blogger actually worked at the nursery? I’m thinking of my three favorite nurseries here in Austin, one of which does blog occasionally (the manager does it). If I knew they’d hired an outsider to blog for them, I don’t think I’d be as interested. I want the insider perspective on the nursery’s doings. Just my two cents, anyway.

    As for the notion that Twitter is more appealing to young people (by which I assume you mean mid-30s and younger), I don’t know. An awful lot of my garden blogging friends, many of whom, like me, are in the over-40 crowd, spend an awful lot of time of Twitter. I definitely prefer Twitter to Facebook, but like you said, I don’t necessarily want to chat all day with a garden-center rep. But Tweeting about cool new arrivals, sales, and upcoming gardening seminars? You bet–I’m there!

  14. Frances says:

    From my local nursery, specials and updates bi weekly would be good for me, but maybe more frequently would be good for them. I don’t like a ton of emails and will unsubscribe if they overdo it. However, the FB, Twitter scene is for constant updating. Our ice cream shop in Asheville, with twenty somethings at the helm, uses those networks like a magic wand. Another important aspect is promoting other like minded businesses. You promote them, they promote you. It works like a charm. Also community service type events, benefitting local charities. Do good things and the customers will come.
    Frances

  15. susan harris says:

    Fabulous, meaty, thoughtful comments that WILL be passed on to the IGCs, and thank you!

    Pam, I agree that staff-written blogs are great, but who has time? They’re the blogs I find that are updated monthly – so, not functioning blogs.

    Having blogged for my local garden center for a while, I can report that every time I visit the place I come home with better blog-post ideas – for the very reason that I’ve chatted with staff and customers and observed what’s in the store.

    So I think an outside blogger is fine as long as she’s local and has some contact with the store. Also, the hired blogger can turn staff thoughts into good posts (lay-out, photos, editing, SEO, etc.) Blogging WELL takes some experience, I bet you’d agree.

    Finally, why not supplement what the GC staff can provide and what they can afford to pay a local blogger for with fresh posts from a national blogger (that would be me), whose posts are syndicated and therefore affordable? That’s the idea – to have fresh new content 3-4 times a week, without busting the bank.

  16. greg draiss says:

    Hiring an outsider to wrte for your own blog is going the way of the box stores. If you do not have the expertise on staff to create and disseminate the information to your customers then you have no business pretending to be an expert. Perfectly OK to to have a hired gun but not posing as the expert from you own company. We must draw the line as to how much social media we use. Twitter is a joke.

    The TROLL

  17. Sid Raisch says:

    Writing as a gardening consumer, I’m just not using RSS to read your blogs. Give me a quick and easy way to sign up to receive email updates otherwise I don’t know what you’re doing on your blog even if I want to. I’m certainly not going to put in the time to find it to check just in case you had something to say that I need to know.

    The feature to subscribe to get an email when the blog is updated built into WordPress.com but has to be turned on, and is easy to add the widget with Feedburner, or Feedblitz that this blog uses for example.

  18. susan harris says:

    Greg, you’re absolutely right about hired guns posing as company people. Transparency about who’s who is a must. I’ve turned down ghost-writing gigs with a big “Ugh”.

    And Sid, would it work to put links to new blog posts in the company’s e-newsletters?

  19. Jim Freeman says:

    To quote Samuel L. Jackson, “personality goes a long way.” The best local garden centers have a personality that often mirrors that of the owner/manager. This is what makes them stand out from larger chain stores and box stores. I want blog posts to reflect a personal take on gardening: I want them to be opinionated, not afraid to talk about likes and dislikes, and to include local content — weather and seasonal changes, neighborhood events and local issues, etc.

    I also think different online media serve different functions: a blog is for in depth observations, plant profiles and trials, etc.; facebook is for announcements, photos and events, and Q & A; Twitter is best for fast updates, IMHO.

    Keep the comments going!

  20. I want them to tell the truth about which plants work best in their climate. In other words, don’t just hype the newest thing like say, another thread leaf coreopsis which will dry a dry and hot death in the Oklahoma sunshine. Also, my IGC still sells chemicals in boat loads and hawks them on their local tv show on one of the commercials. Let’s instead, promote natural solutions. I’m tired of poison being spread around everywhere.

    Also, don’t give us “marching orders” from on high. Show us your gardens. I saw an IGC blog from St. Louis, MO which had great writing, pretty good photos and truth. Truth is what I’m looking for.

    Specials are nice too.

  21. I’m with Dee–I want to see other people’s gardens!

    And re: IGC’s, the “staff written blogs might just need to loosen up a bit to find ways to fill their pages with timely posts. I work part-time at an IGC in the spring, and I would love to help with posts but “staff written” seems to actually mean “written by the owner, who really doesn’t have time for it.” At the very least, they could do a quick redirect post to something of mine that they think would be useful to their customers. (Heck, for that matter, they can do redirects to any other hobby blog post that they think might be useful! It’s still sharing useful information.)

    Also, Susan, I know that you’re a smart lady, but I feel like this needs to be said: Remember the demo from which you are receiving feedback here. We’re the ones who are already plant geeks, who already love gardening. The people with whom you want to connect on the web (and who might stumble upon an IGC’s blog) are going to be us, of course, because we’re the ones out there looking.

    But they are also going to be the young couple who just bought their first house, know they want to start a veggie garden, and have no idea what the rest of the plants that came with the house might be. They’re the old man who is convinced that you still have a secret stash of Diazinon and he just has to figure out how much to give you so that you’ll share with him. (True story.) They’re the middle aged women who doesn’t want to hear that a bug is harmless–she came in to buy something to spray to get rid of it, and that’s what she intends to get. They’re the people who don’t care that the “sterile” varieties of purple loosestrife can still cross-pollinate with the species–they just want that tall plant that blooms forever in Aunt Jane’s yard, and if you don’t have it, they’ll go elsewhere no matter how much you explain and try to talk them into a nice liatris instead. (And if you sound preachy during the above exchange, you’re just going to make them reconsider wanting to plant or garden at all, ever.) And so on.

    No business (or business blog) can be all things to all people. But it also has to know who its audience–both online, and in its stores–is. And it needs to know who it is as a business, too, or it will never establish a unique voice for itself, online or anywhere else.

    Just my $.02… :)

  22. P.S. Please ignore my horrendous grammar in the long-winded comment above. I missed ending quotes, mixed plural subjects with singular verbs, and so on. I think I just expound too much to correctly edit myself within a 3×1.5inch box! :-P

  23. susan harris says:

    Kim, excellent points! I think of GCs as having 3 audiences they need to appeal to, of which GardenRant readers and commenters are one – the avid gardener. Another is beginner gardeners who may be online seeking info. And the 3rd is the general nongardening public, who see the GC tabling at a community event or see a blog post mentioned on their neighborhood listserv, so they decide to see what all the fuss about and end up trying a little gardening. Etc.
    Occasionally, good content works for all 3 – maybe some timely, well written info about lawn care.

  24. That’s probably a good breakout, based on what I see at my IGC. (I keep trying to figure out who you’ve missed, and can’t think of anyone!) I suppose that the general nongardening public are going to be the least important of those audiences to a blog… not sure whether “we” or the beginner gardeners are going to be the more important out of the two groups left? I guess the balancing act is what is really needed.

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