Taking Your Gardening Dollar

Garden Bloggers and Marketers: The State of the Union

Free Plants
Free plants! Which I love! Usually.

When, in the course of social media events, it becomes necessary for a group of bloggers to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with a bunch of well-intentioned but sometimes irritating marketing people, and to assume among the powers of the blogosphere, the separate and equal station to which the laws of journalism and freedom of expression entitle them…

What I am trying to say is that, from time to time, one needs to reassess the state of one's union. I've been talking to several garden bloggers lately who feel that the marketing efforts aimed in our direction have gotten to be a bit much, and a bit weird. 

I get the impression that marketing people go off to a seminar every couple of years to find out how to deal with us. The reason I think this is that all at once, every couple of years, the kinds of pitches and press releases and other such things coming at us here at GardenRant World Headquarters change in a very noticeable way. The only logical explanation is that they all went to a class.  Sorry–a webinar.

I think this year's class was called, "Treat Bloggers Like Your Very Own Unpaid Staff."

Here's what we're seeing:

Scripted video appearances

I was recently asked to participate in a marketing initiative (I believe they called it a "social media flash mob") that would involve me making a video of myself reading from a script that the marketing person sent to me.

Seriously.

Seriously.

Demands that we write very specific things on our blogs when we review or give away a book or product. 

MANY marketing people have lately supplied me with the specific language they'd like me to use when I describe their product on my blog. They provide me with links and the text that should be attached to those links (for their SEO strategy), they tell me what date they'd like my review to appear, etc. etc.

No.

The answer is no.

If you want to send me a product to review, send it.  If I decide to review it, I will.  If I decide not to review it, I won't. (and usually it's because the product is garbage, but in such a bland and banal way that I can't even get worked up enough to write the bad review it deserves.)

Now, I do understand that if a company is donating a book, a plant, a product for a giveaway, they expect something in return.  GardenRant turns into Giveaway Central in the spring, and we're happy to give our readers free stuff, and we just don't give away anything we don't like.

But here's the thing, Marketing People:  If we like it, it's way better if we say that in our own words. Copying and pasting someone else's PR-speak into our blog post just makes everybody look lame.  Yes, it's a little risky to just trust us to say what we really think, but that's what makes your day exciting.

Unsolicited Shipments of Inappropriate Plants, Followed by 40-Minute Online Surveys.

Ship me plants. That is fine. There is nothing I'd love better than more free plants.  In general, what we all want is more free plants. This is a no-brainer. But lately, I've been getting plants so boring, so generic, so ubiquitous, so unsuited to my climate or my gardening style, that I don't even bother asking around to see if any of my friends would like them. Because I know they won't.  Because it would be an insult to their taste for me to even offer them.

I'm sure the marketing people don't want to just pack up plants and ship them into a black hole. They want feedback. But the ratio of interesting plants to length of time spent answering online surveys is way, way, out of whack. Something is broken about this system.

Offers to write free guest posts, and/or exchange text links. 

This is more like spam, and hardly even belongs on this list. But we do get bazillions of them, and we wish they would stop.

Lots more junket invitations. 

We here at GardenRant never used to get invited on junkets. What self-respecting company would want the likes of us poking around their corporate headquarters, anyway?  I think what's changed is that marketing people now subscribe to databases like this one that list the contact information for influential bloggers. (We didn't sign up for this, by the way–we just got added.)  So a busy PR person might just run a report and send out an email blast to everyone who fits the criteria.  As a result, offers of plane tickets come whizzing our way.  We have been invited to attend (are you ready for this?) a golf weekend with a turf company, a baseball spring training event with power tool company, and a "garden writers' seminar" at the corporate headquarters of a global agribiz company that shall remain nameless.

(okay, it was Bayer. The guy actually called me, and I replied cheerfully that I'm pretty much opposed to everything his company stands for and that he probably doesn't really want to let me on the grounds. With equal cheer and goodwill, he apologized for bothering me and thanked me for my time. Nice guy, really.)

Then there's the P. Allen Smith Garden2Blog event, which caused a bit of a dust-up last year as bloggers either did or did not reveal that they were on an expense-paid trip as they blogged, tweeted, and Facebooked their way across the P. Allen empire. (Here's a nice post that gives you a sense of what that event is like.)

So, look.  I'm not opposed to junkets.  People in food, travel, beauty, high-tech, and booze journalism go on all kinds of junkets.  Sure, these things do need to be properly disclosed, and some publications ban them entirely, and it probably is hard to stay objective once somebody's flown you to their chateau in France.

But I am not anti-junket, I'm just saying that there are definitey more of them, so many more that even we churlish, argumentative GardenRanters are getting invited along.

This is not to say that every encounter we have with a marketing person is an irritating one–far from it.  These are just the things that have been happening lately that got us talking. 

Your thoughts? Go right ahead.

Posted by on April 4, 2012 at 4:07 am, in the category Taking Your Gardening Dollar.
Comments are off for this post

35 Responses to “Garden Bloggers and Marketers: The State of the Union”

  1. This sort of thing drives me batty! As one of those readers that pr guys are trying to reach thru a particular post, let me say that if I see the same review on multiple sites (esp if it’s in a short timeframe and includes similar language) I will chalk it up to the blogger needing to get funds to justify blogging. Regardless of how many times the phrase “I was compensated but opinions are 100% mine.” Um, no.

    And if I see that review on multiple blogs without disclosure that it is a sponsored post it’s a good clue to stop reading the blog.

  2. Tara Dillard says:

    Much worse than you describe.

    Did you read Tony Avent’s rant about the many wholesale growers going out of business, and why?

    Slick business advice that applies to, oh perhaps the auto industry or food service or garment distribution or etc, applied to horticulture. Shazam, kaboom, we lose another horticulure business of large stature.

    They fell for the salesmanship.

    I get offers all the time. Especially obnoxious are companies wanting to ‘provide’ me a free posting and I can then put a permanent link to them!

    Garden & Be Well, XO Tara

  3. My thoughts? Thank you for posting about what’s going on in the mainstream garden industry–it’s sad, it’s entertaining, and we need to know.

  4. commonweeder says:

    I also have gotten requests to post a really great guest post with lots of really good information that will give me a day off if I will provide a link. No. Sometimes they don’t give up easily. I didn’t realize this was such a trend. A testament to how important bloggers have become, I guess.

  5. Dear Amy Stewart,
    I propose that for one 24 hour period, you change Garden Rant to Benjamin Rant. Posts will be all about me–my rants, my writing, my photos, etc. I’ll provide you a new header, even. Maybe a photo of me in a dress, or in a g-string gardening. Whatever.

  6. trey says:

    What would you think if you lived in California and read this headline? “This is the most serious plant disease invasion into California in modern history”. Have you heard about this? Where are our California garden bloggers? This is a perfect opportunity for social media to spread the word concerning something that has the potential to decimate our orange industry, and your backyard citrus. The problem is that too many are worried about offending potential advertisers and sponsors. So much fluff. By the way, if your interested I wrote about the citrus disease at my blog.

  7. Melissa says:

    The marketing world is on time-delay and it seems the Milk the Bloggers (and social media) memo just got delivered. Even little punks like me get daily pitches, mostly for toxic turf care products.

    The best was when I posted on April Fool’s Day 2011 that I had been offered a new gardening show with the OWN network. Within hours of posting this silly spoof, I received offers and congrats from around the globe, and discovered new best friends I’ve never met. My favourite was an offer to be the spokesperson for a line of (heavily) beaded underwear. They sure nailed what I’m all about with that one!

  8. Donna B. says:

    I 2nd Benjamin’s offer. And the G[ardening] String.

  9. susan harris says:

    I’d add to the list getting books in the mail I didn’t ask for, don’t want, will never read, and because I’ve moved, am being asked to pay postage on to have them forwarded to me. I’m asking publishers to send me only books I specifically ask for.

  10. Mary Gray says:

    Wow, this is fascinating. Just wondering, though, if a company sends you a free plant, book, tool or whatever, why is there an obligation to give them something in return? Why couldn’t you write a nasty review of a sucky product if you wanted?

  11. Pam J. says:

    I’m going to play devil’s advocate here. I’m kind of happy that there are companies, American I’m assuming, with enough moolah to (a) pay people salaries to think up PR campaigns, and (b) buy and ship plants, books, whatever. Sales: that’s what Americans are good at. It may even be what keeps our economy from totally tanking. Let me know when you STOP getting hostas and offers of free trips. Then I’ll worry.

  12. Doesn’t the FTC require that bloggers disclose freebies and associations with companies for the purpose of transparency?
    Besides that, it’s the right thing to do. Proceed with caution, bloggers…

  13. march says:

    Letting yourself be used by marketers is a risk for bloggers.

    It’s no doubt very exciting at first to be approached, but a blog is useful to marketers only because it can deliver an audience.

    If a blog becomes a marketing vehicle, readers will notice and leave, the marketers will leave too, and then what is the poor blogger left with?

    I read several garden blogs each morning with the coffee, and there’s a couple that I’m on the point of ditching, because more and more posts read like “infomercials” or are giveaways which (not being in the US) I couldn’t enter even if I wanted to.

    Not Rant, of course. But I’m glad to see you air the issue, as it’s one all garden bloggers should consider.

    And if, in a moment of madness, you decide to become a marketing mouthpiece, please begin by accepting Benjamin’s offer. Including g-string.

  14. anne says:

    I used to write for a tea blog, occasionally reviewing a product which I had bought with my own money. My reviews were polite, but honest. One time I kind of panned a bottled tea product whose producer was in partnering negotiations with a large soft drink company; the review made it’s way around cyber-space. Over a year later, imagine my surprise when I recieved a case of the product from the producers, along with a hand-written note thanking me for my interest in their product! That was when I realized that, for the big guys anyway, even negative reviews are ok, as long as they put the product name in front of more people.

  15. Great post and right on target. I do want to see the picture of Benjamin in a dress though so I’m supporting the concept.

  16. KM says:

    This sort of thing so doesn’t appeal to me and is not at all why I started blogging. I definitely talk about nurseries I do business with or my own business and the one I design for but only in a “this is what I’m doing” or “this nursery is neat! check it out if you are in the area” sort of way.

    Having someone send me stuff (even if it is free) and then needing to write about it sounds a lot like homework and I hated homework.

  17. Laura says:

    All very interesting. I don’t have marketeers hounding me to review their products because my little blog is more like a journal and has no audience, BUT…

    I have to be careful what I type here…I have been so fed up with the marketing people I know that I seriously considered having a tattoo put on my left butt cheek in their honor. It would say “Marketing Sucks!” and it would be surrounded by a 1-1/2″ black frame.–Sadly, I can’t tell you the reason for the black frame. :-)

  18. Jason says:

    I’m also glad that this issue has been given some exposure. Eternal vigilance (against commercial cooptation) is the price of an honest point of view that can command the respect of the community.

  19. emily says:

    Thanks for sticking to your scruples.

    Although I do find Benjamin’s proposal appealing. Maybe you should negotiate for the dress AND the g-string…

  20. lloyd traven says:

    Amy: Superb post, and needed to be said. Unfortunately, most of the bloggers, including many I used to respect highly, have abrogated all credibility and have become blatant shills—no longer worth the effort to read or follow.

  21. Mj says:

    Thank you for this post. I cannot tolerate marketing. Which is probably not good since I’m in the nursery business. I cannot stand the constant barrage of marketing and branding being sold to me every day. I prefer a good and interesting product/plant done well. But that is such old school these days. The reason you have uninteresting plants? Branding and Marketing have created a homogenized selection. It is becoming harder to find unique plants and useful products. I cannot wait for the fall of the current marketing industry. Oh for the days when all we had were Wave Petunias.

  22. Hang in there everyone, old school will be new school again and, forgive the cliche, the cream will rise to the top.

    The economy is in the sh**ter, companies are desperate, and consumers are bombarded with garbage. The good part is that it’s also easy to find out, with a few minutes of digging, an honest product review (I found a few yesterday on Turbo Tax’s “Audit Protection” offer–only $39.95!) It is a pity that bloggers sell themselves (and their audiences) out for a little attention and a few dollars but that’s part of it all too.

  23. Use or grow the product then give an honest opinion. That is why I only accept what I will use and won’t even speak with the likes of Scotts/Miracle Go/Round Up for love, junket nor any amount of money.

  24. The association of a blog with industry junkets, handouts, and freebies undermines the credibility of the blog. Sure, garden blogging is not journalism; and perhaps we bloggers don’t need to hold ourselves to the same journalistic standards. But this issue goes to the heart of a blog’s credibility.

    This is particularly true with Garden Rant. Garden Rant positions itself as an outside voice. “Suspicious of the horticultural industry,” right? One of the great contributions of the Rant has been to be the voice of the small gardener that stands up against the excesses of the corporate horticultural industry. That voice–that point of view, I would argue–is the sine qua non of Garden Rant.

    So when you say you’re ok with advertising and corporate junkets, in my eyes, it undermines that voice. It’s fine if you want to do that, but I think it may be time to re-examine a few points of your manifesto.

    The P. Allen Smith junket was an appalling example of how respectable garden bloggers accepted free plane tickets, dinners, and tours for favorable blog posts.

    I’m glad your shared your thoughts about this issue. I would hope in your thinking about these things, you come to some policy decisions that resonate with your manifesto.

  25. Susan says:

    I’ve definitely watched a few garden blogs go down the drain, and I’ve only been reading these blogs for one year. The first big hit is the sponsored posts. Then comes the book tour. And worst is the garden blogers meet-up aftermath where the blogger can become obsessed with what they did over one weekend and all the sponsors at said weekend. There’s often a narrowing of the bloggers focus that can be annoying/isolating. I understand that each gardener has their own issues and interests, but when I read four consecutive posts about California native plants and creating a pallet planter, I delete the link from my favorites. That being said, there’s still some great blogs out there that accept freebies and I dont mind reading about them from time to time. The Rant’s in good shape, and quite a delight in my daily reading.

  26. Laura says:

    and this is why I read this blog!

  27. Brandon says:

    I think a lot of garden bloggers these days are doing what I interpreted from this post: The bloggers are reviewing products/books/etc that they enjoy and are passing on the rest. Which I think is a shame. Sure, I want to know what is good out there, but more, I think I’d enjoy reading some negative reviews about stuff that’s bad. And explaining to us – some of us our beginners, you know – why it’s bad. I think that would be very entertaining – and sadly, I think garden bloggers are way too nice. Keep ranting. And raise more hell, please.

  28. anne says:

    I think a good review will point out both the strengths AND the weaknesses in a product, as well as remind the reader where the author is coming from (ie. are they a professional who is able to write in an objective, constructive way, or is the review more personal, subjective and anecdotal?). That leaves the reader better able to make decisions for themselves.

    Balance is great too, in terms of how much reviewing a blog does. I don’t like to read only reviews and adverts–but some people might like a place they can go to, to find out about the latest thing. I like Gardenrant’s balance of topics. IF I’m not drawn to a post, I just don’t read it.

    I find it interesting that so many people commenting here hate marketing. Same here! But if consumers truly hate being hit with a barrage of marketing and advertising, they have the power to just say no, and support businesses that are more low-key about it. that takes more work on the consumer’s part, though.

  29. Susan, I think we first had the garden ethics discussion five years ago: http://ellishollow.remarc.com/?p=115

    If you recall, you all sent me and Hank (The County Clerk) ‘Sloggers’ garden footwear for being ‘top commenters’.

    I haven’t been bothered much by marketers since I reviewed the ‘Sloggers’ (with full disclosure at http://ellishollow.remarc.com/?p=183) and found they made A-OK hanging planters. Still use them for that. As footwear goes, they didn’t breath so well.

    The ‘Bloggers Code of Ethics’ I referenced back then is still worth reviewing every year or so: http://www.cyberjournalist.net/news/000215.php

  30. Linnea Borealis says:

    I think you could just lump all the freebies up and have a vote among readers which to review. And I agree, reviewing means using or at least testing, before having an opinion.

    Then you follow up with a vote on what non-freebies to review. There are tons of stuff I’m curious about that don’t have marketers advocating for them. I need to know what you all think about … say, rain garden plant choices.

  31. C.L. Fornari says:

    It’s the American Way. 1. Create a product…it doesn’t matter if it’s good, bad, true or false. Just think it up and make it. Or don’t make it and tell people you did. Then follow with a marketing campaign that convinces people that they need said product…in other words, create a problem that the product is the solution for. Or create an idea that intrigues, appalls, scandalizes or attracts the public…find a way to tie it to something that can be sold (real or virtual) and create a campaign to that end. Why is anyone surprised when this approach applied to plants and gardening? Hell, they’ve talked us into buying BOTTLED TAP WATER! Check out this post on 10 marketing schemes http://read.bi/HcM8Yp

  32. Oh the tangled web we weave when we set out to destroy the last 50 years of a settled media marketing relationship.

  33. katie dubow says:

    Being one of these ‘said marketers’ myself, I truly appreciate the honest comments, Amy. Thank you.

    Good bloggers are some of the most respected voices in the industry, so of course we want our products in your hands. As a marketer, I vow to never tell you what to write and never send any products unsolicited!

    Garden Rant is always refreshing.

    Katie Dubow
    Katie@gardenmediagroup.com

  34. Gail says:

    I read very few garden blogs-this is is the first one I am faithful too. A had a brief fling last year writing a garden column for the local newspaper. That didn’t last long I suppose because I didn’t mention certain area garden centers and nurseries. Too bad as I didn’t like the merchandise both plants and plant related items that most carried. I wasn’t compensated for this just voicing my opinion. Keep on voicing your opinions!!

  35. Wow, I didn’t know about this side of gardening…..interesting, I’m going to keep blogging in my own little world….blinders on to this dark side….

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