What can social media do for public gardens and the public itself? Quite a lot when you’ve got someone putting as much time and effort into it as the Smithsonian Gardens’ horticulturist/social media maven Sarah Tiebohl. I’ve been so impressed with what they’re posting on Instagram and how they’re posting it, I asked Sarah to tell us a bit about their goals and how well it seems to be resonating with a follower base growing by the day. – Marianne
Smithsonian Gardens’ social media flourished during the pandemic. People yearned to get outside and be in nature during a time of uncertainty, and what better way to bring nature to people when they were forced to stay indoors than through social media?
Social media was a much-needed outlet for many; a way to be distracted, decompress, and find moments of enjoyment. As a public garden, we had the ability to offer the joy and peace that only nature can provide by sharing our plants and gardens. And as a result, Smithsonian Gardens’ social media exploded. During 2020, our followers on Instagram grew from 86,000 to 100,000. Now at the start of 2023, we have over 132,000 followers.
And that’s where the magic of social media and public gardens came together. While the Smithsonian Institution was closed to the public, Smithsonian Gardens (SG) social media saw an uptick in viewership, engagement, reach, and impressions. But what did that mean for someone who had just volunteered to manage SG’s social media on top of being a full-time horticulturist? Lots of quick learning, reading the audience, and creating a Smithsonian Gardens voice.
By trade I am a horticulturist with a background in business who cares for the gardens surrounding the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. You may ask yourself, why on earth would a horticulturist volunteer to take on social media on top of their full-time job? At the time (2019), our organization was only posting a few days a week. That schedule met our followers’ needs, which I could manage on top of my horticulture job. Then COVID hit and the social media landscape changed. The demands went from adding simple posts to creating more content with educational value as well as videos.
Overseeing a public-facing social media account can be daunting, rewarding, and for sure, challenging. We went from posting three times a week on each platform to posting every day. More people were at home and engaging with our content and we were reaching people not only in the United States but globally.
Since the Smithsonian Gardens were not officially open, it was the primary way to reach our visitors and to continue our mission: Engage, Inform, Inspire. But once we realized that SG needed to post every day, we were left wondering where this content was going to come from. If we were shut down, how could we make this happen?
I started off with a quick internet search of other public garden accounts and garden-related holidays to brainstorm some content ideas and moved forward from there. Thankfully, SG still had staff coming in to perform basic maintenance in the gardens who could get photos and content. I also had the ability to pull from SG’s online catalog of collection and archival items, which enabled us to showcase all that SG does beyond creating beautiful gardens.
After SG began posting more frequently, my next challenge was reading the analytics and seeing how far our reach was in the United States and globally. Social media offers a never-ending learning curve because of how quickly trends change: what worked even a month ago may no longer be relevant. But by understanding the numbers and engagement, you can build great quality content.
A viewer can only see the likes and comments a post receives, but account owners are able see how that post organically spread to others through reshares, saves, views, or hashtags. Even if a post did not receive a lot of likes but was viewed by many individuals, that is still an indication that it presented worthwhile content.
For example, right now social media is seeing a trend in short videos (but who knows if that will still be the case by the time you’re reading this!). SG is leaning into that trend by creating reels on Instagram. As I have been learning, reels are a simple way to get metrics and recreate the style or content of videos that are attractive to our audience. Metrics have shown that our audience wants to see unique orchids from our collection, behind-the-scenes footage, seasonal displays, and gardening how-to’s.
The downside of following this particular trend is that creating videos takes more time, energy, and commitment from staff and from myself to compile and edit content. But the flip side of that investment in time and energy is that if a reel is extremely successful with our audience, it allows for a little posting break. For instance, if a reel grows in views and engagement for two days, I can hold off on posting for a few days and shift the posts I planned for later in the week. Right now, SG is creating one reel a week with the goal to create more.
Our staff’s years of experience and excitement for what they do enables Smithsonian Gardens to tell the diverse and engaging stories of our gardens, greenhouses, living collections, and archives. I have learned along the way to lean on my coworkers – their skill sets, their knowledge, and their passions – to promote Smithsonian Gardens.
Are you ready to enjoy their enthusiasm and know-how? Then follow us! @SmithsonianGardens (Final tip: never miss an opportunity to promote your social media! 😉)
One of the great benefits to social media is that it allows us to interact with gardens around the world that we might not actually see. I love that you show your followers what’s going on in the garden and help them feel a part of things; it’s frustrating when you see the social media accounts of iconic gardens just being used to advertise upcoming events that aren’t even particularly to do with the garden.
Yes I, too, feel that the opportunity social media provides for me to visit/view such an amazing range of gardens in real time…the what is happening today…not just the cute pics is a wonderful opportunity to feel connected and learning gardenwise.
I agree with Ben and Norah (and of course Sarah). There are great educational benefits to gardeners of all skill levels in seeing gardens in real time – all over the world. Fundamentally, that’s what these platforms have over my library at home – REAL TIME images as teaching tools. The Smithsonian IG feed is a terrific example of what can be accomplished and communicated using this philosophy.
I don’t want to see zinnias in February or dahlias in March or summer patios in January that keep feeds looking pretty and grids looking ‘consistent’. One of the biggest reasons I’m following someone is because they are showing me the seasonality of their little place on the planet. Not only is it educational, it’s inspiring, and it helps me to add elements to my autumn and winter garden; or appreciate the little miracles happening in the natural landscape’s “off season”, whether it’s simply an icicle forming in a Maine garden or the bright color of a new moss against a grey backdrop in Michigan. Or to be reminded of the inverse seasons going on in the southern hemisphere. I can get the garden porn from magazines and books, don’t need it from my feeds. – MW