What are your numbers? From garden bloggers to your 15-year-old niece, one’s social media following has become a statement of self. At a recent trade show, I was introduced to a colleague not with his name and profession, but his name and impressive follower count on Youtube, a proclamation that probably had the opposite effect than that intended, and left me itching to ask, “You’re obviously good at marketing, but are you actually good at gardening?”
Another moment sticks in my memory of being introduced to a well-known influencer at a conference only to have her attention (mid-handshake) drawn aside by the need to correct two others discussing how many views a recent video of hers had received. I was left shaking the hand of someone who was no longer actively involved in the shaking, nor conscious of a personal connection – and good opinion – lost.
Nevertheless, this is the new marketplace. Numbers matter, and a high enough following may unlock for you a highly rewarding level in these video games we constantly itch to busy ourselves with – the ability to create paid partnership content or even become a brand ambassador. Businesses, quite understandably, want their products to be seen by as many people as possible. Influencers want to make money for the content they spend a great deal of their lives creating. It would seem to be a match made in heaven.
But how does this message compete with the incontrovertible fact that, although a special tool or fabulous new cultivar can make your job as a gardener easier, an incredible garden doesn’t solely reside in special soils, patented plants and packaged products?
Buy buy buy!
For some time I’ve been struggling over the fact that some of the best messages, solutions, and yes, sometimes even plants, don’t have marketing departments behind them – and what this could eventually mean for new generations that are garden-building in a world where it is practically impossible to escape the marketing warfare.
If there’s no money in the message, and time is money, who can afford to promote the message? And what does this mean for beginning gardeners with tiny budgets who, hungry for information, turn instinctively to social media only to find voices actively promoting brand specificity?
Is this different from the old marketplace? After all, we’ve accepted the inevitability of advertisers making everything from television to sports events commercially viable – and from Michael Jordan to Matthew McConnaughey, stars are quite happy to occasionally lend their starpower to products for a price. As a child in the eighties I remember the aggressive product placement of brands like Coke, Reese’s Pieces, and Kellogg’s in our favorite movies. And it started long before that.
What’s different to my mind here? I’m honestly asking, because I believe there is a difference –– but perhaps I am wrong and it doesn’t exist. Feel free to add your thoughts – either pro or con – to the comments below. I’d genuinely like to have the discussion.
Do we trust differently these days?
Here’s my take on it: Social media platforms began, for the most part, as a people’s platform; and moreover, a learning platform – a place where traditional gatekeepers of editor, producer and publisher no longer controlled the conversation. The downside quickly became obvious – far too much noise to wade through in order to find good information; but the upside revolutionized media.
(And as we are gardeners, I’ll look at it exclusively from that angle – though it affected every discipline and industry.)
If you were very talented, and yet still endured the pain of jaded producers turning down your idea for a gardening show because they didn’t see massive dollar signs lurking in the shrubbery (as sadly has been the case in the US in particular), you could produce it yourself and suddenly reach people who needed to be reached with a message that needed to be heard. If ten soulless editors never returned your emails proposing a gardening book that didn’t reflect a current trend or create a new one, you could turn your back on the process and put your brilliance into a blog and create a following instead.
Man cannot live by follower count alone however, and to shift your work from side-hustle to profession, you required either a rich and generous spouse, readers willing to pay for subscriptions, or third-party advertisers. The first two are elusive – the third, much more realistic; and through companies like Mediavine, Google Ads, Rakuten, etc…, advertisers made it possible for creatives to produce a more professional and accessible product.
Yes there were irritating ads to scroll through (as you are scrolling through now to support this site), but so far, I can’t fault it. There’s absolutely no such thing as a free lunch, and creatives are not evil for not wishing to work for free or for that fabulous carrot of ‘exposure.’
The Commercial Content Conundrum
But there are two issues I’m struggling with on behalf of new gardeners, young gardeners, frugal gardeners, and impressionable gardeners.
First, what happens when the message shifts from content interrupted by commercial, into content as commercial? Now that information-though-social media is the new norm, voices are perhaps even more trusted because it feels like your next-door neighbor is talking to you (they might be) rather than a company or high-profile celebrity. Let’s face it, Michael Jordan needed Nike a lot less than Nike needed Michael Jordan, and we all knew that. The same can’t be said of the majority of influencers working with brands.
The Influenced Influencer Issue
Second — and following on naturally from the first point — what happens when influencers become influenced? When the words ‘paid partnership’ and ‘brand ambassador for’ become all too common on the people’s platforms and signify a deeper relationship that cannot help but affect the products and plants used or discussed? If Influencer X is a brand ambassador for Y, he’s hardly going to talk about Z – even if Z is a better option. He might never have encountered Z and he’s unlikely to when it might compromise his standing with Y.
And that’s assuming Y and Z are branded products. What if option A is free, or damned close to it? If it makes no one any money, how does word of it spread? Once a influencer has established his or her following by sharing secret and inexpensive recipes for everything from fertilizer to elderflower cordial, that’s about the time frugality gets monetized. For instance, The Pioneer Woman started her blog in 2006 as a blog on domestic life and frugality, and now it’s a shopping mall of summer clothing lines and the 12 best shampoos to manage oily hair.
It’s a minefield, and extremely hard to negotiate, much less articulate as a writer in the industry. And I say this as someone who has plenty of well-loved and well-branded plants, products and even potting soil in her garden after decades of gardening. There’s nothing wrong with good brands.
But I guarantee I’ve got even more out there — from trusted trowel to Tinantia pringeli — that don’t carry a brand on their backsides.
At least, not yet.
Thoughts? Throw ‘em at me. Let’s discuss. – MW