Build your online community

Departments - Straight Talk | Honest insights from an IGC expert

As some IGCs shutter brick-and-mortar operations entirely, it’s more important than ever to create meaningful connections and expertise with online shoppers.

June 14, 2021

Tap into your social media networks to maintain connections with your online consumers.

As if online marketing and social media were not already uphill battles for many IGCs before the pandemic, these responsibilities have blown up over the past year. From Zoom calls to virtual events to Facebook groups, IGCs have done a lot to bring their customers together during the pandemic.

Once in-person shopping returns at new-normal levels, how do you build on the digital momentum you have created and continue to leverage your online community? These will be some of the most important questions for IGCs as we move through 2021 and beyond.

Marketing is a lot of work. Digital marketing and social media management come with a time cost that is beyond what most garden centers ever expected. With the new evolution of digital marketing and distance-related shopping and customer services, many IGCs are now wondering how they will do it all. More importantly, how will you do it well?

Identity shift

It has been interesting to watch how the pressures of the pandemic have triggered an evolution in the plant retail industry identity. There has been a boom in wholesale growers shifting to or adding online direct-to-consumer retail sales and some retailers are now closing their doors to the public permanently to focus only on their online retail sales. While the stress of the pandemic economy has been real for most of us — and there have certainly been negative consequences — it has also prompted some positive restructuring that may very well help many IGCs not only survive, but also thrive in new ways beyond 2021.

California Carnivores is one such example. This popular grower-retailer really upped its educational social media game over the past year, posting more and more educational videos on Instagram and YouTube featuring their employees. The increased presence was very noticeable and seemed to be working well for them as their online following grew significantly.

Fast forward: I just got a break-up email from California Carnivores (I’m a customer) with the big announcement that they were closing their retail doors to the public permanently, choosing rather to shift only to online retail sales. “We will be able to create more of the resources you love, from in-depth care guides, video tutorials and virtual educational materials,” they said. After opening as a retail nursery 30 years ago, this business has seemingly turned a pandemic panic into an entirely new successful business model with a focus on virtual education.

Part of this wave of restructuring clearly involves a bigger investment of time, labor and money into digital online marketing and PR. IGCs that dove into the deep end of the digital pool, such as California Carnivores, have seen their online communities and new customer counts swell.

Reworking your digital marketing structure costs time, money and labor, but the investment is well worth it for the longevity of your business.

Breaking up

Having worked in the garden center industry for many years of my career, I cannot blame some retailers who are choosing to permanently shut their doors to in-person sales. The garden center business is a hard one and its seasonality creates a roller coaster of financial and emotional pros and cons. Garden center customer service is physically and emotionally taxing. Even more so during a pandemic. Many garden center customers can be both demanding of you and your time, whilst somehow simultaneously knowing more than you do. Forced to shift to distance sales, some garden centers may have seen the benefits — both financial and emotional — of transitioning their staff from front-of-house to back-of-house operations.

Of course, doing so successfully means investing in and adopting the right technology to adeptly manage online sales and communications, as well as a permanent commitment to maintaining and educating your new distanced online community. The new economic recovery is definitely digital.

People power

If you have not yet taken that deep digital dive or are wondering how best to maintain your new digital momentum, I am going to offer up advice that is not so new: invest well in your people and get more of them. Digital marketing and virtual educational content are time-consuming. Just because a video is two minutes long, does not mean it took two minutes to produce. From the planning to the staging to the filming to the editing to the posting to the post-monitoring and follower engagement, multiple people are going to have a lot of time invested in each piece of digital content. Even a single image on Instagram with a well-written post is time-consuming.

If your garden center does not yet have a marketing department or a dedicated tech-savvy marketing professional on staff full time, now’s the time to make that happen. Yes, it is going to cost you. No, you cannot afford not to spend that money. Do not expect one “marketing person” to effectively handle your website, your PR, your paid advertising, your digital marketing, your social media and your educational content production all in one. It typically takes a team of individuals with skill sets that match the platform and technology. It takes individuals who understand your authentic company voice and have the communication skills to successfully represent you and engage in an inspiring way with your customers online.

Ultimately, today’s customer is looking to connect with you virtually in ways that give them the authentic rush or satisfaction of an in-person garden center shopping experience. Creating access to your knowledgeable staff online, through video, social media, online classes, Zoom Q&As and the like is the best way to hang on to your new online community and plant the seed for future growth.